Friday, January 25, 2008

Mitt's triumph, and other trophies

Compared to the Hillary-Obama schoolyard rumble on Monday night, the Republican debate last night was downright sedate. But potentially consequential, nevertheless.

The GOP survivors stayed on their best behavior, for several reasons. The stakes in next Tuesday's Florida primary are enormous; anybody who finishes third or lower is probably toast in the long run. Also, the Florida polls currently show a close race (Mitt Romney and John McCain on top, with Rudy Giuliani in striking distance) and nobody wanted to lash out and risk a voter/viewer backlash. Indeed, Florida's NBC affiliates aired the debate statewide, to a mass audience of prospective Republican voters, many of whom were scrutinizing the candidates for the first time; the candidates, mindful of this, wanted to make a good first impression.

With those factors in mind, let's hand out the trophies.

Best performance in a 90-minute drama: Mitt Romney. He may look like (in David Letterman's words) "the medical expert in a Victoria Principal infomercial," but last night, at least, he accomplished all his aims as a candidate.

First, he outshined all his rivals by speaking articulately and at length about economic issues, flashing his private sector credentials. In terms of solutions, he pushed all the right Republican buttons (and remember, only registered Republicans are allowed to vote in the Florida primary), and, more importantly, he seemed confident and in command (which matter on TV). Second, he repeatedly stressed his anti-Washington "outsider" message. Third, he trumpeted a hawkish message on Iraq, jumping on that GOP-friendly theme before McCain could weigh in. Fourth, he railed against Hillary Clinton before his rivals had a chance to do so. Fifth, he made sure the Republican viewers knew that McCain had originally voted against the Bush tax cuts. And sixth, his rivals didn't gang up on him this time, for the aforementioned reasons. He was able to relax and relate to the Republican viewers on his own terms. He seems well positioned to win Florida, slowing McCain and scrambling the race even further.

Most labored attempts at self-defense: John McCain. He did OK, overall. But at several points in the debate, when he had his back to the wall, he uttered false statements.

First, during a discussion on the economy, host Tim Russert noted that McCain had recently said he was not particulary well versed on economic issues; McCain tried to deny the whole thing, telling Russert, "I don't know where you got that quote from." Well, here's where Russert got the quote from -- The Boston Globe, on Dec. 18. One day earlier, McCain had told a group of reporters that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."

Second, during a discussion on whether McCain is sufficiently popular with the Republican base (he's not), McCain insisted that, referring to his earlier primary victories, "I won the majority of the Republican vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina." Actually, he did not. Romney bested him in New Hampshire among Republican voters, 35 to 34 percent. Mike Huckabee bested him in South Carolina among Republican voters, 32 to 31 percent. Indeed, McCain won those two contests only because independents and crossover Democrats were allowed to participate; Florida is a closed primary, so we shall see whether he can break through.

Third, McCain insisted again, as he has in other debates, that he voted against the original Bush tax cuts only because the measures did not include tough curbs on spending. In reality, he had opposed such tax cuts when Bush first proposed them during the 2000 campaign - on the grounds that the cuts were aimed at the rich, at the expense of the middle class. At the time, he sounded like a liberal.

Lamest candidate spin: Rudy Giuliani. Speaking of toast, this guy might prove to be Exhibit A. The longer he has camped out in Florida, the lower he sinks in the polls. There has to be a reason why he keeps turning people off, and perhaps The New York Times nailed it this morning, in its New York primary endorsement of McCain over Rudy. The Times editorial calls Rudy "a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man...(whose) arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking." Rudy last night tried to laugh this off as simply the sour grapes of a newspaper that generally opposed his mayoral policies; in Rudy's words, "I think there's a serious ideological difference." Well, The Times editorial page always had serious ideological differences with Ronald Reagan, but it never felt compelled to judge Reagan's character that way.

Most blatant pandering: Mike Huckabee. What was he doing, running for governor of Florida? His idea for fixing the Florida economy, and for improving the Floridian way of life, is to "add two lanes of highway" on I-95, all the way to Miami, to ensure that Floridians get to "their kids' dance recitals or soccer games" in a more timely fashion. The look of astonishment on Romney's face was priceless; thank you, TiVo. Then Huckabee wrapped it all in a populist/protectionist package, urging that those lanes be built with "American steel." (Don't we get a lot of our steel from China these days? Does Huckabee want to bar Chinese steel?)

Slowest softball lobbed down the middle of the plate: John McCain. I know these guys were going easy on each other, but McCain's question to Huckabee was something to behold. McCain brought up Huckabee's idea about scrapping the federal income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax. Most economists think that the Huck's sales levy would actually shift the tax burden to the average working stiffs of America (the same people whom Huckabee claims to represent), but McCain didn't touch that. Instead, doing his best impression of a jock sports announcer interviewing a jock, McCain merely asked Huckabee, "How do you account for the resonance this proposal has gotten throughout the nation?" Which makes me wonder, are these guys plotting to be running mates?

And lastly, Best Pun: Mike Huckabee. He always has such a way with words; last night, while pandering to hawkish Republican voters, he even compared the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the hunt for Easter eggs. But I digress. He insisted last night that, under his tax reform plan, there "would be no more underground economy." He said that even prostitutes would be paying taxes - which means, he said, that they would no longer be "working under the table."

Yessir, that's why we all heart Huckabee.


Programming note: I'll say something on Sunday morning about the Hillary-Obama results in South Carolina, and the Democratic race beyond.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The dark art of Clintonian innuendo

An anti-Obama radio ad, launched yesterday in South Carolina, is vivid proof - as if we needed it - that the Clintons are master practitioners of fact-free innuendo.

Granted, the Clintons are hardly the first to spread falsehoods in the pursuit of power (read any history about the election of 1800), and the lie they are currently broadcasting about Barack Obama is hardly on a par with the lies that were employed to entrap us in Iraq (935 lies, to be precise). But this new radio ad is worth examining, if only because it demonstrates, in microcosm, the Clintons' willingness to say and do whatever it takes to win, even if a fellow Democrat is soiled, and the party mood is soured, in the doing.

The ad features an Obama sound bite, a partial sentence of something that he said to a Reno newspaper back on Jan. 14: "The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years." After his voice fades, a snide narrator says to the listener, "Really? Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today?....Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?" Then the music swells and the narrator says, "Hillary Clinton thinks this election's about replacing disastrous ideas with new ones." (A link to the radio ad is here.)

The ad's message: Obama, by stating that the GOP had been "the party of ideas," was obviously endorsing those ideas.

Factual reality: Obama did not endorse those ideas.

In political war, context is often the first casualty. Here's the context of what Obama said to the Reno paper (the italics are mine): "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, you know government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating, and I think people just tapped into – he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism, and, and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing.

"I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it just has to do with the times. I think we’re in one of those times right now, where people feels like things as they are going right now aren’t working, that we’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having, and they’re not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom."

Obama was simply stating that Reagan was in sync with the mood of his era - can any rational human, of whatever ideological persuasion, really argue with that? - just as Kennedy, on the Democratic side, was in sync with the mood of an earlier era. An acknowledgement is hardly an endorsement.

And there's no disputing the fact, as Obama noted, that the Republicans were the party of ideas during the past several decades. For better or worse, at least they had ideas; as countless Democrats have told me, in interviews dating back to the early '90s, the GOP knew what it stood for and the Democrats did not. Washington D.C. is home to a slew of conservative think tanks, all of which crank out policy papers advancing those ideas. Liberals have no such equivalent. Indeed, lest we forget, Bill Clinton's administration even embraced some of those GOP ideas; witness Bill's signing of the congressional GOP's welfare reform measure, in 1996.

(Meanwhile, here is Hillary, praising Ronald Reagan's political skills in Boom!, the new bestselling book by Tom Brokaw: "When he had those big tax cuts and they went too far, he oversaw the largest tax increase. He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements. He played the balance and the music beautifully.")

So all the current Clinton umbrage is wholly manufactured. And Obama wasn't endorsing those GOP ideas, anyway. Take a look again at his concluding remarks, in context: "And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.

The Clintons' new radio ad omits the remarks that I have italicized. Of course, if they had provided the full context of what he said, there would have been no radio ad.

But the radio ad is merely the Clintons' latest attempt to perpetuate the illusion that Obama had endorsed GOP ideas. In a debate three nights ago, Hillary brought up the Reno remarks: "(He) has said in the last week that he really liked the Republicans over the last 10 or 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote. This prompted Obama to point out, "I didn't say they were good ideas." To which Hillary said, "Well, you can read the context of it...It certainly came across in the way that it was presented." (Factual reality: In context, Obama's point "came across" as precisely the opposite of what Hillary asserts.)

But, of course, the Clintons started banging away at this long before the debate, in accordance with the hardball credo that a falsehood works best when endlessly repeated. Hence we have Bill Clinton, on the stump last week in Nevada: "Her principle opponent said that, since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas...I'm not making this stuff up, folks."

He was making it up. But if you're wondering why the Clintons would risk sullying themselves by engaging in such a practice, the answer is simple: They do it because it works. People routinely decry negative attacks, but they remember them anyway. And the candidate who denies an unfair charge is stuck playing defense, and defense is for losers.

This is the grist of politics as usual, and it brings to mind the old story about how Lyndon Johnson clawed his way to a Senate seat back in 1948. While systematically tarring his rival, fellow Democrat Coke Stevenson, the young LBJ said it might be a fine idea to spread the rumor that ole Coke was fond of having carnal relations with farm animals. His aides were shocked. Lyndon, they said, you know that's not true. To which LBJ replied, "I know that. I just want to make him to deny it."


UPDATE: The Clinton campaign decided on Thursday afternoon to pull the aforementioned radio ad. No reasons were given. Care to guess why?


And speaking of Brokaw's bestselling Boom!, a sprawling '60s retrospective, I wrote a freelance book review here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

John Edwards, headless chicken

It was almost poignant, on Monday night, to hear John Edwards make the case for his autumn electability. He was the one who first suggested that John McCain would be the GOP nominee; then he said, "I grew up in the rural south, in small towns all across the rural south, and I think I can go everywhere and compete head-to-head with John McCain."

Dream on. Forgive my inelegant rural metaphor, but Edwards right now is like the headless chicken who keeps on moving even though it's already dead.

By saying this, I'm not rooting for him to leave the Democratic race. I'm merely offering the factual observation that his time as a first-tier national candidate has expired, probably forever.

Two reasons: He doesn't have the money to compete in the long run. And he's not going to win anything in the short run.

Regarding the latter, here's a handy statistic: 1-36. That's the John Edwards win-loss record since he first became a candidate in 2004. He has won a total of one primary (South Carolina, his native state, four years ago), and he has lost 36. His overall winning percentage (.028) is even lower than Howard Dean's '04 record.

And here's another statistic: 584-2827. The first number tallies all the delegates that Edwards won in 2004, plus those he has won thus far in 2008. The second number tallies all the delegates garnered by his rivals, then and now.

So what's the shelf life for a candidate who is not catching on? He lost as an upbeat candidate in 2004, he has lost as an angry candidate in 2008 (by successively wider margins), and it's hard to see how he can possibly reverse those numbers going forward...especially since the '08 results are precisely the opposite of Edwards' best laid plans.

The original plan was to win in Iowa (where he had virtually camped out since 2005), finish respectably in New Hampshire, win in Nevada (where the Edwards camp boasted of having "75 field staffers organizing support throughout the state"), and win in South Carolina, thereby catapulting Edwards into the coast-to-coast scrum on Feb. 5.
But he lost in Iowa, finished a distant third in New Hampshire, won only four percent of the delegates in Nevada and thereby got his "butt kicked" (those are his own words)...and now appears poised to finish third in South Carolina behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (or maybe it's forth, if Bill Clinton is counted).

Edwards' campaign spinners insist that he'll successfully target some of the big Feb. 5 states, with the help of his organized labor foot-soldiers (notably the Service Employes International Union), but, just two weeks ago, those same spinners were boasting that his labor union supporters (Carpenters, Steelworkers, Communications Workers) would boost his prospects in Nevada. The truth is, organized labor is often overrated as an electoral resource; four years ago, labor favorite Dick Gephardt didn't even make it out of Iowa.

Edwards remains an effective debater, making the case for anti-corporate populism, poking holes in his two opponents, goading them on the issues (he was the first to release a comprehensive health care plan), but voters already appear to have rendered an irreversible verdict. Either anti-corpotate populism itself doesn't sell (witness the thrice-defeated William Jennings Bryan, one century ago), or maybe it doesn't sell when it's pitched by a rich guy.

The Edwards camp, in its own Jan. 14 memo, prefers to blame his failures on "the national media," which has "anointed two celebrity candidates." Scapegoating "the media" is standard material for a losing candidate. I seem to recall that, on the Republican side, John McCain ascended this winter despite having been declared dead not long ago by "the media," and Mike Huckabee came out of nowhere despite being widely ignored by "the media." Voters often have a knack for making their own decisions, irrespective of press coverage.

Yes, Edwards has been overshadowed by the first major female candidate and the first major black candidate. But he also hasn't been able to escape his own thin resume. In debates he has been hard pressed to cite an enduring Senate achievement; indeed, just as often he has had to 'fess up about boneheaded Senate votes (authorizing war in Iraq, siding with Republicans and the credit card companies in a 2001 bankruptcy bill), to clam up about other embarrassments (supporting a nuclear waste dumping site in Nevada's Yucca Mountain), and defend his special interest allies (he's heavily backed by his fellow trial lawyers, who strongly oppose any law that would cap the damages awarded in lawsuits).

At this point, he's relevent in this race only as a foil to one opponent or the other: helping Obama in South Carolina by splitting the white voters with Hillary; and helping Hillary, on Feb. 5, by splitting the not-Hillary voters with Obama. The big question, going forward, is how long he will be satisfied with those arrangements.


By the way, and this is a topic for another day, it's worth questioning Edwards' Monday night assumption that John McCain has virtually clinched the GOP race. Have we not learned, in recent months, that assumptions are dangerous? McCain is strongest when national security dominates as an issue; economics are not his strength. And in recent days, in Florida (site of the next GOP showdown) and nationwide, the shaky economy has come to trump security/terrorism as the dominant citizen concern. Of all the major Republican contenders, Mitt Romney is most comfortable talking about economics and business. This trend bears watching.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Down in the weeds with Barack Obama

Welcome to the Moe Greene Memorial Debate.

You might remember Moe Greene. He was a Vegas hot shot in The Godfather, the guy who taunted Michael Corleone by boasting, “I made my bones while you were going out with cheerleaders!”

Well, last night, in the latest Democratic fencing match, Barack Obama decided to go to the mattresses. There he was, taking a page from the Moe stylebook, citing his work as a Chicago community organizer, and taunting Hillary Clinton: “While I was working on those streets, watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart!”

Whereupon Hillary, minutes later, carried out her own retaliatory hit: “I was fighting against (Republican) ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezco, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago!”

Wasn’t it just six nights ago, in the previous Democratic debate, when these rivals supposedly forged a truce? No way that was going to last. The stakes are way too high. Obama feels like Hillary and Bill have been ganging up on him, and he knows that a victory in South Carolina this Saturday is crucial for his candidacy. Meanwhile, Hillary and Bill would love to flatten his tires before the big ride on Feb. 5. They’re determined to sully Obama’s image so that he seems like just another politician – and to make it clear that, even if Obama decides to bring a knife to the fight, they’ll bring a gun. That's the Chicago way.

The contest this week is to win the allegiance of African-American voters, who are expected to comprise roughly half, or more, of the South Carolina electorate. Obama’s preemptive swipe at Hillary’s Wal-Mart ties (which she never did address, much less refute) was clearly intended to demonstrate that, not only is he now willing to attack, but that she has done far more over the past 35 years than simply “fight for change.” And the fact is, she served for six years on the board of a corporation that is often reviled by liberal and minority leaders as an exploiter of non-union labor.

But Hillary fired back with that Rezco story, and Obama, seeking to defend himself, made matters worse by telling less than the whole truth. Antonin Rezco is indeed a Chicago slumlord, and Obama tried to explain him away by saying: “I was an associate at a law firm that represented a church group that had partnered with this individual to do a project, and I did about five hours worth of work on this joint project.”

Obama merely omitted the fact – long documented in the Chicago newspapers – that he had been friends with “this individual” for 17 years; that Rezko had been a political patron who had raised money for Obama; and that Obama had accepted campaign donations from Rezko during a period when Rezko’s slum buildings were deteriorating. Also, Hillary probably did Obama a favor by failing to mention that Rezko has been indicted by the feds on 24 counts stemming from his alleged shakedown schemes…and that Rezko and the candidate once worked together on a lucrative real estate deal for an Obama family home.

No wonder Obama didn’t want to get bogged down trying to explain the Rezko connection. The problem was, he wound up spending much of the debate wandering in the weeds anyway.

Hillary had him back on his heels, repeatedly, forcing him to explain all kinds of things – his recent remarks about Ronald Reagan, for example. Obama told a Reno newspaper last week that Reagan had been a transformative president and that Reagan had correctly judged the public mood of the early ‘80s. Hillary, purportedly shocked last night, exclaimed, “You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan.”

Black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere are not so admiring of Ronald Reagan, so Obama was thus compelled to explain that he had been praising Reagan’s political skills, not his policies. Now, it just so happens that, on page 404 of Tom Brokaw’s bestselling book, Boom!, Hillary herself is quoted fulsomely praising Reagan’s political skills ("He played the balance and the music beautifully"), and Obama did make a passing reference to this, but the retort didn’t register because he was stuck playing defense at the time.

Later, she also gummed him up with the arcane details of his Illinois legislature record, and again he had to defend and explain. In theory, what better way to dent his halo than to suggest that he was not exactly a profile in courage when the chips were down? She began that phase of the operation with this rhetorical thrust: “You know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.”

The Hillary camp has come up with 129 episodes in which Obama voted “present” as a state legislator - in essence, declining to take a stand on key bills. This is procedurally permissible in Illinois, but Hillary wanted him to expend valuable time trying to explain this, as opposed to parading his charisma and trumpeting his message.

And so he did. Obama gains nothing when he has to talk like this: “In Illinois, oftentimes you vote present in order to indicate that you had problems with a bill that otherwise you might be willing to vote for…most of these were technical problems with a piece of legislation that ended up getting modified.”

He was also compelled to explain why he had voted against a U.S. Senate bill that capped credit card interest rates. Hillary voted to cap the rates at 30 percent, Obama did not. When asked about this – by both Hillary and John Edwards - Obama got stuck in the weeds again, with an explanation that even would have lulled a political science scholar to sleep: “I thought 30 percent potentially was too high of a ceiling. So we had had no hearings on that bill. It had not gone through the Banking Committee…There had been no discussion about how we were going to structure this and this was something that had not gone through the committee and we hadn't talked about.”

All the while, it was amusing last night to see Edwards playing the Kumbaya candidate, traveling the high road. (“This kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?...We have got to understand this is not about us personally. It is about what we are trying to do for this country.”) Quite a mouthful, coming from the same guy who for many months was the most strident attacker on the debate stage, assailing Hillary as a dissembler and corporate tool while Obama stayed civil.

The big question is whether Hillary will reap electoral rewards for taking it to Obama, goading him to explain himself, forcing him into Moe Greene mode. Has she created reasonable doubt in the minds of black South Carolinians – or will she suffer a backlash for her efforts? No predictions here. As I see it, there was only one immediate winner of last night’s debate. It was the guy that all three Democrats were suddenly invoking, while making the case for their own electability:

John McCain.


Speaking of the Republican race, there was breaking news this afternoon. To paraphrase the poet T. S. Eliot, This is the way the candidacy ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper:

"Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for President of the United States. I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort. Jeri and I will always be grateful for the encouragement and friendship of so many wonderful people."

So went Fred Thompson's farewell, as the GOP's Great Bubba Hope of 2007 collapses like a bad souffle.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The alumnus as alpha dog

It's Martin Luther King Day - or, as the Hillary Clinton campaign might prefer to call it, Martin Luther King/Lyndon B. Johnson Day - but this is no time for a holiday break. Not with Barack Obama calling Bill Clinton a liar on national TV.

Obama didn't literally use that word to describe the only two-term Democratic president since FDR, but that's the gist of what he said on ABC's Good Morning America: "(Bill) has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling. He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts - whether it's about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas. This has become a habit, and one of the things that we're going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate."

Before I explain why Obama's lament is good news for the Clintons, let's step back for a moment and marvel at the unprecedented dynamics of this Democratic campaign. Not only do we have the first major black candidate in history dueling with the first major female candidate in history, but, for the first time, we also have the spectacle of an ex-president auditioning to become First Gentleman (as well as Strategist Emeritus and Presidential Partner Without Portfolio).

Lest we need reminding, Bill's behavior in recent weeks - denigrating Obama as "a roll of the dice," calling Obama's antiwar record a "fairy tale," ranting at a reporter about the supposedly unfair Nevada caucus rules - is quite atypical for a White House alumnus. Recent ex-presidents have tended to go off and play a lot of golf (Gerald Ford), write books (Richard Nixon), do good works (house-builder Jimmy Carter), or parachute out of airplanes (George H. W. Bush). But here we have the alumnus as alpha dog, cutting a swath through the partisan thicket of another campaign, sowing potential discord within his own party, and indeed risking the loss of his hard-won, post-Lewinsky image of ambassador to the world.

Having said that, it's clear that the Clintons see Bill's new role as a worthy bargain. He plays the attack dog while she remains rhetorically leashed. He knees Obama in the kidneys while she attends debates (CNN has another one tonight) and engages Obama's intellect.

And the strategy seems to be working. A lot of independent voters might be rolling their eyes at the latest incarnation of the Clintons' "two for the price of one" routine, but clearly it didn't seem to bother the grassroots Democrats who voted in New Hampshire and Nevada. To those folks, Bill is arguably a bigger draw than Hillary; they'd rather listen to his poetry than her prose. And regardless of whether Bill's attacks on Obama are accurate or not, the bottom line is that his every utterance gets huge media play. Obama will never find a surrogate who can wield that kind of megaphone, even if he was so inclined.

Which brings us back to Obama's morning lament. It was a sign of weakness. A candidate never looks good when he complains about being attacked and about the general unfairness of it all. Under the rules of civility, perhaps it is unfair that he's being double-teamed, but, as the saying goes, politics ain't beanbag. And the Clintons are no doubt delighted with Obama's response, because every second that he expends on them, complaining about them and trying to refute them, is one less second expended on his own message.

And the Clintons will be double-teaming him for the foreseeable future, because it's also financially smart. With the Feb. 5 mega-primaries looming, it would be prohibitively expensive to run TV ads in all the big states; the wiser Clintonian option is to dispatch Bill hither and yon, particularly to the large cities on both coasts (New York, California, and New Jersey all vote on Feb. 5), because he's a free-media magnet. He can keep the heat on Obama, reap the coverage, and it won't cost the Clinton campaign a dime in advertising. And meanwhile, this week, Bill be do his barking in the black churches of South Carolina.

One could argue that the Clinton campaign is hampered by a fundamental contradiction - Hillary wants to sell herself as a strong female leader, yet she apparently can't pull it off without major aid from her man - but no matter. Unless or until the strategy backfires, the alpha dog will continue to roam.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nevada, South Carolina, and caveats for all

It's morning in America, after another long night of political news. Clarity remains an elusive commodity. Welcome to the Yes, But presidential race:

Yes, Hillary Clinton scored a popular vote victory yesterday in the Nevada Democratic caucuses (which was really no surprise, since she had topped the Nevada polls for many months), but due to the vagaries of the state party's caucus rules, she actually split the delegates with Barack Obama, each winning about half - which should remind us that these primaries are ultimately about the competition for delegates, a fact that will become even clearer if this race turns into a protracted war of attrition. It's worth noting that the Democrats generally award delegates in acordance with the proportion of primary votes that candidates receive - which means that the losers can still win delegates and thus have a strong incentive to stay in the race.

Yes, Hillary clobbered Obama among Hispanics - a burgeoning constituency that will be crucial to national Democratic hopes in the fall - but next Saturday she will have to compete with Obama in South Carolina for African-American voters. And as I wrote today in a Sunday print column, the Clintons have been steadily losing black support to Obama in South Carolina and nationwide. Unless Bill and Hillary can reverse the trend, Obama will stay competitive in a number of primaries (on Feb. 5 and Feb. 12) where traditionally blacks vote heavily.

Yes, Obama escaped Nevada with a virtual split on the delegate count, and heads to friendlier turf in South Carolina, where a victory would send him into the Feb. 5 contests with a 2-2 record. But in the wake of his popular vote losses in New Hampshire and Nevada, he absolutely needs that South Carolina victory, or else he'll risk being perceived as a potential one-hit wonder (Iowa). Indeed, his crossover appeal to white voters (again, Iowa) is already at risk, since Hillary won white voters in New Hampshire, by three points, and won them in Nevada by 18 points. He needs white voters in order to buttress his autumn electability argument, but the irony is that he'll be mainly relying on black voters to carry him to victory in South Carolina.

On the Republican side:

Yes, John McCain posted a win last night in the South Carolina GOP contest (finally expunging the ghosts of 2000, when George W. Bush's minions successfully slimed him behind the scenes), thus strengthening his candidacy for the next big contest, in Florida one week from tomorrow. But it was a narrow win (three points), made possible only with the strong support of participating independent voters; according to the exit polls, independents favored McCain over runner-up Mike Huckabee by 17 points. Among voters who identified themselves as Republicans, Huckabee defeated McCain by one point. In other words, McCain still has yet to demonstrate that he can command the strong allegience of the party base. And, lest we forget, some of the marquee GOP primaries on Feb. 5 - in New York, New Jersey, and California - are open only to registered Republicans. The McCain-friendly independent voters need not apply.

Yes, Huckabee ran a strong second last night, and can likely stay in the race indefinitely, living off the land (as he will again this week, in Florida), garnering free media coverage, and tapping volunteer help from his evangelical supporters and home-schoolers. Indeed, among evangelical voters in South Carolina, he defeated McCain by 16 points. But Huckabee has yet to demonstrate that he can break out of his base and appeal to the rest of the GOP electorate - particularly those voters who are less then charmed by his incessant invocations of God. In the exit polls last night, he lost the non-evangelical voters to McCain, by 54 points. He seems fated to continue onward as basically a niche candidate, diverting evangelical votes from those rivals (Mitt Romney, for instance) who are trying to rebuild the traditional GOP conservative coalition.

Speaking of Romney, yes, he can also stay in this race indefinitely, simply by writing himself a personal check ($17 million thus far), and by making himself the default choice of the restive Republican establishment. He also garnered the most GOOP delegates thus far. And yes, maybe he can cite yesterday's meaningless Nevada GOP caucuses victory as a reminder that he lives and breathes, but one of these days he's going to have to win a primary that features direct competition from all his rivals. In that sense, the Nevada and Wyoming caucuses don't qualify. Nor does his home-boy win in Michigan. Florida would qualify, assuming that Mitt can get past McCain and Huckabee and Fred Thompson (assuming Fred, having finished a distant third in South Carolina, doesn't drop out and endorse his pal McCain)...and the guy lying in wait, Rudy Giuliani.

And yes, it would appear that Giuliani (having skipped every contest thus far) might be well positioned to smother McCain's presumed South Carolina bounce, score a big Florida victory, and thus catapult himself to the top of the slippery pole. After all, he's been working the Floridians (especially the ex-New Yorkers) for weeks now. But his strategy assumes the Floridians live in a bubble and pay no attention to what McCain and the rest of the gang have been doing up north. And the fact is, Rudy has been steadily slipping in the Florida polls as his rivals have been posting victories elsewhere. Now the state surveys show a virtual four-way tie. If Rudy loses to McCain in Florida, and especially if he loses to Romney, it's hard to see how Rudy can remain viable, no matter how often he runs TV ads (such as his latest) showing him covered with heroic 9/11 dust.

One last point: Republican grassroots enthusiasm continues to flag. The turnout last night in South Carolina (with 97 percent of the precincts reporting) was 430,919. By contrast, the turnout for the same primary eight years ago (Bush vs. McCain) was 565,991. That translates into a 24 percent drop in attendance. We all know the reasons.

By the way, Inauguration Day is exactly one year away.