Friday, November 30, 2007

Rudy twists on the trysts

Rudy Giuliani has been busted, and it doesn't appear he'll be able to spin his way out of this one any time soon.

The news reports about how he expensed some of his extramarital trysts to the taxpayer and hid the evidence in obscure city agency budgets...granted, that's seamy stuff, and perhaps his frequent falsehoods about his mayoral record should command far more public attention; indeed, his security firm's ties to a suspected al Qaeda sympathizer are arguably more substantive. Nevertheless, the Judith Nathan tryst story is politically important, because it serves as shorthand for the character questions that have long been raised about Rudy, particularly by skeptical Republican primary voters.

Many of those voters apparently have been prepared to say, OK, the guy has led a checkered private life, but that's his business. On the other hand, if the guy has been spending the taxpayer's money and squirreling it away in obscure public agencies in order to lead that checkered private life...well, that makes it the public's business.

Which brings us to the issue of veracity. By my count, the Rudy camp has now employed six different defenses - five of them in the past 36 hours. Let us review:

1. The stonewall defense. This was the original strategy, back in 2002, when city auditors first raised questions about why the security costs for Rudy's trips to the Hamptons had shown up on the books of agencies that (a) regulated loft space, (b) advocated for the disabled, and (c) provided legal aid to the indigent. The auditors tried to get answers, but Rudy's office stiffed them with silence.

2. The denial defense. As I wrote here yesterday, Rudy said in the GOP debate on Wednesday night that the story, broken by the Politico website, was simply not true, because, in his view, the expenses had all been handled "appropriately." This defense was dead by the first commercial break.

3. The Bill Clinton defense. Rudy tried this one last night on CBS, complaining that the story was "a typical political hit job," a "dirty trick" hatched by his enemies - which is the kind of thing that Clinton used to say back when he was besieged with damaging stories that turned out to be true.

4. The security threat defense. Rudy argued during the debate that he needed his security detail at all times, because he was constantly under threat even before 9/11, yet can't offer any details because such threats must remain confidential. This attempt at a blanket defense doesn't begin to address the creative accounting issue at the core of the tryst story.

5. The "support the troops" defense. This one surfaced yesterday. A former Rudy aide came forward to say that the security costs for Rudy's trips were spread around to the obscure city agencies because, that way, the police officers assigned to Rudy would get their travel expenses paid a lot faster than if they went through normal police department channels. The aide told the Associated Press that cops don't make a lot of money, so this accounting practice was actually designed to help them out. (If this was really the reason, then how come Rudy's camp stonewalled the auditors, rather than simply explain what they were doing?)

6. The "everybody does it" defense. For awhile yesterday, a former Rudy aide insisted that hiding security expenses in obscure city agencies was a common practice that long predated the Rudy regime. But after he was informed that mayoral predecessors Ed Koch and David Dinkins had done no such thing, the aide caved and said, "I'm going to reverse myself...I'm just going to talk about the Giuliani era. I should only talk about what I know about." (The current Bloomberg administration doesn't engage in the creative accounting practice, either.)

The bottom line is, Rudy is trying to woo primary voters who put great stock in a candidate's moral character, yet this story - and his various responses - could make his task more difficult. He risks looking like a guy with an instinct for unwarranted secrecy, a guy with a credibility problem who employs shifting defenses in order to defend the indefensible.

Which sounds a lot like the guy he seeks to succeed.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rudy's lucky escape and other awards

In the wake of last night's Republican presidential debate, let's hand out some awards.

Lamest answer and luckiest escape: Rudy Giuliani.

Early in the proceedings, CNN's Anderson Cooper said to Rudy, "Politico broke a story a few hours ago questioning your accounting of taxpayer dollars as mayor. They say that as mayor, the report says you took trips to the Hamptons and expensed the cost of your police detail to obscure city offices. One, is that true? And, if so, was it appropriate?"

First of all, that was a charitable interpretation of the story. What the documented evidence strongly suggests is that Rudy was tomcatting with his extramarital lover on the taxpayer's dime, and trying to cover his tracks. He and his security team repeatedly took summer visits to Southampton, the Long Island town where future third wife Judith Nathan had an apartment - there are few indications in the records that he was visiting Southampton on official business - and all the security costs were subsequently squirreled away in the budgets of obscure city offices.

Anyway, Cooper asked if the squirreling was true. Rudy replied: "First of all, it's not true. I had 24-hour security for the eight years that I was mayor. They followed me everyplace I went. It was because there were, you know, threats, threats that I don't generally talk about. Some have become public recently; most of them haven't. And they took care of me, and they put in their records, and they handled them in the way they handled them. I had nothing to do with the handling of their records, and they were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately."

Wow, where to begin...His first sentence was a lie. The squirreling was true - because, as the Politico story made clear, the fiscal watchdogs in the city comptroller's office discovered the squirreling and tried to get some answers from the mayor. But the watchdogs were repeatedly stonewalled. They later wrote that they "were unable to verify that these expenses were for legitimate or necessary purposes."

The next few sentences of Rudy's response were all smoke (he was under threat, he won't talk about the threats, etc.). He concluded by distancing himself from his security detail, which, he says, made its own decision about how to handle the expenses, and did it "perfectly appropriately," based on whatever he does know.

That response, of course, begs the question of how and why $34,000 in taxpayer costs wound up buried in the accounts of an agency that regulates loft space (and why another $40,000 was charged to an agency dedicated to finding legal aid for the poor). Fortunately for Rudy last night, Cooper did not follow up. Nor did any of Rudy's rivals choose to make the obvious point that this story, at bare minimum, sows fresh doubts about Rudy's ethics and his fealty to the principles of open government....and whether, after nearly eight years of an imperial presidency, it would be wise to elect a successor who engages in imperial behavior and stonewalls about it.

Most pathetic pandering: Mitt Romney.

This award was a tough call, because there were so many contenders. But Mitt gets the nod, based on how he handled one of the YouTube inquiries. A good ole boy from Arizona, clearly hoping to determine whether the GOP contenders are all Manly Men, asked this question: "Any of you-all want to tell us about your gun collection, roughly how many you own, what your favorite make, model and caliber is...?"

Nobody wanted to flub this question; earlier in the debate, Rudy had been booed by the Republicans in attendance, simply for saying that perhaps there were times when gun sales should be subject to "reasonable regulations." (Such as keeping guns away from mental-case psychos. Little things like that.)

Anyway, I was half expecting one of the eight white males to whip out a Glock and proudly fire a round at the ceiling, but everyone on stage merely sought to reassure the Arizonian that either, yes, they do own guns at home (Duncan Hunter: "I have an old 20-gauge L.C. Smith that is just like the gun that my dad used to carry"), or, even if they don't currently own any guns at home, they are clearly not to be mistaken for Girly Men (John McCain: "I know how to use guns").

As for Mitt, he had a slight problem. He himself doesn't own any guns. But, lest anyone judge him insufficiently manly, he flashed his Colgate grin and hastened to point out that "I have two guns in my home. They are owned by my son Josh!" - thereby wrapping himself in family values, as a bonus.

Most inept attempt at stonewalling: Again, Mitt Romney.

Late in the debate, when the topic was gays in the military, Cooper asked, "Governor Romney, you said in 1994 that you looked forward to the day when gays and lesbians could serve, and I quote, 'openly and honestly in our nation's military.' Do you stand by that?"

Mitt, clearly not wanting to stand up for gays in front of this crowd, yet not wanting to renounce his '94 statement lest he again look like a flip-flopper, took refuge in his standard duck-and-cover response: "This isn't that time. This is not that time. We're in the middle of a war. The people who have - "

Cooper interrupted, "Do you look forward to that time, though, one day?" In other words, does Mitt stand by his statement of 1994, since, presumably, there may come a day when we will not be "in the middle of a war"?

Mitt responded by doing a variation on duck and cover: "I'm going to listen to the people who run the military to see what the circumstances are like. And my view is that, at this stage, this is not the time for us" to allow gays to serve openly.

He rambled on a bit longer, but Cooper peristed: "So, just so I'm clear, at this point, do you still look forward to a day when gays can serve openly in the military or no longer?"

Mitt responded again by taking cover and repeating his talking point: "I look forward to hearing from the military exactly what they believe is the right way to have the right kind of cohesion and support in our troops and I listen to what they have to say."

For this, he was booed. It's easy to see why.

Most artful dodger: Mike Huckabee.

The Huck got off easy last night, given the fact that he's virtually the only GOP candidate on the rise these days. Perhaps Mitt and Rudy were concerned that, by assailing him, they would risk ticking off Huckabee's growing corps of religious conservative supporters. The result was that Huckabee was able to praise his own record as an Arkansas governor ("I have a great record on fiscal conservatism"), without being challenged on the facts. Huckabee bragged last night, for instance, that "I cut 90 taxes" as governor, leaving out the fact that he also raised 21 taxes during his tenure, and presided over a net tax hike at the end of his tenure. But nobody on stage bothered to point this out.

Left virtually untouched, Huckabee proceeded to deflect potentially sensitive questions with bits of humor. When a YouTube questioner asked whether Jesus would have supported the death penalty, Huckabee simply remarked, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office." Everybody laughed, Huckabee was in the clear, and at that moment he reminded me of a certain Republican president who always seemed to elude difficulty because he was so quick with a quip. He served two terms during the '80s.

Most lop-sided exchange: John McCain versus Mitt Romney.

Yes, it was indeed a bad night for Mitt. And no episode was worse than when he went up against McCain on the issue of torture.

Mitt was busy trying to dodge the question of whether waterboarding was torture, while still arguing that we should reserve the right to use it, when McCain came along and slam-dunked him:

"I am astonished that you would think such a - such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our (custody)...It's in violation of the Geneva Convention. It's in violation of existing law. And, Governor, let me tell you, if we're going to get the high ground in this world and we're going to be the America that we have
cherished and loved for more than 200 years. We're not going to torture people. We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak. I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me."

Mitt persisted, trying to reserve the right to use the procedure, and McCain retorted: "Well, then you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions, which were for the treatment of people who were held prisoners, whether they be illegal combatants or regular prisoners of war....This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America."

So, Mitt: The moral of the story is, don't get into a fight on the issue of torture with a guy who was being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison at the same time that you were traipsing around France as a Mormon missionary. You'll never win that one.

Finally, I'm betting that the Most Disappointed YouTube Questioner was Joseph from Dallas, Texas. All he wanted to do was make sure that every Republican on that stage believes in every word contained in the Holy Bible...and only three candidates got the opportunity to pander in a manner that would enshrine them as good Republicans.

True, Rudy got to say that the Bible is "the greatest book ever written," and Mitt got to say that the Bible is "the word of God, absolutely," and the Huck got to say that "I believe the Bible is exactly what it is," but five candidates didn't get the chance to say the same thing.

Who knows, maybe one of those candidates might have done something wild and crazy, such as suggest that perhaps this wearing of one's religion on one's sleeve is starting to get a tad out of hand. But if anyone had dared say such a thing, he would have been met with audience derision, and not even a desperate boast about owning an arsenal of AK-47s would have mattered a whit.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Muck on the Huck?

The Republican presidential candidates will joust tonight in the CNN/YouTube debate, and it will be instructive to see whether Mike Huckabee - whose Iowa surge is arguably the biggest GOP story in recent weeks - gets treated as a serious candidate for the first time. Put simply, if some of his rivals start attacking him, we'll know he is being taken seriously. In politics today, there's no greater compliment than getting whacked around.

If Mitt Romney (number one in Iowa, but under threat from Huckabee in the polls) or Fred Thompson (languishing as usual, but needing to halt Huckabee's rise among Christian conservative voters before the primaries head to the South) suddenly goes after the ex-governor's record in Arkansas, and tries to paint him as a phony conservative, we'll know that the Huck is now deemed to be first-tier material.

If they point out that the ordained Baptist pastor was officially rebuked five times for ethics violations during his 14-year gubernatorial stint, he should probably feel flattered. Likewise, if they note that the Arkansas tax burden increased by 47 percent, partly due to higher levies on cigarettes and gasoline, during his reign. Likewise, if they spotlight his past support for providing educational opportunies to the children of illegal immigrants. Likewise, if they talk about how he had helped to free a convicted Arkansas rapist, who then proceeded to murder a woman in Missouri. Likewise, if they bring up some of his past verbal gaffes, like the time he discussed his 100-pound weight loss with Don Imus and joked about how he'd been on a "concentration camp" diet.

Even the Prince of Darkness has now weighed in against Huckabee. But the media-savvy Huckabee will probably manage to deflect most debate attacks, having long dealt with them on his home turf.

What most interests me is why this guy is surging in Iowa - and gaining ground nationally - in the first place. One reason: a lot of social and religious conservatives have latched onto Huckabee as one of their own (a theme he's stressing in a new TV ad, which flashes the phrase "Christian leader" on the screen, thereby also reminding viewers that the Huck is not a Mormon). And, by gravitating toward the candidate whom they judge to be the most morally pure, they're also hoping to demonstrate that they still have clout within the GOP.

But there's another reason, as suggested last night by Ken Duberstein, the former chief of staff to President Reagan. (Duberstein was in Philadelphia to talk politics, on a panel sponsored by Franklin & Marshall College, a panel comprised of prominent F & M alums, such as Duberstein.) Huckabee is basically filling a vacuum; he is the beneficiary of a flawed Republican field. Duberstein, now a Washington lobbyist, described the GOP race as "absolute chaos," thanks to the flaws of the principle candidates.

On Romney: "He's the multiple-choice candidate - if you don't like what he chooses today, wait 'til tomorrow."

On Thompson: "He comes from a long line of unsuccessful Tennessee presidential candidates - Howard Baker, Bill Frist, Lamar Alexander, and Al Gore."

On John McCain: "He had so many self-inflicted wounds during the first year of his ('08) run, that he might not be able to recover."

On Rudy Giuliani (and this was the line of the night): "Everybody knows how they feel about Rudy - you either love him, or he hates you."

But, as far as the Iowa race goes, Rudy hearts Huckabee. He needs Huckabee to finish strong in the caucus on Jan. 3, and deny Romney any momentum on the way to the New Hampshire primary five days later. So tonight, Rudy will flatter the Huck by staying mum about flaws in the Arkansas record. And besides, how could Rudy slam a rival for ethics violations, given his longtime coddling of mob-connected buddy Bernie Kerik?


On the Democratic side, perhaps the breathless question of the moment is whether Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama will prompt black primary voters (notably in early primary states like South Carolina and Florida) to overlook their loyalty to the Clintons and embrace Hillary's chief rival. But I am dubious that celebrities matter. To cite just one example: Bruce Springsteen, working-class hero, drew huge crowds for John Kerry in the autumn of 2004, yet we all know how that race turned out; in fact, according to the exit polls, President Bush and Kerry split, virtually 50-50, the votes of people who earn between $30,000 and $50,000.

On the F&M panel last night, former congressman William Gray - at one time, the number-three Democrat in the House - was also skeptical about Oprah. Gray, who is African-American, said: "Celebrities can only do two things for you - raise money, and increase your visibility in a media market...People may like her as a TV host, they may like her magazine, but I think she will be shocked" by her lack of clout at the ballot box. "All these celebrities get surprised. Voters don't simply say, 'If some movie star walks in, I'm going to vote for this candidate.'"

Indeed, on the issue of star power, maybe Bill Clinton isn't going to be much help for Hillary, either. Another F&M panelist, Washington lawyer Stanley Brand (a former House Democratic counsel who has defended a slew of Democratic clients) spelled out the problem last night:

"There's a tactical problem for her. She can't simply say, 'I stand tall as a woman,' then bring him in and campaign under his banner. She can't have it both ways...She can't bring her husband in as a savior, as if she's tied to the tracks in a silent movie," because that sends "exactly the wrong message' - the message that she's not the pioneering strong woman she paints herself to be.

And as for Oprah, it's important to note that Obama was gaining ground in Iowa anyway. Those Iowa Democrats who remain wary of Hillary - a growing constituency, according to the polls - didn't need to have their concerns validated by a celebrity.

Anyway, it'll probably all be over by the time the big states vote on Feb. 5 - earlier than ever. As the panelists noted ruefully last night, there's a strong possibility that the two presumptive nominees will then have nine long months to wander the land. Duberstein wondered, "What are these people going to do?"

Pour tar on each other's heads and reduce voters to a state of mental torpor? That's my guess.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trent's lot in life

As he engineers his abrupt departure from the U.S. Senate, perhaps with an eye toward cashing in on his connections and scoring a golden-parachute deal in the lobbying industry, lame duck Republican leader Trent Lott is winning plaudits in the mainstream press for his frequent willingness to work with Democrats across the aisle.

But that's only part of his legacy. His lot in life is that he turned off a lot of people across the political spectrum, which pretty much guarantees that his political passing will not be universally mourned.

It is sometimes suggested that his now-infamous praise of Strom Thurmond's segregationist past was merely an aberration, a transient moment that should not be allowed to define Lott's career. (At a birthday party for Strom in December 2002, Lott had waxed nostalgic about the old guy's 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign. Referring to his fellow Mississippians, Lott said: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.") But this outburst was not an aberration; rather, it was part of a pattern.

Trent Lott epitomized the post-'60s surge of Republican stength in the South. That surge was made possible because white southern Democrats, fearing or resenting the influx of black votes into their party in the wake of the civil rights movement, took refuge in the GOP. Lott, as one of the first elected Mississippi Republicans, successfully surfed that wave all the way to Washington.

And he had long displayed his sympathies. As a college student at Ole Miss, at the peak of the '60s civil rights movement, he led a campaign opposing the integration of his fraternity. As a congressman, he voted against renewal of the Voting Rights Act (the law that had enfranchised millions of blacks in the South), and opposed establishing a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Years later, as a senator, he was still giving speeches to the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor group to the segregationist White Citizens' Councils; as he told one gathering in 1992, "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy." He kept showing up at those gatherings even though the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League had all identified the CCC as a hate group.

That's the context for Lott's praise of Strom, and it's worth remembering that many conservatives were nearly as furious as the civil-rights activists. Lott was widely assailed on the right; as commentator Jonah Goldberg wrote at the time, Lott's "idiocy" was "indefensible morally, intellectually, and politically....It (does) not seem intellectually risky for most conservatives to denounce Lott, because we feel no allegiance to the racism of the past. We could be just as outraged as sincere liberals."

And, for many conservatives today, the Strom affair is merely one item on their list of grievances. They have long viewed Lott as a sellout to the cause; as the popular blog remarked yesterday, "Trent Lott long ago stopped being useful...He hates conservatives. He hates most anything other than establishment Republican ideals of entrenched power and earmarks."

Speaking of earmarks...Conservatives who believe in balanced budgets and small government have long identified Lott as a hypocrite who talks a good game about reducing the size of the federal behemoth - while, in practice, relentlessly larding the federal budget with special-interest pork projects for the folks back home. (These projects, called earmarks, are slipped into bills often in the dead of night, in the hopes that nobody notices.) One classic Lott maneuver occurred last year, when he stuck a $700 million earmark - reportedly the largest in history - onto a defense spending bill, with aim of financing the rerouting of a CSX freight line on the Gulf Coast, thereby making it easier for Mississippi developers to build new casinos.

Writing back in 2001, conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru framed the problem: "Lott's strategic flaw is his narrowness of vision....A senator who is avidly pursuing pork is not a senator who is likely to have a grand strategy for advancing the conservative cause or to be an effective advocate for that strategy." And, around that same time, veteran conservative activist Paul Weyrich complained, "I don't think anybody has disappointed me more in public life."

And speaking of Lott's fealty to "entrenched power," is it really mere coincidence that he is leaving the Senate shortly before a lobbying reform bill becomes the law of the land? (By the way, Lott was one of only 14 Republican senators to vote against that reform bill.) If he quit his seat in 2008, with the law in effect, he'd have to wait two years before fattening the wallet. But if he quits now, before the new "revolving door" provision kicks in, he'd only have to wait one year.

When asked about this yesterday, he insisted that the new law didn't play "a big role" in his thinking - a verbal loophole through which you could drive a Hummer. Indeed, his fondness for corporate lobbyists is well documented. In 2006, he led all current lawmakers as the most frequent flyer on corporate jets (typically, tobacco giant UST, and BellSouth), tallying 18 trips - and 123 between 2001 and 2006. And life on K Street would be a comfortably family affair, since his own son, Chester, is already a lobbyist. Or he could simply opt for "consulting," which on paper is a notch away from official lobbying.

Either way, it beats being doomed to four more years as a member of the Senate minority party, and it would pay a lot better, too. Such are the ways of Washington today. When you lose clout, you can always cash in.

It also seems fitting that Lott's interim replacement would be chosen by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Washington lobbyist himself (at the still-named Barbour, Griffith & Rogers). It's precisely this kind of incestuousness that has soured so many conservatives on their elected leaders. Which is why the reaction to Lott is basically, "Don't let the revolving door hit you on the way out."


Speaking of Senate entrenchment, I noticed a report this morning that Edward Kennedy will receive an $8-million advance for his memoirs, due for publication in 2010. The report contained this sentence: "Mr. expected to write candidly about his personal history, including the 1969 Chappaquiddick accident in which he drove off a bridge in Martha's Vineyard, resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former member of Senator Robert F. Kennedy's staff."

Here's what I plan to do. Assuming that a review copy doesn't land in my mailbox in 2010, I'll go to a bookstore and look up the Chappaquiddick passages. If the author fails to "candidly" address, for the first time, whether he was in fact drunk behind the wheel; why he was leaving the Vineyard party with the young woman (conveniently without his driver); why he somehow failed to notice that he had taken a 90-degree turn onto a bumpy dirt road, instead of staying on the asphalt road that led to the ferry (where he was supposedly taking her); why he failed to notice all this, given the fact that he knew those roads well; why he failed to call the police for help after swimming to safety while Kopechne remained trapped in his car; why he instead consulted solely with his closest political aides in secret; why he failed to report the accident until after the car and dead girl were discovered 10 hours later...if Kennedy fails to advance our sketchy understanding of all these issues, then I'll deem his book unworthy of purchase.

Monday, November 26, 2007

In flagrant breach of the Reagan commandment

Yeesh, whatever happened to Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, "Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican"?

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani spent the holiday weekend speaking ill of each other...wait, let me amend that. Each guy spend the weekend insisting that the other guy is a fraud and a hypocrite. Mitt basically said that Rudy is Hillary lite, a closeted liberal on social issues, a friend of the sleazy (Bernie Kerik), and a lousy role model in his personal life. Rudy basically said that Mitt was a closeted liberal on social issues, a mediocre governor, a softy on violent crime, a wimp on taxes, and Ted Kennedy lite (Rudy hit Mitt again this morning, on MSNBC: "He was the one as governor of Massachusetts who was likening himself to Ted Kennedy, this guy didn't even support Ronald Reagan").

You're free to wade into the crossfire and determine which guy has the better case; be advised that Mitt also accuses Rudy of "making up facts," which is a polite way of saying that Mitt thinks Rudy is a liar. I'm mainly interested in Rudy's decision to go after Mitt in this manner. Earlier this autumn, Rudy was publicly signaling that he planned to obey the Reagan commandment ("It’s my intention not to attack any other Republicans"), yet now he appears to be fully engaged.

The Giuliani camp says that Rudy is assailing Mitt simply because (to paraphrase a line from the late screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky) he's mad as hell about Mitt's hits and he's not gonna take it anymore. But clearly it's more than that.

Despite what Rudy's aides have been saying lately - that Rudy will be fine even if he loses the gatekeeper contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, that Rudy will simply bounce back in the big states - they obviously fear that early losses in Iowa (Jan. 3) and New Hampshire (Jan. 8) could create momentum for the early winner and hamper Rudy's prospects for a quick recovery later in the month and in early February. And right now, the state polls indicate that Mitt is well positioned to win both Iowa and New Hampshire.

In other words, the Rudy camp appears to understand that Rudy's lead in national Republican surveys doesn't mean squat. The top slot in national polls usually goes to the candidate with the highest name ID; those polls tell you nothing about the state-by-state terrain. (In 2003, Joe Lieberman scored high in the Democratic polls, mostly on the basis on his high name ID.) And the terrain in Iowa and New Hampshire favors Mitt, who has out-organized and vastly outspent Rudy.

Hence Rudy's decision to dump the Reagan commandment, in the hopes of moving up early by cutting Mitt down. The risk, of course, is that both guys will suffer, that each will merely sow greater doubts about the other, and that some primary voters might sour on the mutual savaging and go looking for an alternative candidate, somebody who seems less soiled (in Iowa, perhaps Mike Huckabee; in New Hampshire, perhaps John McCain; in South Carolina, perhaps Fred Thompson).

So it goes, in the most fluid Republican race in living memory. No doubt we'll see further evidence on Wednesday night, when they all meet again, in the CNN-YouTube debate.


By the way, if Rudy's rivals are looking for fresh grist, this report might work just fine: Rudy on the stump regularly inveighs against special-interest, money-wasting congressional "earmarks" the same time that Rudy's law firm (which paid him $1.2 million last year) scores special-interest, money-wasting congressional earmarks for its clients.


And speaking of Fred Thompson, it can't be a good sign when a Republican candidate who fancies himself to be the true conservative in the race feels compelled to complain of media bias...and levels his charge at Fox News.

During an appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace made an obvious observation - that Fred's candidacy has basically flatlined in the polls since the day he announced - but the candidate got so incensed that he briefly registered a pulse:

"This has been a constant mantra of Fox, to tell you the truth....(F)or you to highlight nothing but the negative in terms of these polls...kind of skews things a little bit....I understand the game of build-up and I understand the game of take-down. And we all go through it. And I’m perfectly willing for you to do that with regard to me as you do the other candidates. But you have the right to put in your one side, put in the Fox side, and I have the right to respond to it."

That's the gist of a long and testy exchange with Wallace, a classic illustration of how a politician in potentially dire straits will always try to blame the media (even an ostensibly friendly outlet) for his woes.

This is the same politician who, during his extended wink-wink pre-candidacy phase, basically took up residence on Fox's Sean Hannity show, where he has logged nearly as many minutes as Rudy. But the fact remains that he has barely moved the needle while on the stump. In the two early primary states most critical to his candidacy - South Carolina and Florida, both in his home region - he has steadily lost ground to his rivals (especially Mitt), and it's hard to imagine this slide is due to the "constant mantra of Fox."

However, he did make one good point yesterday, when he cited the support he has received from the conservatives at the National Review magazine. (Another symptom of the divisions among conservatives, as they assess the GOP field). The National Review gang has indeed praised some of Fred's policy proposals - and last week they even took a fresh swipe at Rudy, pointing out that, as mayor, Rudy "launched lawsuits that sought liberal (court) rulings to punish gun manufacturers...Conservatives can only hope that President Giuliani - if such is our fate - can be counted on to appoint judges who would throw Plaintiff Giuliani out of court."

If such is our fate....In this season of fluidity, even the commentators are in breach of Reagan's 11th commandment.