Friday, January 11, 2008

Three-dimensional Republican chess

The Republican presidential race has morphed into a game of three-dimensional chess. As evidenced by the flow of dialogue in last night's debate - yes, there was another one - the current standoffs look roughly like this:

Mitt Romney versus John McCain (in the Michigan primary next Tuesday); Fred Thompson versus Mike Huckabee (in the South Carolina primary, a week from tomorrow); and Rudy Giuliani versus McCain (in the Florida primary, two weeks from tomorrow).

The subplots aren't quite as intricate as the story lines on The Wire, but, in this rare Republican race without a frontrunner, close attention must be paid. For instance, even though the debate was staged in South Carolina, the opening skirmish was all about Romney and McCain vying for voters in economically-troubled Michigan.

Romney, who may be toast if he can't win the state where his dad served three terms as a popular governor, upbraided McCain for saying recently that some of the jobs lost in Michigan won't be coming back. Romney vowed to "fight for every single job," although, naturally, he didn't say how he'd do it. (And this is the same guy who once led Bain Capital, a private equity firm that acquired businesses and advised its clients not to fight for every single job. Wite the opposite, in fact. As one fired union worker said of Romney in a 1994 political ad, "Basically, he cut our throats.")

Nor did McCain say how he'd revive the Michigan economy. No surprise there; economics has never been one of his major passions. Instead, he wandered into his standard rap about how Congress spends too much money, and about how he'd put a stop to it.

Then came the Thompson-Huckabee story line. Thompson, who may be toast unless he performs well in South Carolina, roused himself from his five-month slumber to repeatedly skewer his main competitor for the conservative base voters in that traditionally pivotal primary. He assailed Huckabee, the ex-Arkansas governor, as a betrayer of Ronald Reagan (within the GOP, there is no greater insult), as somebody who would "bring about liberal economic policy" and a "liberal foreign policy" that would practice the credo of "blame America first." Thompson said, "That's not the model of the Reagan coalition, that's the model of the Democratic Party."

Regarding the liberal economic label, Huckabee was forced to defend his record in Arkansas, where he did cut taxes 94 times (as he mentioned in the debate), but where, by the time he left office, his net tax hikes had outweighed his tax cuts by $500 million (a statistic he failed to mention). Nevertheless, he made this terrific point: If Ronald Reagan was running for president today, the same fiscal conservatives now attacking Huckabee would also be attacking Reagan - because, as governor of California, Reagan raised taxes by $1 billion during his first year. (Thompson had no answer to that one. Nor did anyone else. Reagan-worship does not leave much room for empiricism.)

But the Huck-Fred testosterone contest was the highlight of their story line. It happened in the wake of a discussion about an incident last weekend, when some Iranian speedboats swarmed around U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and purportedly sent a transmission threatening violence. Huckabee declared that, in general, all enemies who engage the U.S. military will be blown to "the gates of hell."

The crowd went crazy over that one - which meant that Thompson had to top it. So he came up with this one: "One more step, and they (Iranians) would have been introduced to those virgins that they're looking forward to seeing." (Again, pandemonium. Top that one, Huck.)

(It was left to Ron Paul to point out - accurately - that the U.S. Navy is now admitting that the English-speaking voice on the tape, threatening violence, may not have come from the speedboats at all, but from an unspecified location somewhere else. No matter. Romney jumped in to say that Paul sounded like he was reading from Iranian press releases.)

Then came the McCain-Giuliani story line. This is a machismo contest over which tough guy has the best national security creds. The stakes are potentially high, because Giuliani is staking his candidacy on Florida, McCain hopes to make it to Florida (via Michigan and South Carolina), and it's possible only one of those guys will get to the final round - along with Huckabee, a foreign policy lightweight.

So Giuliani did his 9/11 number, and told McCain that he has always been just as enthusiastic as McCain about the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Then McCain went for the jugular: "I have been involved in every major national security challenge for the last 20 years, and before that, I fought in some of them. The fact is that I've led the largest squadron in the U.S. Navy - not for profit, but for patriotism."

Those last six words, in translation: "Unlike some people, who have cashed in on 9/11 and made millions, I put my life on the line in wartime. Top that one, Rudy."

Did anyone "win" last night's debate? Beats me. But McCain probably got the most mileage out of it. He's already well-positioned in Michigan, because some of the folks who like him best, independents and crossover Democrats, are permitted to vote in that primary. (He seemed to be wooing them last night, when he said this: "Climate change in my view is very real, and climate change has to be addressed.") And Romney never pressed him on the jobs issue, because Romney was otherwise preoccupied with trying to defend his own record as governor of Massachusetts - which ranked 46th in job growth during most of his tenure.

Meanwhile, the more that Thompson (his offstage friend) goes after Huckabee in South Carolina, the more it potentially helps McCain. He fares best in a three-way competition. His prospects for winning the state are enhanced if Thompson and Huckabee carve up the social/religious conservative voters, and leave him with enough voters (in particular, the sizeable population of military vets) to eke out a plurality.

And what a difference eight years can make. When McCain last competed here, he was up against Karl Rove and George W. Bush and the mysterious rumors about how he was an unstable, gay-friendly philanderer who had fathered a black baby (among other unsourceable slurs). Last night, nobody laid a glove on the guy, and few bothered to try. He's still a long way from a nomination, but, after his near-death experience last summer, he's probably grateful to be taking his turn at three-dimensional chess.


Speaking of Republicans, the author of this week's most hilarious attack was Karl Rove.

Writing yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, the man most responsible for elevating the truth-challenged George W. Bush to our highest office charged that Barack Obama has a thin resume, is "often lazy," and is "given to misstatements and exaggerations".

Insert joke here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The crying game

From the next Democratic debate, scheduled for Tuesday in Las Vegas:

"It's truly wonderful to be back in this beautiful state," said Hillary Clinton, "and as I think about the natural splendor of Sunrise Mountain, just to the east of this marvelous city, and how every new morning announces itself above the mountain's highest peaks, well, it just (choke) always moves me deeply. I really just (choke)...I'm sorry, may I have a moment here?"

"Speaking of being moved," Barack Obama quicky interjected, dabbing his eyes with a hankie, "I keep thinking how the the pioneers who traveled across this valley more than a century ago were actually spreading the promise of America, the same promise (gulp) that compelled my Kansas mother and Kenyan father (intake of breath) to inspire their son to, to, to...(head bowed)..."

"I am so moved by my own personal story as well," said John Edwards, seizing the opening, "because my daddy was a mill worker - have I mentioned that? - and he worked so very lip) give me a better life (long sigh), but this is not about me, this election is about all of you out there, and I want you to know how much ah feel your pain (loud gulp)..."

"Just a moment there," said Clinton, "It upsets me (teary grimace) to hear you appropriate one of my husband's lines. And I wish the two of you would stop making fun of me, because speaking as a woman, (louder gulp) we are tired of hitting our heads on the glass ceiling, I mean, the injustice of it...(anguished swallow)..."

"Hillary," Obama admonished, "I would suggest to you that the travails of African-Americans (muted sob) have been the greater injustice, if for no other reason than that they were brought to America in chains...(sorrowful swallow)..."

"As women, our chains were invisible. Blacks got the vote after the Civil War, while we women (louder sob), regardless of race, were denied the vote until 1920 (protracted gulp and swallow)...Excuse me. Does anybody here have a Kleenex?"

"Not a chance," said Edwards. "Kleenex is a trademarked product of a big corporation, Kimberly-Clark, and I have been fighting and beating the big corporations mah whole life (shoulders heaving, dabbing his eyes with his tie)."

"I'd lend you my hankie, Hillary, if you were more likeable," said Obama, "but as a mixed-race American with an inspiring personal story, I, I...(trembling jaw)...Forgive me, I'd just hate to see us slide backwards on our racial progress (strangulated sob). I mean, we've come so far, you know?"

"That's enough, all of you," the moderator interrupted, "Can we please move on? And please ignore all that wailing you hear backstage. I told Mr. Kucinich and Mr. Gravel that they could not participate."

"Fine," said Clinton. "I'll re-schedule my wracking sob for the closing statement."

"Tell ya what, John," said Obama, turning to Edwards, "I'll lend you my hankie if you lend me your eyedrops."


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Is this a great country, or what?

Harry Truman is probably still safe in the rankings as America’s most renowned comeback kid – his brandishing of that Dewey Beats Truman headline is iconic – but Hillary Clinton has now surprised just about everybody. Not merely the pollsters and the media (and me, yesterday's parenthetical caveat notwithstanding), but also the tea-leaf readers in her own campaign who had foreseen disaster in their internal polling of the New Hampshire electorate. As one Hillary friend reportedly confided late last night, "I was with them all day. They did not see this coming. No one did."

Hillary this morning may well be thinking: Is this a great country, or what? In the land of opportunity, she just transformed herself from a downbeat blues singer ("Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out") to Rocky. Here’s what apparently happened:

1. New Hampshire voters, contrarian by nature, essentially said: “Hold on, not so fast. This Democratic race should not be brought to an end already. We think it has barely begun.” Indeed, MSNBC conducted a pre-election focus group with professional Democratic women (a key demographic), and those voters said they were not happy with the notion of ratifying Barack Obama and thus terminating the Democratic race so quickly.

2. Today, there will be lots of commentary about how virtually all the polls were wrong. I think it’s possible that the weekend polls indicating a decisive Obama victory were actually right – as mere momentary snapshots – but that a fair number of voters pulled back at the eleventh hour, perhaps turned off by the saturation coverage, perhaps feeling that Granite Staters were being told how to vote, and perhaps (in the case of some independents) feeling that since Obama apparently had things well in hand, they should instead participate in the Republican primary and help their old favorite, John McCain. It's worth noting that 17 percent of the Democratic primary voters made up their minds on the final day, and that those people favored Hillary over Obama by three points.

3. Hillary managed to sow some doubt about her chief rival, persuading some voters that perhaps they did not know enough about Obama to warrant falling in love with him. She scored points at the Saturday night debate by pointing out a few arguably substantive flaws in Obama’s Senate voting record. She even played the 9/11 card, intimating at the eleventh hour that the terrorists might be most tempted to test an inexperienced American leader, just as they recently tested the new British prime minister, Gordon Brown (wait, isn't the 9/11 card supposed to be a Republican talking point?). And in the final days she repeatedly assailed Obama’s health care plan, pointing out that it does not require that all Americans be covered – an important issue for older Democratic women.

4. Speaking of women...she got them back, after losing them to Obama in Iowa. Fifty seven percent of the New Hampshire Democratic voters were women, according to the exit polls, and they broke for Hillary over Obama by 13 percentage points. This suggests that Hillary had a great ground game run by smart local operatives. And the smartest Democratic operative in New Hampshire is Jean Shaheen, the former governor and once and future Senate candidate. Shaheen, a major Hillary player, may have helped saved the day.

5. This point is entirely speculative and very sensitive: Did Obama's race cost him some votes? Unlike in Iowa, the voters in New Hampshire had the luxury of privacy behind a curtain. It's virtually impossible to know the answer, but it's worth nothing that, in the past, several black Democrats went down to defeat in high-profile elections even when strongly favored to win, most notably Tom Bradley in the 1982 California gubernatorial tilt.

6. I'm more confident about this one: Whereas the Iowa caucus participants may have felt that Hillary was behaving like an entitled royal on route to her coronation, and rejected her accordingly, the New Hampshire voters may have warmed to Hillary because they sensed she had been rendered human. Witness her deft handling, during the Saturday night debate, of the charge that she wasn’t likeable (with wry wit: “That hurts my feelings. But I’ll try to go on”); and her quavering voice and wet eyes during a campaign appearance on Monday. Stripped of her aura of entitlement and “inevitability,” she thus was deemed deserving of a second chance. (It's amazing to think that Hillary strategist Mark Penn was supposedly in danger of losing his job...only to be saved in the end by Hillary's tear ducts.)

Voters in both Democratic contests have offered second chances. When Iowans sensed a Hillary coronation, they said, “Not so fast.” When the folks in New Hampshire sensed a runaway Obama bandwagon, they said, “Not so fast.” Now it’s on to Nevada (where a key union, the culinary workers, has just endorsed Obama), South Carolina, and beyond.

A woman, a black, and a southern white guy, all dueling on the theme of change versus experience in a race that’s writing its own rules. Forty eight states owe Iowa and New Hampshire a debt of gratitude for keeping the party going.


UPDATE...The directors of the Marist Poll just sent out their own ruminations on what happened. Its conclusions lend some credence to items 2 and 6 above. The Marist email says, "If the pollsters and media pundits erred, it was not in their weekend numbers but in not polling on Monday," when Hillary was picking up late support. During those final hours, there was "a media feeding frenzy over Clinton’s show of emotion when responding to a voter’s question on Monday morning. Video of her 'emotional' moment was everywhere. It was played over and over with unrelenting commentary. Hillary Clinton was again the victim." All told, "how New Hampshire voters were evaluating the race and the factors they were weighing in the last hours of the campaign were never measured."


As for the Republicans:

Remember the scene in Godfather II, when various warring factions engaged in a gun battle on a New York City street corner, firing in all directions, and it was impossible to keep track of who was shooting at whom?

The race for the GOP presidential nomination is starting to look like that.

And no, I'm not trying to equate the Republicans with mobsters. Suffice it to say, we now have three different winners in three different states – John McCain in New Hampshire last night, Mitt Romney in Wyoming last weekend, and Mike Huckabee in Iowa last Thursday – and the plot hasn’t even begun to thicken. Up next is a showdown between McCain and Romney in Michigan next Tuesday, followed by a showdown between Huckabee and Fred Thompson in South Carolina a week from Saturday (joined perhaps by whoever wins Michigan), followed by a showdown in Florida one week thereafter between Rudy Giuliani and whoever else might still be stranding.

This is not the way that Republicans traditionally conduct their business. Normally they coalesce around either a senior figure who has earned his turn (say, Bob Dole in 1996), or the party establishment designates a frontrunner (say, George W. Bush in 2000) and gives him so much money that a lot of would-be rivals are scared away long before the voting begins. Not so this time. President Bush, given his broad unpopularity, was in no position to anoint a successor; most Americans would probably have run screaming in the other direction. And some top-tier Republicans (say, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) took a pass, figuring that 2008 will be a rough Republican year.

Hence the current absence of clarity, and the alarms that are ringing within the GOP establishment. Romney is arguably the closest thing to a mainstream conservative candidate – well-heeled, business-friendly, willing to bend rightward on the party’s litmus test issues – but he spent around 200 days visiting New Hampshire, and he just got waxed by McCain, whose contrarian instincts have long been anathema to the party establishment. And Romney got waxed in Iowa by Huckabee, an up-from-the-bootstraps Baptist preacher who spends half his time railing against big business and Wall Street. (Memo to Mitt: You’ll always have Wyoming.)

Romney also employed a traditional Republican practice that really backfired in New Hampshire: he led the league in negative TV ads, mostly attacking McCain. In exit polls, Republican primary voters cited Romney as the architect of the most “unfair” campaign. As happened in Iowa, where he also spent lavishly to attack his rivals, Romney misread the mood of the electorate. Republican voters in general are fed up with business as usual (which is why they’ve chosen Huckabee and McCain), and want more civil campaign conduct.

It’s hard to see how this race sorts itself out. Romney was born in Michigan, and his dad was a popular three-term governor – but McCain won that state’s primary when he first ran in 2000, largely because registered independents are allowed to participate. They can do so again next Tuesday. McCain remains strong among independents (who were permitted to vote in New Hampshire), but, lest we overlook this important finding, he also defeated Romney last night among registered Republicans. According to the exit polls, they saw McCain as the candidate most qualified to be commander-in-chief in the war on terror.

But wait...isn’t that supposed to be Giuliani’s raison d’etre? Hence another complication. Giuliani last night finished way down in the pack, somewhere deep in Ron Paul territory, supposedly because he had decided to skip New Hampshire and wait for the pack to find him in Florida. It turns out, however, that Giuliani spent 126 days in New Hampshire, surpassing McCain and Huckabee, so apparently his alleged 9/11 luster didn’t mean squat.

Perhaps Giuliani will battle it out with McCain three weeks hence, for the right to be perceived as the toughest anti-terror leader – assuming that Giuliani’s Florida numbers don’t go south, simply because he’s off the radar screen for so long; and assuming that McCain survives Michigan and South Carolina, the latter of which is heavily populated by religious conservatives who might give Huckabee enough bounce to stay in the fray. All of which assumes that Romney won’t simply write himself a check – he’s personally worth around $200 million – to keep himself alive, and that Fred Thompson, who was marketed last summer as the party’s savior, somehow gets a pulse.

This race could go on for a good long while. And as I recall, Godfather II clocked in at three hours and 20 minutes.


By the way, the enthusiasm gap persists. The New Hampshire GOP primary drew 238,909 voters (the latest figure, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting), which is virtually identical to the number of voters who cast ballots in the 2000 GOP primary. But whereas the 2000 Republican turnout exceeded the 2000 Democratic turnout by more than 83,000, this time the rankings are reversed. This time the GOP tally was dwarfed by the opposition's tally (at last count, 287,849, a New Hampshire primary record). That's nearly 53,000 more voters on the Democratic side of the ledger, and further proof that Democrats, as well as Democratic-leaning independents, are more stoked about the '08 race.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

How to score the New Hampshire primary

Tonight, New Hampshire speaks. Here's what I plan to be tracking:

1. Barack Obama's margin of victory. If he wins narrowly on the Democratic side, the Hillary people can semi-accurately insist that their "girl" (Hillary's recent description of herself) is alive and well and looking forward to wresting the "change" label away from Obama in the big-state contests on Feb. 5. But if Obama wins a double-digit blowout tonight, the long knives will come out in the Hillary camp and some big-shot strategists may be forced to take the fall. Plus, the money donors will start treating her as a leper, impervious even to Bill's lip-biting entreaties. And then Hillary will have to decide whether it's worth sticking around to run and/or condone a negative "stop-Obama" campaign, one that could sow bad feeling among grassroots Democrats who have hitched their hopes and dreams to the new hero. (Of course, if Hillary defies all current expectations and actually wins tonight, please forget every word I have just written.)

2. John McCain's margin of victory, assuming he wins. It all may depend on whether New Hampshire's independents, who are free to vote in either primary, flood the GOP race in sufficient numbers to put McCain over the top. If the old warhorse gives Mitt Romney a thorough thrashing tonight, it's doubtful that Romney can resuscitate himself in next Tuesday in Michigan (a state where the Romney name is a brand, thanks to his late father's stint as governor - but also a state where McCain is popular, having won the 2000 GOP primary). McCain and Romney both badly need to win tonight. Mike Huckabee does not. His southern-fried populism/evangelism is not a good fit for New Hampshire, and he'll be fine with a respectable third-place finish - especially since he has now vaulted to first place among GOP voters nationwide in the latest Gallup poll (another sign of one-time frontrunner Rudy Giuliani's ongoing slide). And speaking of the independents...

3. The behavior of the state's independents. This should tell us plenty about the general mood of the electorate. Eight years ago, the last time both parties had contested primaries, 60 percent of the independents opted to vote in the Republican race (elevating McCain). This time, New Hampshire's non-partisan Secretary of State predicts that 60 percent of the independents will choose the Democratic race (thus elevating Obama). If that number holds true, it would be another sign that the Democrats are the hotter draw in 2008. Which brings us to...

4. The turnout figures, as indicators of an energy gap. Watch to see which party gets the biggest share of the overall action. Back in 2000, the Republican race attracted 238,206 voters, crushing the Democrats, who drew only 154,639. It has been evident for many months that the GOP has been under-energized - as evident, last Thursday, in the Iowa turnout. Let's see whether New Hampshire reverses its '00 numbers and confirms the national zeitgeist. The behavior of young voters could also be a big factor; ditto the voters who are newly arrived in New Hampshire, many from the liberal Boston region (nearly one-fourth of the state's potential electorate has arrived in the years since the 2000 primaries).

By the way...Seven months ago, who would have imagined that, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, we would be talking about a potentially ascendent John McCain, and a potential Hillary Clinton flameout? Such is the velocity of contemporary politics.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Clintons and the good old days

The Clintons have always had fond feelings about New Hampshire. Bill was down and out in January of 1992, seemingly destined to be roadkill, besieged at the time by stories about his draft avoidance and extra-curricular behavior. But then he shifted into sixth gear, charming the locals and out-working his opponents - and on the night of the primary, when he finished a respectable second, he dubbed himself "the Comeback Kid," and a star was born.

The saga of '92 is a living memory for many New Hampshire Democrats; I have met a number of people who still proudly display their Bill-and-me photos on their office shelves. More often than not Hillary is there as well, with her distinctive '92 hair band. And in this current campaign, Hillary has endeavored to contact virtually all the old comrades, seeking to tap the old magic.

But it doesn't appear to be working, at least according to a pair of stunning polls released yesterday, less than 48 hours before New Hampshire commences voting. The old magic seems to have been supplanted by the new.

A few days ago, Mark Penn, Hillary's chief strategist/pollster, circulated an email mocking Barack Obama for failing to get a bounce from his Iowa victory. Well, it looks like the bounce has arrived. Two new surveys suggest that Obama is on the verge of a surge that would seriously imperil her candidacy.

CNN/WMUR has Obama up by 10 points (39 percent to 29 percent) - after showing the race to be tied just one day earlier. And USA Today/Gallup has Obama in front by 13 points (41 to 28). Most noteworthy are the internal figures. According to the CNN/WMUR survey, not only is Obama outdueling Hillary among independent voters by a 2-1 margin (independents are permitted to vote in the primary), he's also winning among registered Democrats, 37 to 34 percent. He's just as strong among women voters, 35 to 34 percent. And he's winning thematically as well; by a margin of 67 to 24 percent, the likely primary voters said the promise of change trumps candidate experience as the most important criterion. Meanwhile, the USAT/Gallup poll shows Obama with a 3-1 lead among voters under the age of 35.

If both polls are essentially accurate - plus, a new Marist poll this morning has Obama up by eight, while a new Zogby poll puts the margin at 10 - then it's hard to see how Hillary can become the new Comeback Kid. For starters, second place is not an option as it was for Bill (unless she finishes in a virtual tie). She's also in a totally different position than her husband; she is perceived by many voters as the status quo figure in this race, someone who seeks restoration of the family dynasty - whereas, in '92, Bill was the "change" candidate, the upstart outsider in that year's "change" election.

And, just as importantly, Hillary is facing tougher competition than her husband did. For all of Bill's legendary political skills, it's important to remember that his '92 rivals in New Hampshire were underwhelming. He was up against the likes of Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey (whose campaign was already imploding that winter), Iowa Senator Tom Harkin (who was soon to be gone), and ex-California Gov. Jerry Brown. The party's heavier hitters - particularly Mario Cuomo, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and a Tennessee senator by the name of Al Gore - had taken a pass on the '92 campaign.

None of Bill's competitors could match his energy or charisma, or his claim that he alone represented the changing of the guard. Hillary doesn't have the same luxuries this time; whereas Bill always billed himself as a generational leader who would draw young voters, Hillary is apparently failing on the front. It's worth noting that the current 21-year-old New Hampshire voter was only five when Bill first charmed New Hampshire - hardly the stuff of memories.

All told, Hillary is now perceived as an establishment player, and she's paired against an energized, charismatic opponent who seems poised to lead an historic movement. The odds of another Clinton comeback seem to be narrowing with each passing hour.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Blood on the stage in New Hampshire

The Oscar buzz these days is all about a new film called There Will Be Blood, but there was no need to buy a ticket last night, not with the presidential candidates laying claim to the same title by carving each other up in grisly fashion during a pair of debates on ABC News.

First came the Republicans. As I wrote in a print column this morning, the GOP is experiencing unusual tumult, stuck as they are with a slate of candidates deemed flawed by the party's grassroots, and with no annointed frontrunner to at least provide some clarity. This was evident in last night's New Hampshire takedown, when virtually everybody on stage ganged up on Mitt Romney.

Remember that line in The Godfather, about how whacking a rival was business, not personal? Fuggedaboutit. The Republican rumble was personal.

Granted, John McCain and Mike Huckabee and the others have their business reasons - they'd like to knock Romney out of the race on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, because, at a time when money is scarce for most GOP contenders, Romney alone has both the establishment connections and personal wealth to keep himself afloat for awhile - but those reasons are trumped by their personal animus. Romney has been slamming them with attack ads and distorting their records for so long, all the while flip-flopping about his own alleged convictions for so long, that they're basically fed up. And now that he's bleeding from his Iowa wounds, they're circling like sharks.

And no wonder. In high school terms, Romney is like the know-it-all kid from the rich side of town who connives to blackball those whom he views as unworthy of club membership. Last night, unfortunately for him, the other kids were pelting him with spitballs, lighting his shoes on fire, yanking his shirt hook, and he didn't know how to deal with it.

When Romney grumbled that his positions were being mischaracterized, Huckabee shot back, "Which ones?" (Romney's reaction: sputtering silence.) When McCain mocked Romney for his frequent flip-flops and dubbed him the true "candidate of change," Romney had no response. When McCain skewered Romney for his lavishly-financed negative ad campaign, and for falsely depicting McCain as a pro-amnesty wimp on illegal immigration ("you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won't be true"), Romney compounded his plight shall I say this charitably...making stuff up.

Romney insisted: "I don't describe your plan as amnesty in my ad. I don't call it amnesty."

Oh, really? His new TV ad says that McCain "supported amnesty for illegal immigrants" and "wrote the amnesty bill." Moreover, I receive Romney campaign emails, and a new one refers to McCain's "amnesty plan." And a new Romney mailing to New Hampshire voters reportedly says, "John McCain: Supports Amnesty."

Granted, Romney isn't the first politician to play fast and loose with facts. And he probably figures he needs to hit that "amnesty" theme (regardless of what he falsely claimed during the debate) because he badly needs conservative Republican votes on Tuesday night in order to win New Hampshire and keep hope alive. The problem is, he can't win unless he successfully bloodies McCain (who now leads in the New Hampshire polls), unless he somehow makes McCain less attractive to the independent voters who yearn for reform and change, and who are permitted to vote in the primary.

So Romney's last-ditch strategy is to swipe the reform/change label and affix it to himself. Last night he said: "Not only can I talk change with you, I've lived it. In the private sector for 25 years, I brought change to company after company. In the Olympics -- it was in trouble -- I brought change. In Massachusetts I brought change. I have done it." And he contends that McCain is just another Washington insider and denizen of "the Senate cloakroom" who has failed to bring change.

The problem with that argument is, it doesn't quite square with what Romney said about McCain back in 2002: "He has always stood for reform and change. And he always fought the good battle, no matter what the odds."

McCain is hardly a saint, of course. He has lobbyist donors and advisors, just as Romney does. He has done his share of pandering in this campaign. He also finesses the truth at times, as well; last night, he boasted about how he was the earliest GOP candidate to publicly criticize Donald Rumsfeld, while failing to mention that he waited until December 2004, after President Bush was re-elected, before he let loose.

But McCain has long been seen by Granite State voters as an upstanding guy, and it will be tough for Romney to outduel him in the span of 48 hours. Especially since, on the authenticity front, Romney often makes a three-dollar bill look like a bar of gold.


As for the Democrats...Number of times the candidates invoked the word change: 64

Hillary Clinton, scrambling to recover from her Iowa misadventure, was in near-desperate overdrive. To wit: "I want to make change, but I've already made change. I will continue to make change. I'm not just running on a promise of change, I'm running on 35 years of change....So, you know, I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver change. And we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered. The best way to know what change I will produce is to look at the changes I've already made." (Italics are mine. I'll return to that phrase in a little while.)

Hillary scored some substantive points along the way. She took on her perceived "likeability" deficit by pointing out that George W. Bush was deemed America's preferred beer buddy back in 2000, a judgement that looks disastrous in retrospect. She sought to dent Barack Obama's halo by pointing out that the antiwar senator voted Yes on every Iraq war funding bill until he announced for president; and she noted this, as well: "You know, the energy bill that passed in 2005 was larded with all kinds of special interest breaks, giveaways to the oil companies. Senator Obama voted for it. I did not." Obama had no response to that. She also pointed out that "Senator Obama's chair in New Hampshire is a lobbyist. He lobbies for the drug companies." In response Obama merely murmured, "That's not so."

But it is so. Jim Demers is registered as a lobbyist for Pfizer and PhRMA.

Hillary still has problems, however. The biggest is that she risks looking like a spoilsport who is trying to soil America's new political hero. Moreover, at a time when Obama seems poised to lead a burgeoning "hope" movement, would hopeful voters really respond to a candidate who characterizes those hopes as "false" (as she did last night)?

And she also has to contend not just with Obama, but with John Edwards. The latter jumped to Obama's defense last night: "Every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack. Every single time...he believes deeply in change and I believe deeply in change. And any time you're fighting for that, I mean, I didn't hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead. Now that she's not, we hear them."

No doubt she was displeased to be tagged as the leader of the "status quo," to find herself under seige from two rivals seemingly working in tandem. But she should hope that Edwards stays in the race, post-New Hampshire. He splits the "change" vote with Obama, and it's hard to envision most Edwards voters moving to Hillary in the wake of his departure...unless she somehow swipes the "change" label for herself.

But can she succeed in doing so? At one point last night, she felt compelled to harken back to the '90s, to defend her husband's tenure, and point out that he balanced the budget. Whereupon, moments later, Obama said: "But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done." That remark addresses a longstanding pet peeve among many grassroots Democrats - that Clinton failed to grow the party, that under his tenure the Democrats lost both congressional chambers and never fully recovered. That is the crux of the intraparty grievance against the Clintons.

And with respect to Hillary's remarks, during the debate, about how Obama's rhetoric is no substitute for action, her chief rival said this:

"(T)he truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power."

Don't discount the power of words...Obama was essentially putting her on notice that she might be facing another tough election night.