Friday, May 18, 2007

Hillary flips, Bush v. Brits

Just as the ’08 Republican contenders are running to the right, in competition for conservative primary voters (witness Rudy Giuliani’s embrace of water-boarding), we have the ’08 Democratic contenders running leftward, in pursuit of liberal primary voters. The latter was in evidence the other day, on the U.S. Senator floor, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama felt compelled to ratchet up their opposition to the war.

Which, in their case, required that they do a little flip flopping.

Both candidates had long insisted that withdrawal deadlines were generally a bad idea; just one month ago, Obama had argued that “nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground,” and Clinton was on record, as early as 2005, saying that any deadline “gives a green light to the insurgents.” But now, with the primary season drawing near, with liberal antiwar groups demanding more fealty, and with one of their own ’08 rivals goading them to support a war funding cutoff, they have decided that consistency would be bad politics.

So they, as well as candidate Joe Biden, voted for antiwar Sen. Russ Feingold’s doomed Senate bill that would have cut off the money for most U.S. combat operations in Iraq by next spring. Liberal activist groups, notably, have been signaling that the two top Democratic contenders haven’t worked hard enough to stop the war – and their concerns were being amplified by long-shot candidate Chris Dodd, who put this ad on TV the other day:

“Half measures won’t stop this president from continuing our involvement in Iraq’s civil war. That’s why I’m fighting for the only responsible measure in Congress that would take away the president’s blank check and set a timetable to bring our troops home. Unfortunately, my colleagues running for president have not joined me…(W)e can’t simply wait for a new president. We should have the conviction to stand up to this one.”

Dodd essentially goaded his '08 rivals to move left - and now he's touting this achievement as a reason why liberal voters should take him seriously.

In some ways, Hillary Clinton’s decision to back the funding cutoff conjures memories of the war votes cast by John Kerry on the eve of the ’04 primary season. He had voted to authorize the war in 2002, but then, barely a year later, with antiwar rival Howard Dean on the rise, he felt compelled to vote against an $87-billion war funding bill in order to please the party base. He later paid dearly for that decision in the general election, when the GOP successfully painted him as a flip-flopper.

The big question is, would that work again for the GOP? Have Clinton and Obama handed the Republicans a campaign issue, enabling the next nominee to paint either one of them as “out of the mainstream” “flip-floppers” who voted “against the troops”? That "troops" line arguably might have credence, since even Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who voted against the cutoff, invoked it yesterday: "I don't want to send a message that we are not going to provide funding for the troops." Indeed, while the polls do report that most Americans oppose the war and want a withdrawal timetable, there is still little appetite for a timetable that severs money to the troops; in the latest CNN-Opinion Research survey, 60 percent of Americans said they opposed the Feingold approach.

The answer is unknowable, of course, because none of us can predict the national mood one year from now. But it’s quite possible that Clinton and Obama have little to fear, for this reason: the war is much less popular today than it was in 2003-2004, and it doesn’t take a genius to predict that it could be even less popular in 2008. It’s also possible that support for a funding cutoff might become the centrist position in American politics.

In other words, perhaps Hillary Clinton didn’t need to suggest the other day (at least for a few hours) that she was attaching caveats to her flip flop. An aversion to being pinned down is a longstanding Clinton family habit.

Since the vote on the Feingold bill was actually just a procedural matter – the narrow issue was whether the Senate wanted to bring it up for full debate – Clinton at first said that she was voting merely to do just that (“I voted…to have a debate”), and that she was not actually signaling whether she backed a money cutoff on the merits (“I’m not going to speculate on what I’ll be voting on in the future"), but, hours later, perhaps after realizing that the restive liberal base would view her wordplay as too Clintonian, she then told reporters that, yes, she did back a money cutoff on the merits.

Her final clarification should be enough to keep off her back.


Speaking of Iraq, I noticed yesterday that President Bush walked his dog in the Rose Garden. I refer not to Barney, but to Tony Blair.

The British prime minister, whose staunch support for Bush’s war has wrecked his career (moderate Republicans, take notice), is down to his last 40 days. He and Bush staged a press conference. Let’s look at some of the reporters’ questions:

Exhibit A: “During the course of this visit, it has been confirmed that Gordon Brown is going to be the next British Prime Minister, taking over in 40 days' time. I wonder if I could have both your reactions to that. And, in particular, Mr. Blair, what do you say to those people who are saying now there is a new Prime Minister in place, you should go sooner? And to Mr. Bush, whether, however inadvertently, you once said that you would like Tony Blair to stay for the duration of your presidency. He's not doing that. Do you think you're partly to blame for that?”

Exhibit B: “Mr. Blair, you outlined some very big policy areas there -- in your discussions with the President. Is it really possible, do you think, to make significant progress on them in the time that you have left? And, Mr. President, if I could ask you, is this really still the right man to be talking to?”

Exhibit C: “It’s been five years since a leader of the British Conservative Party set foot in this city. Mr. President, does it surprise you that aides close to David Cameron say that he does not want to be seen with you? And can I ask you both what it means for the prospect of future relations between Britain and America when the leader of the opposition dare not set foot in Washington?”

Notice anything about those questions? They’re all tough, even cheeky. Clearly, the reporters who asked those questions were not awed by the men on stage, nor by the offices that the men occupy.

In other words, all three questions were asked by British reporters.

Bush is clearly not accustomed to that sort of thing. He didn’t like Exhibit A; the reporter was still talking when Bush interrupted by saying “that’s a lovely question,” leavening his sarcasm with his trademark chuckle. Nor did he like Exhibit B; after Blair gave a lengthy response, Bush rebuked the reporter by saying, “You know, it's interesting, like trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren't you?” Bush tried to stonewall Exhibit C, by talking at length without answering the question, whereupon the reporter came right back with “What about David Cameron?”

British reporters don’t treat their prime minister as a demigod. They don’t go to black-tie banquets and act faux-chummy with the guy they have to cover (unlike the Beltway reporters who in 2004 thought it was so funny when Bush videotaped a skit that showed him looking for the missing WMDs under his desk). They ask impertinent questions that put the top guy on the spot. They are no different, frankly, than the opposition party politicians who clash with the prime minister in Parliament, in lengthy, regularly scheduled sessions called “Question Time,” in which the prime minister is forced to match wits, think on his feet, and answer for his perceived flaws.

That’s how they do accountability in Britain. Judging by Bush’s reaction to those press questions, it makes we wonder how well he would have fared in the House of Commons.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Bush team's bedside manner

I’m tied up with other writing today, so brevity trumps all:

I just read somewhere that Fox has renewed 24 for another couple seasons, but it’s hard to imagine that the writers can compete with the Bush administration when it comes to the scripting of pulp melodrama.

The lurid intrigue starring Alberto Gonzales (who else) - in which the then-White House counsel is depicted racing to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed in 2004, in order to inveigle the seriously ill attorney general to sign off on a domestic eavesdropping program that had already been deemed illegal by Ashcroft’s chief deputy at Justice - is just the latest drip-drip disclosure of the Bush team’s aversion to the rule of law.

I won’t bother recounting all the dirty details that were supplied to Congress the other day by former deputy attorney general James Comey (yet another card-carrying Republican who ran afoul of the White House after insisting – what a concept – that the rule of law should triumph over blind partisanship). Comey made it quite clear, in his sworn Senate testimony, that he had been displeased to learn that President Bush’s counsel was trying to nix Comey’s thumbs-down ruling on the warrantless program’s legality by going over his head to Ashcroft. (Although, sick as he was, Ashcroft indicated to the visiting Gonzales that Comey was the designated man in charge.)

Comey in his testimony also signaled his displeasure with the fact that, even after he judged the program to be illegal, Bush ignored the ruling. (Comey: "The program was reauthorized without us and without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality.")

What I do find fascinating, however, is that Gonzales, testifying under oath as attorney general early last year, insisted that “there has not been any serious disagreement” within the Bush regime about the eavesdropping program. Given the fact that Comey and as many as seven other senior figures, including the FBI director, had threatened to resign over the legality dispute, one might argue that such an event meets the definition of “serious disagreement.”

Gonzales had a loophole, however: After Comey and others threatened to quit, Bush backed down and agreed to make some revisions in the way the program worked, so that Justice could feel comfortable about signing off on its legality. The revised program was exposed by the press in 2006, and Bush confirmed its existence. What Gonzales accurately said, shortly thereafter, was that there had been no serious internal disputes “about the program that the president has confirmed."

So Gonzales had been telling the truth, albeit narrowly, in 2006. He simply had neglected to tell Congress that his boss at the White House had been threatened with mass resignations in the midst of his re-election year unless changes were made to ensure its legality. Comey could have supplied that information early last year, along with the whole hospital bed scene – but the Justice Department persuaded the reliably supine Republican Congress that Comey and Ashcroft should not be brought in to testify. As Gonzales explained at the time, “You have to wonder what could Messrs. Comey and Ashcroft add to the discussion.”

Now we know.

(And who sent Gonzales and White House chief of staff Andy Card to Ashcroft's hospital bed, anyway? Bush, in his press conference this morning, was asked whether he could enlighten his fellow Americans. He declined the invitation, saying: "There's a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn't happen, and I'm not going to talk about it.")

But you’d be wasting your time if you think that this latest episode – along with new evidence of the ever-burgeoning prosecutor purge scandal – will finally persuade Bush to dump Gonzales. From Bush’s perspective, keeping his crony in the job is far preferable to naming a successor who would then be sliced and diced by the Democrats in confirmation hearings. The Democrats, as a price for confirmation, would probably insist that the nominee name an independent special investigator to sift the institutional wreckage at Justice, and finally determine how many federal prosecutors were slated to be fired for partisan reasons. That would keep the purge story on the front burner well into the ’08 election season.

But it says a lot about Bush’s downward spiral that his best political option right now is to keep his pal right where he is, taking fresh hits for his Leader. Perhaps Bush was not misspeaking the other day when he referred to Gonzales as “the eternal general.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Falwell farewell

I once had a long conversation with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, in November of 1987; at that time, he was riding high but feeling low. He wore a Jesus First pin in his lapel, and chewed on a succession of Certs mints. He wore an expression of strained serenity, a cherub in pin stripes. He looked like the actor Tom Bosley on Happy Days, but apparently these were not happy days for him.

Even though Falwell was arguably at the peak of his fame – in 1980, his nascent Moral Majority crusade had prompted millions of evangelical Christians to cast ballots for Ronald Reagan, and all his ‘80s utterances were routinely circulated by the establishment media - he nevertheless seemed quite exasperated on the day we met. He even said he was planning to go “back to the basics” and give up politics, retreating to the pulpit, to what he called “the spiritual hospital business.”

I had my doubts, probably because he reminded me of Frank Sinatra, who at the time always seemed to be “retiring,” only to return to the limelight for yet another fix. But Falwell insisted that he was serious, although he said it had nothing to do with the fact that he was broadly unpopular (Gallup said that autumn that only 38 percent of Americans viewed him favorably), or the fact that 63 percent of Americans distrusted televangelists.

The problem, he said, was that he was deeply embarrassed by Jim Bakker, a prominent TV preacher who had managed to make the whole business look bad. It turned out that brother Jim had been skimming money from the God-fearing folks who had responded to his TV pitches - $3.7 million went into his pocket – and that Jim had canoodled in a motel with a church secretary named Jessica Hahn, who later received $265,000 in exchange for keeping her mouth shut. Falwell had volunteered to intercede, to clean up Bakker’s financial mess, to make amends to the swindled donors, and to generally repair the image of televangelists everywhere. (Although he hadn’t always been Mr. Clean himself. Years earlier, Falwell had mailed out academic catalogues of his Liberty Baptist College campus; the problem was, in reality there was no campus. The greenery in the photo was from a city park.)

Anyway, Falwell was in contrition mode when we met. He said that he wanted to live the quiet life of a preacher again - some evangelical leaders, he grumbled, “are as fraudulent as the Mafia” – and he did dissolve Moral Majority not long after. (His group was soon supplanted by a rival, the Christian Coalition, which proved to be far more powerful than Falwell’s operation ever was.)

In our conversation, Falwell even seemed to regret some of the harsh things that he had said during his ‘80s heyday: “My rhetoric was very strident, because evangelicals weren’t accepted as full partners in the political process. We had to kick the door down in order to get in. If I could relive the past 10 years, I’d be just as strident. But I’d be a lot less personal (about liberals and other Falwell targets). I think, in the process of maturing, you stop all that personal business.”

That all sounded very noble, this talk about “the process of maturing.” But it turned out, of course, that Jerry Falwell could not resist the limelight any more than Sinatra could swear off booze n’ broads. And as for his solemn pledge to forego personal attacks… well, that didn’t last very long. In 1994, Falwell co-financed and distributed a video entitled “The Clinton Chronicles,” which alleged that President Clinton had ordered the murders of various people who might have been threatening to expose his purported role in a purported cocaine-smuggling scheme. (Falwell later insisted that “I do not know the accuracy” of the video's allegations.)

Falwell also kept telling people that the anti-Christ would come back to earth as a Jew, which I suppose was not a personal attack, since it didn’t focus on any particular Jew.

And, more recently, perhaps you might remember Falwell’s take on the 9/11 attacks. Guess who he blamed for the tragedy: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

After Falwell died yesterday, the ’08 Republican candidates jockeyed predictably for the honor of being the first to praise his fine work and pander to Falwell fans in GOP primary states. The winner for quickest email – no surprise – was John McCain, who extolled Falwell’s contributions to “faith and country.”

But, at the risk of disrespecting the deceased, I’ll offer a counter-assessment from Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee. Tanenbaum, who had met frequently with Falwell, said this to me 20 years ago:

“Mr. Falwell has been a polarizing figure in American life. He is talented, but I don’t think he understands the fragile nature of pluralism. You can’t constantly hammer away that the opposition is aligned with Satan, and not expect to weaken the democratic center. That’s murderous rhetoric.”


The '08 Republican presidential hopefuls debated again last night, this time on Fox News, and the general consensus, at least within much of the conservative media, is that Rudy Giuliani scored, big time.

He's getting plaudits for handling the abortion question in a more coherent fashion (although I keep waiting for one of his GOP admirers to point out that his position - yes on the right to choose, and yes on the urgent need to reduce abortions - is basically the same as Hillary Clinton's position).

And he's being lauded today for the way he showed unscripted passion about 9/11, lashing out at fringe candidate Ron Paul's claim that we may have brought the attack on ourselves because we'd been bombing and containing Saddam Hussein's regime for 10 years. Debates are generally so artificial that we tend to applaud any candidate who creates a moment of spontaneous drama, and that's what happened when Giuliani interrupted Paul and said, "That’s really an extraordinary statement. That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th. (Big applause.) And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.” (More applause.)

I could point out that Ron Paul was easy pickings - after all, it's well established that Saddam Hussein had no role in 9/11, and that the al Qaeda plotters weren't acting to avenge him - and that, by beating up on Paul, Giuliani was scoring a victory about as impressive as Michael Jordan dribbling past a midget. But that 10-second video clip will look good for awhile, and that's how the game is played.

Ditto for Giuliani's response on torture. When asked by Fox News whether he would endorse torturing a terrorist suspect who might know about new imminent attacks on the homeland, he replied: "I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of. It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of (including water-boarding)...I'd say every method they could think of."

The audience loved it. John McCain moments earlier had offered a more cerebral response, but, in the competition to appeal to the party base, it usually pays to be visceral. For one night, anyway, Rudy had won the Jack Bauer primary.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bush procrastinates, Obama toughens up

Breaking news: The Bush administration, having been told by another branch of government that it should face up to reality and deal rationally with an international crisis, has, in response, come up with a plan which ensures that the whole mess will be dumped in the lap of whoever who takes office in 2009.

But no, this is not about Iraq. This is about the global warming crisis, and the president’s latest procrastination strategy, which he unveiled late yesterday.

First, some essential background: Six weeks ago, on April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bush team over at the Environmental Protection Agency had broken the law by refusing to regulate the new-vehicle pollutants that contribute to global warming. The EPA had decreed back in 2003 that it would do nothing, contending that it lacked the authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and that, even if it had such authority, there was too much “scientific uncertainty” about the causes and effects of global warming.

But the high court majority wrote that the EPA had offered “no reasoned explanation for its refusal” to act, especially since the federal Clean Air Act defines “air pollutant” in the broadest possible terms, as any physical or chemical “substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” The act also specifies that threats to climate and weather are to be viewed as issues worthy of EPA regulatory scrutiny. The act also specifies, in Section 202, that the EPA shall regulate car tailpipe emissions of any “air pollutant” that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” The court majority also pointed out that there is now a scientific consensus that U.S. car emissions (heat-trapping gases, notably carbon dioxide) directly contribute to global warming. Therefore, the court ruled that if the EPA obeyed the law and regulated car emissions, such a move “would slow the pace of global emissions, no matter what happens elsewhere in the world.”

(The court majority clearly was not impressed with the EPA’s faith-based claims of “scientific uncertainty,” given the fact that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences (in conjunction with its counterparts in Britain, China, Germany, and Japan), the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the National Climactic Data Center, 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Bush's own Climate Change Science Program have all concluded that man's role in global warming is irrefutable and that no such uncertainty exists.)

After the court ruling, there was mostly silence from the Bush team, although EPA chief Stephen Johnson did say that, because the decision was so “complex,” he didn’t want to be held to a specific timetable for compliance. (The Bush team clearly has an aversion to timetables.) But the suspense ended yesterday, when Bush himself announced the terms of his compliance. It can be boiled down to four words:

Run out the clock.

After successfully bottling up the issue in court for four years, the president has decided that he will keep the issue suspended in limbo for the final two years of his tenure. He directed the EPA to work with three other agencies (Agriculture, Energy, and Transportation) to come up with options for tougher new car fuel-efficiency standards by the end of 2008, and to “evaluate the benefits and costs” before deciding on the final rules. EPA chief Johnson hailed Bush’s move yesterday as “the first regulatory step to craft a proposal to control greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles,” but it doesn’t take a scientist to see what this “step to craft a proposal” is really all about.

It’s about doing as little as possible. The odds are overwhelming that Bush will be flying off to Crawford before the four agencies come up with anything substantive. And what better way to procrastinate than to put four agencies on one task, as opposed to ceding all deliberations to the EPA? All told, his environmental record is just one more burden that the ’08 Republican candidates will have to carry into the ’08 election.


Yet, despite the various GOP burdens, I still sense that voters will not elect a Democrat next year unless they are confident that the candidate is credible on national security. For most of the past four decades, Democrats have been successfully tagged by their opponents as softies, and success in ’08 hinges on whether the nominee can effectively communicate that he or she will not hesitate to take swift military action in defense of the American people.

By that measure, Barack Obama stumbled badly in the first Democratic candidate debate back on April 26. And he’s still trying to make amends.

Three weeks ago, he was asked this question: “If, God forbid a thousand times, while we were gathered here tonight, we learned that two American cities have been hit simultaneously by terrorists, and we further learned, beyond the shadow of a doubt, it had been the work of al Qaeda, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?”

Here was his initial response: “Well, the first thing we’d have to do is make sure that we’ve got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans.”

Uh…what about the U.S. military posture, senator? Obama never answered that. He went on to talk about how we needed good intelligence so that we could “take some action,” but that “what we can’t do is then alienate the world community based on faulty intelligence, based on bluster and bombast.”

Moments later, Hillary Clinton nailed the answer with sound-bite concision: “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.”

Words matter. Obama, as president, might well do what most presidents would do: explore all available military options. But in a debate, at a time when he is still introducing himself to the public, it was arguably not helpful to answer that question by talking about Katrina.

Which brings us to Obama’s appearance on ABC two days ago. Asked to defend his remarks at the April 26 debate, Obama insisted that he responded appropriately to the question. But this time he also said: “I don’t think there can be any doubt that I would strike swiftly, promptly and vigorously if there was an attack.”

He needed to get that on the record, because, fairly or not, the “wimp” image is one burden that the Democrats will carry into the ’08 election.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Can Rudy trump the religious right?

Rudy Giuliani appears to be following the advice offered 19 years ago by Chris Matthews.

Long before Matthews gained fame as the shouter-in-chief on MSNBC’s Hardball, the former Capitol Hill aide authored a book entitled Hardball, which laid out the basic rules of the political game. For instance, Matthews wrote in 1988 that if a politician has a fundamental flaw, the best course of action was to highlight that flaw and try to frame it as an advantage. That way, the politician wins points for candor, and gets the chance to shape his image on his own terms. Matthews recalled, for instance, that Jimmy Carter was widely dismissed in 1975 as a hopeless Democratic candidate because he was a total outsider from Georgia, with no national experience – yet wound up gaining traction by boasting that “I’ve never worked in Washington.” All told, Matthews wrote, “Anyone who has ever worked in public relations will certify that it is better to take the initiative in acknowledging problems, whether they involve your client or a product….When in doubt, put it out.”

In other words, Matthews advised, “Hang a lantern on your problem.” And that’s what GOP presidential candidate Giuliani has been doing over the past few days, spotlighting his fundamental support for abortion rights – inviting conservative Republicans (who will vote heavily in the Iowa and South Carolina nomination contests) to at least admire his candor, while hoping to rally the moderate abortion-tolerant Republicans (who will vote heavily in the subsequent New York, New Jersey and California contests).

And hanging that lantern is his only viable option, anyway. After fumbling around for a few weeks on the issue - to the point of sounding incoherent, and thus risking his image as a bold leader - he has apparently decided, in the interests of clarity, to wear his longstanding support for abortion rights as a badge, and bet that he can win the nomination by challenging the influential religious conservatives and thus defying GOP orthodoxy.

This is unusual behavior for a major Republican candidate (thus, a great story), because it represents a frontal assault on the contemporary GOP power structure. The party’s center of gravity, since the dawn of the Reagan era, has been in the South and the Sunbelt; Giuliani is quintessential New York, and, as pollster Peter Brown points out today, the GOP hasn’t nominated a northeasterner since Thomas Dewey in 1948. Worse yet, for the GOP’s religious conservative gatekeepers, Giuliani is openly questioning what they regard as their fundamental values – especially the right of an ideologically conservative government to intrude into people’s private lives.

Giuliani’s recalibration was evident last Friday, when he spoke to a conservative audience in Houston: “Even if you disagree (with the women seeking abortions), you have to respect the fact that their conscience is as strong as yours is about this, and they’re the ones that are most affected by it. So therefore I would grant women the right to make that choice.” More broadly, he said that he envisions a Republican party that would represent “the length and breadth” of American public opinion,” and he warned that if Republicans “don’t find a way of uniting around broad principles that will appeal to a large segment of this country, if we can’t figure that out, we are going to lose this election.”

He followed up with an appearance yesterday on Fox News: “In a society like ours, where people have very, very different consciences about this, it’s best for us to respect each other’s differences and allow for choice…I can’t decide when life begins…I know what my positions are. A very, very big portion of my party agrees with that. A certain portion of my party disagrees with that. My attempt is to try to broaden the base of the Republican party, to try to bring in people that can agree and that can disagree on that…we have to have the biggest outreach possible.”

This pitch might work with the moderate Republican voters who show up for the aforementioned big-state primaries next Feb. 5. The issue, however, is whether Giuliani will be totally viable by Feb. 5. If social and religious conservative voters opt for Mitt Romney or John McCain (or current phantom candidate Fred Thompson) in the small-state January contests, the massive media exposure for the early winner might well trump Giuliani’s big-state strategy.

Giuliani might well be gambling that the clout of the religious right is on the wane, or, at least, that the front-loaded primary calendar will minimize its clout. But that could prove to be a risky calculation. The top religious right leaders still have huge followings, and they are inveighing against Giuliani on moral grounds (Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council says that Giuliani is “an echo of Hillary Clinton"), while questioning his electability (by pointing out that Giuliani’s strongest primary states – such as New York, New Jersey, and California - are likely to vote Democratic in November 2008).

Indeed, the exit polls show that 23 percent of all voters in November 2004 were white evangelical Christians, and that 78 percent of those white evangelical Christans favored President Bush over John Kerry. Would these Republican base voters turn out en masse for a nominee who defends abortion rights - especially in the red southern and Sunbelt states that are crucial to a Republican candudate's prospects?

Every once in a while, a GOP contender tries to challenge the religious right, to no avail. During the 2000 primaries, John McCain railed against Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and that proved to be his death knell in the southern primaries – notably South Carolina, where ex-religious right leader Ralph Reed did key spadework behind the scenes for George W. Bush. In 1996, nominee Bob Dole tried to insert some “tolerance” language into the preamble of the GOP platform, only to be squashed on the eve of the convention.

And here are some excerpted remarks from a previous GOP presidential hopeful, someone who arguably pioneered the Giuliani route: “I intend…to champion tolerance and freedom, including a woman’s right to choose.” And “we must get government…out of our bedrooms.” And, “I and millions of other pro-choice Republicans will not be disenfranchised.” And “I want to…leave moral issues such as abortion to the conscience of the individual. I believe abortion is an issue to be decided by women.” And, the GOP should respect “diversity of opinion.”

So spoke candidate Arlen Specter, when he announced his candidacy on March 30, 1995. And you know how well he did.

One can argue, of course, that Specter was a minor player, and that Giuliani's unique attributes (the "9/11 hero" image) might even prompt some religious conservatives to overlook his abortion stance. But can we assume that his 9/11 image will survive close scrutiny? Perhaps not.