Friday, August 11, 2006

GOP presidential contestants, come on down!

Hey, TGIF and all that, so let's keep it light. (Or as light as this particular blog permits.)

I have an interesting memo here from Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster/messagemeister/marketer/focus group maven who has basically worked with just about everybody in the GOP camp. He goes on for 28 pages about the 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls, and it makes for fun reading, if only because he is summarizing the views of participatory Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire.

These folks gathered in focus groups. Luntz put them in a room, chatted them up about what they're looking for in a candidate, then showed them various TV clips (C-Span, Sunday talk shows, speeches) and gauged their responses. The upshot is that it's clear the GOP race is wide open -- not just because there is no obvious Bush heir in the wings, but also because voters are extremely suspicious about politicians these days, even about those who possess the traits deemed to be most desirable.

So, from the memo, here's the thumbnail rundown:

1. Virginia Senator George Allen. Great conservative soundbites ("The strategy in this entire war on terror needs to be 'we win, they lose..."), coupled with a Reaganesque affability and speaking style. But because he's so polished, some focus-groupers dismissed him as too slick, and hence too "political." Some participants said, "I wonder if he's just saying what I want to hear?" Also, Allen's macho manner (he's the son of a famous football coach) turned off the women. One of them said, "He reminded me of an old boyfriend...and there's a reason we're no longer together."

2. Tennessee Senator Bill Frist. Good conservative soundbites, but he's a snore. Remember, the guy's a doctor. A participant said: "I really like what he had to say, I just hated the way he said it. It's hard to believe him because he lacks aggression. There's no passion there." And Luntz concluded that "In a political age where image matters so much, Frist has a lot of work ahead of him before primary voters will warm up to his medicinal style....(H)is halting delivery was definitely an irritant...And candidate discomfort leads to voter discomfort."
(None of this surprised me. I've seen Frist in "action," up in New Hampshire last year. If he runs, I can already envision his mid-February announcement that he is "suspending" his campaign.)

3. Rudy Giuliani, the so-called America's Mayor. The Luntz crowd loved it when he conversed about 9/11, his whole rap about how the dead were 80 nationalities, "rich or poor, white or black..." One participant sounded like a movie ad: "Giuliani is inspirational, idealistic, and a visionary. I like him!" Another said, "He speaks with conviction...this man could sell meat to PETA." However, this was all before Luntz told them that Giuliani was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and pro-gun control. At that point, Luntz writes, "his support melted away like butter on a warm dinner roll." In other words, he flunked the GOP primary litmus tests. Forget it, Rudy, stick to the lecture circuit.

4. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. This was interesting: his Mormon religion was fine with the New Hampshire participants, but the Iowa folks, particularly the women, had a real problem with it. No surprise, in a way. The GOP Iowa caucus electorate is heavily Christian conservative, whereas New Hampshire Republicans tend to care a lot more about economic issues. The problem for Romney is that Iowa is the first stop on the primary trail. If the Iowa focus group reaction is typical, it means he won't have real cred as a GOP candidate unless he can win over the conservative base on the religion issue, right at the starting gate.

5. Newt Gingrich. He charmed them all with his big-picture futurist rap, which is basically the opposite of your standard political sound-biting. The participants liked the fact that he doesn't sound like other politicians. Most importantly, writes Luntz, he contrasts well with President Bush: "Support for the president is wide, but that doesn't mask the disappointment with his inability to articulate a deeper philosophy about the war, and a greater commitment to small government and less spending. And that's exactly where Gingrich is strongest." However, the participants had misgivings about his strong personality. They thought that he tried too hard to convince people of how smart he is. Also, Iowa folks thought he was too combative; in Luntz's words, they felt he was "a little too angry and defensive."

6. John McCain. Finally, the big enchilada. The participants liked his strong national security credentials, his strong criticisms of big-spending pork-barrel Washington, and the way that he acknowledged mistakes in Iraq but still felt it was important to hang in there and succeed. They also liked his flashes of wit, which seemed to humanize him. However, while they liked his obvious "passion," it still made them uneasy. One voter said: "Wow, it looks like he is just going to pop his top any second." Luntz concludes: "McCain is just too intense. His greatest asset is his greatest weakness. Even when he addresses his anger issues, he loses voters; they're afraid of him."

7. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. I know, who cares? He's interested, but are Republicans going to nominate a guy who's chief claim to fame is that he lost 100 pounds? Luntz writes, "Personal stories won't carry a candidate in this election." Participants noted all the nice things that Huckabee said he has done in Arkansas, but they judged him as too relaxed, not enough fire. Also, he's from Arkansas, and participants didn't go for that. Luntz recalls, "We were told repeatedly that Arkansas is not America." And, as Luntz notes, remember who else was from Arkansas.

8. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. He may be a favorite of the organized religious right groups, but not even the Iowa participants liked his incessant references to his Christian faith. It's clear that even the Philadelphia Phillies will go to the World Series before this guy goes to the White House. Luntz concludes, "Republicans want a president, not a pastor...Republicans surely want their leaders to have a deeply held sense of faith, but they don't want it explained in every detail."

9. Jeb Bush. Just kidding; Luntz didn't test Jeb. That might have been a good barometer on the state of GOP opinion toward the House of Bush. If only.

So there you have it: Frist is judged to have too little personality, Gingrich too much. McCain is judged to have too much passion, Huckabee too little. Allen is polished as he sound-bites the right issues, but they don't trust the polish. Giuliani is less polished, but he has the wrong issues, and they don't trust that, either.No wonder it's wide open. I'm surprised Luntz didn't record massive outbreaks of Ronald Reagan nostalgia.

Anyway, it's the weekend. Party on.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Joe, Chris, Bailey's ghost, and assorted refutable stats

Consider these items as footnotes to my print column today on the aftermath of Joe Lieberman's stunning defeat.

1. I mentioned how difficult the Connecticut situation has become for Lieberman's senior colleague, Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, because now he has to defend his party - and his party-endorsed Senate candidate, Ned Lamont - from the Lieberman charge that the Lamont forces are national security weenies. But, actually, Dodd's exasperation goes much deeper than that.

As friends of Dodd explained to me, even though the two senators get along, Lieberman has actually been a stone in Dodd's shoe for a long time. Dodd is a skilled political player, a former national Democratic party chairman, and he was a U.S. congressman back when Lieberman was just a state senator voting on bills about Sunday blue laws and recyclable bottles. In other words, Dodd has long nursed presidential ambitions, and seemed to have the seniority to go first.

But then junior senator Lieberman was plucked by Al Gore to be his running-mate in 2000 (largely because Lieberman had dissed Bill Clinton in a Senate floor speech during the Lewinsky scandal), a move that catapulted Lieberman ahead of Dodd in the national sweepstakes. After Gore-Lieberman faltered at the finish line, Dodd thought about running against President Bush in 2004 -- but again had to stand down because of Lieberman, who launched his own candidacy...a candidacy that went nowhere, because (as a preview of what happened this week in Connecticut) liberal primary voters who had no interest in nominating a pro-war, Bush-friendly Democrat.

Now we come to the present day. Dodd is now exploring the possibility of running for president in '08, planting some seeds with the Democrat grassroots by stressing his anti-Bush, antiwar credentials (he voted Yes on war authorization, but has since expressed regrets for having done so), and hoping to demonstrate his own clout at home by framing an antiwar message that the House Democratic candidates in his state can use successfully. Yet, again, the Lieberman stone is in his shoe, because the guy refuses to go away.

As one Dodd friend said to me, "This (Lieberman) thing is just killing him."

2. I mentioned, at the close of my print column, that in the old days of Connecticut politics, Democratic boss John Bailey would have cracked heads and told a loser to give it up in the name of party loyalty. The irony is that one of Joe Lieberman's longtime heroes was...John Bailey. (Indeed, much of Lieberman's losing vote tally on Tuesday night came from the remnants of the old Bailey party apparatus, in the rusting industrial towns of the Naugatuck Valley.)

Lieberman even wrote a couple books about Bailey, who died in 1975. I have one of them right here -- The Legacy, published in 1981. In the last chapter, there is an interesting passage. Notwithstanding Bailey's reputation for enforcing party loyalty, Lieberman writes this:

"He hated primaries...because he could never be certain that a primary would produce a candidate who could win an election. As he said colloquially of the candidates he disdained, 'These guys do good in a primary, but then in an election they don't do much.'"

Perhaps that explains in part why Lieberman declared, on Tuesday night, with reference to Ned Lamont's primary victory, "I cannot, I will not, let this result stand."

3. And perhaps Lieberman's independent Senate bid is overrated. In my print column, I mentioned that conservative analyst Byron York, at the National Review website, is skeptical that Lieberman can win. Now I also see that liberal analyst Bruce Shapiro, at The Nation website, thinks that Lieberman is actually "in free-fall...'Stay the course' is not a winning strategy in Iraq and not a winning strategy in Connecticut."

4. It was amazing yesterday to see Chris Matthews, on Hardball, lobbing softballs at Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith, acting as if the Lieberman camp had pulled off some kind of miraculous comeback. Matthews asked, "How did you close the gap?....How did you close so near to overtaking (Lamont)?"

This was a reference to the fact that Lieberman lost by four percentage points, in contrast to a poll last week that showed Lieberman trailing by 13. But the more pertinent opening question would have been: "Sean, how is it possible for a three-term senator, who has always won his races by 2-1 margins, and who, more importantly, was leading in the polls just 13 weeks ago by 46 points against a guy that nobody had ever heard of -- how do you explain the fact that your boss wound up the loser?"

I can answer that, since Sean Smith has now exited the Lieberman camp:
Incumbent hubris.

5. Lastly, there seems to be a move afoot, among some Lieberman fans in the conservative media, to delegitimize Lamont's victory, to simply explain it away. Case in point: the fact-challenged essay by political analyst Michael Barone, appearing today on that most Lieberman-friendly piece of real estate, the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

While trying to advance his argument that Lieberman is a proud Democrat in the JFK tradition, he wrote that, in Tuesday's primary, Lieberman "carried by and large the same cities and towns that John F. Kennedy carried" in the 1960 election.

Well, that statement badly needs to be amended. JFK carried Hartford and New Haven. Lieberman lost both.

But here's the major stuff: Barone, who co-authors the Alamanac of American Politics, the purported bible of the political class, sought to dismiss Lamont's win by offering these two points: (a) "less than one-sixth of the registered voters took the trouble to cast their ballots in this contest," and (b) "Lamont thus got the votes of less than one-tenth of Connecticut voters."

The problem is, these stats don't hold up under scrutiny.

The first point (less than a sixth equals roughly 16 percent) would have been accurate only if all registered voters (2,086,000) were allowed to vote in a Connecticut Democratic primary. But the fact is, the party primary is only open to Democrats. So the eligible pool was only about 700,000. And since Lieberman and Lamont drew about 282,000 voters, that translates into a turnout percentage of 40 percent. The highest in Connecticut primary history.

So the facts foil Barone's second point. Since it was a closed primary, it's irrelevent to say that Lamont got the votes of "less than one-tenth (under 10 percent) of Connecticut voters." In reality, his total (146,000) was actually one-fifth (20 percent) of the eligible voters.

And if that still seems underwhelming consider this: George W. Bush, whom Barone generally defends at every turn, achieved his big breakthrough in 2000 by drawing 301,050 votes in the pivotal South Carolina GOP primary. That winter, roughly 2,100,000 voters could have participated in that open primary (the entire state electorate was eligible). Translation: Bush won one-seventh -- 14 percent -- of all eligible voters, thus greasing his path to the nomination.

That's less representative than Lamont's win, but you'll look in vain to find a Barone column that sought to delegitimize Bush's win.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Talk among yourselves

A long election night without much sleep. A morning that will require a lot of shoe leather in downtown Hartford. Then an afternoon flight, and another print column to write.

In other words, no blogging today. I would offer, instead, my print analysis of Joe Lieberman's historic loss in Connecticut.

And who knows, tomorrow I might even find something to say about another topic entirely.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

My Harry Bosch moment

I'm a big fan of mystery novels, especially when they leave clues in plain sight and I still never manage to see them. This happens all the time in Michael Connelly's books, when detective Harry Bosch sits around, staring at all his accumulated evidence, and suddenly something that seemed innocuous 200 pages earlier smacks him between the eyes.

By now you're wondering where I'm going with this, so let me explain:

I was staring yesterday at a five-page, single-spaced handout from the Joe Lieberman campaign, up here in Connecticut. Senator Lieberman, as I noted at length in print this morning, is in deep trouble with Democratic voters, who will decide in today's state primary whether to strip him of the party label because of his staunch support for the war in Iraq and the Republican commander-in-chief who put us there. Mindful of that possibility -- perhaps too late -- Lieberman on Sunday night contended in a hastily arranged speech that he's really a lot more "anti-Bush" than people think. As he argued that night, "I have openly and clearly disagreed with and criticized the president" on the war.

I deconstructed one key passage from that speech, concerning his views about dissent, on this blog yesterday. Now I want to address that handout, which was circulated on Sunday night. The campaign had assembled a list of 27 Lieberman criticisms of the Bush war effort, in an attempt to buttress his argument that he's not a lockstep Bush enabler. At first glance, it looked impressive -- hey, the guy did say all these things (Example: "The divisive and unilateral foreign policy that the Administration has followed has borne bitter fruit"). Could it therefore be true that everybody has read Joe wrong?

There was something wierd about the handout, but I couldn't figure out what it was. And then late in the day, when I was no longer absorbed in campaign events, when I was no longer peeking at the sheet while stuck at traffic lights, the obvious truth smacked me between the eyes. It was my Harry Bosch moment:

I circled the dates appended to each of the 27 "anti-Bush" remarks on the war. It turned out that 21 were uttered back in 2003.

This means, of course, that his campaign can't come up with hardly anything more recent. But, beyond that, ask yourself this question: Why was Lieberman seemingly so critical of Bush in that single year, 2003? Why, for instance, did he call for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's removal in October 2003, whereas we have hardly heard him say it since?

Again, the answer jumps out: Back then, Lieberman was eyeing a presidential bid, and he had to get himself more in sync with liberal Democratic voters.

In 2003, he doing spadework for the '04 Democratic presidential nomination, preparing for the early winter primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. And the people who vote heavily in those primaries are liberals with a strong aversion to Bush.

So, mea culpa. I missed the obvious clue. And it's doubtful that most Connecticut voters will learn anything about the '03 caveat, because Lieberman's new TV ad, which excerpts the Sunday night speech, certainly doesn't mention that most of his clear and open disagreements were uttered three long years ago in the service of his higher ambitions.

"I have always leveled with you," he told voters Sunday night, "and I'm not going to stop now." Well, he's hardly the first politician to amend that kind of pledge. And it's entirely possible he will survive this primary anyway, no matter what the polls say. The closing paragraph of my print story says it all.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Joe slogs through the quagmire of his own Iraq remarks

Greetings from Connecticut, where beleaguered Joe Lieberman has only 36 hours to save his tuchis.

For those of you unfamiliar with Yiddish, I'm sure you can guess the synonym. But if you're more familiar with football, let's put it this way: With fourth down and 30 at his own 10 yard line, the hawkish Democratic senator has to throw a successful Hail Mary pass in order to score a miracle finish and thus save his own...ass.

The Connecticut Senate Democratic primary is tomorrow, antiwar challenger Ned Lamont is on top in the polls, and this has indeed prompted Lieberman to throw that Hail Mary. He did it last night. He would have preferred, like all candidates, to finish his campaign with one of those affirmative, upbeat cliches about his ongoing desire to work his heart out for working families all over his great state -- and thus say as little as possible about his ongoing support for the war in Iraq. Instead, and apparently amidst great internal debate within his campaign, he decided to confront the war, to explain and defend himself on the issue that threatens to sink his career.

Clearly he is still sensitive about the charge (widely believed in this state) that he has been a toady for President Bush on the most critical issue of our time, a Democrat whose idea of "bipartisanship" was to back Bush on the war without getting anything in return. So, in his speech last night (which was hurriedly added to his stump schedule), he mentioned that he has at times faulted Bush for not having a postwar plan, not putting enough troops on the ground, and not enlisting enough international allies. He said, "I know as well as anyone we have made a lot of mistakes in Iraq, and we have suffered more casualties than we should have..."

But a lot of Democratic senators, including Hillary Clinton, voted to authorize that war, yet they haven't been similarly targeted by antiwar opponents. The grievances against Lieberman go deeper. Last November, for instance, he wrote on the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page that Democratic dissenters on the war run the risk of undermining the commander in chief. This admonition infuriated Connecticut war critics, who for some reason view dissent as a free exercise of the First Amendment.

This is the war issue that Lieberman especially tried to address last night. But I don't think that, in his argument, he succeeded in defusing the antiwar ire, and here's why:

After declaring, "I not only respect your right to disagree or question the President, I value it," he contended that his Wall Street Journal remark "has been widely misconstrued." He stated: "I did not suggest that the President or anyone else, including me, should be immune from criticism...The point I was trying to make was about how we disagree. My concern was, and remains, that if opponents or supporters of the war go beyond disagreeing, to exploiting the war for partisan political purposes...we could lose more than an election. We could put our mission in Iraq, the lives of thousands of American soldiers carrying it out, and our national security at risk. That is what I care about, and that is what I will not let happen."

But his Wall Street Journal remarks did not draw any such distinctions. The full context of what he said last November reads like a blanket warning to Democrats about any kind of dissent: "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander-in-chief for three more critical years and that, in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

The Journal remarks imply that any Democratic dissent will hurt Bush's credibility -- whereas, in reality, the factual record demonstrates that it is Bush and his war planners who have hurt their own credibility. Lieberman did not acknowledge that point in November, nor did he address it last night.

And with reference to his comments last night about how nobody should use the war "for partisan political purposes": Again, that can be read as a general admonition against discussing the war in the context of elections. Elections are, by definition, partisan and political. Elections are also the place where issues are aired and elected leaders are held accountable (or not) by the voters who elect them. It is inevitable that controversial wars will become issues in partisan elections. Certainly that's what happened with Vietnam -- as Lieberman well knows, because he was active on the antiwar side...during the highly partisan elections of 1970.

So I doubt that Lieberman's eleventh-hour explanations will sway many of the Democrats who are determined to punish him for the war. And any time a politician has to spend the closing hours of a campaign saying things like "the point I was trying to make," it's not a good sign. When a pol is playing defense, he is not on offense. If he's not on offense, he's flirting with defeat.

But what magnitude of defeat? The polls are all over the place, because nobody here knows how to measure the intensities of a dog-days-of-August primary electorate -- who will show up, and who won't, and why. The Quinnipiac University poll released last week had Lamont beating Lieberman by 13 percentage points. This morning, the same poll has Lamont up by six. I can't explain that. The ultimate question for tomorrow is this: Can the passion for saving Joe match or exceed the passion for punishing Joe?