Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote an excellent analysis about how national polling obscures the true state of the presidential race. By looking at the national polls, one would think that Hillary Clinton was light years ahead of the rest of the field and that Rudy Giuliani was favored to win the GOP nomination.
However, the polls in the early voting states suggest a far more competitive race. In Iowa, for example, Hillary Clinton is in a real dogfight with John Edwards and Barack Obama while Mitt Romney dominates the Republican field.
As Rothenberg suggested, these Iowa polls are far more meaningful than the national polls because voters in Oregon, Georgia, Nebraska, and Connecticut (whose opinions are reflected in national polling data) really haven't been exposed to the presidential race nearly as much as the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have. People in Des Moines, Concord, Dubuque, and Nashua have had multiple chances to meet the presidential candidates. They've been able to benefit from intense retail politicking, town halls, meet-ups, and house parties featuring the various candidates.
Having said that, some candidates are obviously better positioned to win the nomination than others. In this post, I'll assess the various Democrats' chances at getting a crack at the White House next November. Keep in mind that these are only my opinions about these candidates' path to the nomination, not the presidency itself. The percentage listed after each candidate's name is how likely I think that candidate is to win the Democratic nomination.
Hillary Clinton (60%)
Of all eight declared Democratic candidates, Clinton has the easiest path to the nomination. Her national polling is exceptionally strong and she is commonly seen as the inevitable or de facto nominee. Having said that, the two places where she is most vulnerable are South Carolina and Iowa. If Clinton manages to win Iowa, I honestly don't see how any other candidate could stop her. New Hampshire, the site of the second contest, serves as a buffer state for her because she's running quite strongly there. So an Iowa victory would be reinforced by a New Hampshire victory, which should give her enough political inertia to win South Carolina. If this happens, it's game over for the other candidates.
Clinton also has the war chest and campaign organization to survive a prolonged battle should she lose some of the early states. It's a well known fact that in politics, name recognition matters. And with the millions and millions of dollars sitting in her coffers, she will be better able to redefine her political opponents than they can.
Losing Iowa and South Carolina obviously would be devastating to her campaign, but not fatal because of her name recognition and campaign cash. However, there are other variables that could submarine her campaign that are out of her control. In the privacy of the voting booth or when it's actually time to caucus, will voters simply decide that they want to make a clean break from the Bush-Clinton snipping? Will voters simply decide that she's not as electable as they had originally thought? Is there a contingent of voters who simply won't vote for a female even though they've "supported" her campaign thus far?
In short, Clinton's roadmap to the nomination offers much more room for error than the other candidates', but she is not as invincible as she'd like to have others believe.
Barack Obama (20%)
Obama is generally running in second in most polls. The most important state for him is South Carolina, which has a large percentage of Black voters who will participate in the Democratic primary. If he loses Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina will be his make or break state. It is highly unlikely that Obama will sweep Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. However, to win the nomination, he needs to win at least South Carolina and one other state. If he can basically split the early states, he will have the money and the momentum to compete with Clinton nationally.
One factor going for Obama that is difficult to quantify is how broad his support really is. It is no secret that Obama performs best among younger voters. This is a big deal because these voters (the 18-30 crowd) often don't have regular phone service. Polling companies generally don't call cell phones (which younger people are more likely to use), which means Obama's support might be underrepresented in the polls. Obama definitely has legions of dedicated supporters and they are turning out to his events in staggering numbers. If John Edwards gets knocked out in Iowa and no other candidate emerges, the race for the nomination truly will be Clinton vs. Obama, which would pit the establishment, experience, and Clintonian toughness against something bold, new, and different.
John Edwards (10%)
In a word, John Edwards' chances come down to one word and one word only: Iowa. Second place is not good enough for him there. John Edwards must win Iowa. It's the state he's placed all his chips in. It's the state where he's done the bulk of his campaigning. He must win the Iowa caucuses. And that's just to survive. Edwards will likely be hamstrung for cash, especially in light of his recent decision to accept public financing for his campaign.
To win, Edwards will need Obama to fizzle. If he can seize Obama's mantle of being the true "change" candidate, he can ride the outsider populist message to a one-on-one battle against Clinton. Interestingly, Clinton is more of a hawk on terrorism than Edwards is even though their genders may initially lead voters to think otherwise. If there are voters who are reluctant to vote for Clinton because they fear she's not going to be tough on terrorism and defense, how will they vote if their alternative is John Edwards, who seems more dovish, as he views keeping combat troops in Iraq to fight terrorism as a way of "continuing the war" there?
Having said that, Edwards is definitely in touch with the issues on the minds of a lot of voters, namely health insurance and poverty. It all begins with Iowa and using a victory there to give him momentum in South Carolina, his home state and the first Southern state to have a primary contest. John Edwards must win Iowa and then must win South Carolina in order to remain viable. However, his lack of fundraising and his decision to opt for public financing will really put him at a disadvantage if Clinton is the last candidate standing.
So to summarize, Edwards must win Iowa, place at least second in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, have Obama underperform in all three states, and then enter Super Tuesday with strong momentum and Clinton burning through her war chest quickly to even stand a chance at winning the nomination.
Joe Biden (5%)
Joe Biden is in an interesting position right now. He commonly registers about 3-5 percent in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which is outside of the margin of error. So there is definitely a small core of voters in his camp. However, Biden also has a large number of endorsements from members of the Iowa state legislature who have endorsed his campaign. If all politics is local, then this could work to Biden's advantage, as Iowa's voters may give the opinions of their local leaders more credence than the national pundits'. His message on Iraq is definitely the most realistic one out there and is also the only one out there that has generated significant Republican support. Biden needs to stress this.
Like Richardson, Biden has said that he needed to place in the top 3 in Iowa in order to continue his campaign. In order to do this, Biden needs voters to take a pass on Richardson and have the messages of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton blurred regarding Iraq and Iran. If he can convince voters that Obama and Edwards are oversimplifying Iraq while using Clinton's Iran vote against her, Biden may gain credibility in the eyes of voters, thus allowing him to adopt the "change" and "leadership" mantles. However, the "change" Biden would be selling would be a "change" back to competence and straight talk, words that are generally not used to describe George Bush. To bring down Clinton, he would need to continue working the polarization argument of her not being able to generate much Republican support for any of her legislation. He can also turn her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" against her as demonstrating a lack of leadership. Pragmatic voters may respond to this.
In short, despite his weaker fundraising, I believe Biden is better positioned than Richardson because of his endorsements and his consistently stronger debate performances. If he can place second or third in Iowa while knocking out Richardson and Obama (or Edwards), it will be much easier for him to distinguish himself in New Hampshire. He could more easily distinguish himself if his main rivals are only Clinton and Obama or Clinton and Edwards. Having Richardson, Dodd, and all the other candidates in the field only create interference that makes his message harder to get out.
Bill Richardson (3%)
Richardson has said that he must place in the top 3 in Iowa, otherwise he would drop out of the race. This is not an impossible task. He has raised a respectable amount of campaign cash and has improved his name recognition, courtesy of his humorous "Job Interview" ads. He has the best resume of all the Democrats running and could be an electoral nightmare for the GOP, as he would be difficult to label as a liberal. And he's more credible on guns than both Romney and Giuliani. However, he has underwhelmed in the debates, much to the disappointment of his supporters.
To place in the top three, Richardson needs to lump Edwards and Obama together as being too inexperienced regarding foreign policy to be trusted with the presidency. He should also use their inability to guarantee a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2013 as another avenue of attack that should appeal to antiwar voters. Clinton is a bit more difficult to attack on inexperience, so he could emphasize his ability to bring different groups together as New Mexico's governor and contrast this with Clinton's polarization.
Richardson has an outside chance to place in the top 3. If he does, he is fairly well positioned to do as well in New Hampshire (he's polling a strong 4th there) and Nevada (a Western state with a large Hispanic population). If Richardson is one of the final three candidates standing after Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, his argument that he embodies both "change" and "experience" could resonate with voters, since the other two candidates would likely be Clinton and either Obama or Edwards.
Chris Dodd (1.5%)
Dodd is generally registering at 1 percent in most polls. He hasn't really distinguished himself in the debates so far, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because he is largely undefined, he can benefit from low expectations. Dodd's biggest weapon is his campaign war chest. Dodd needs Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson, and Biden all to beat up on each other enough and deplete their resources before jumping into the fray and using his own money to go on offense once everyone else has been bloodied.
Although I have not been able to find any information about how long Dodd plans to stay in the race, I'd imagine that he would go as far as New Hampshire before dropping out. New Hampshire is close to his home state of Connecticut, so perhaps he has built up a reservoir of goodwill among the voters there, but he seems to be struggling to register in the polls there as well.
In short, Dodd needs to sit back and let the other candidates destroy each other. When they are all weakened, he can use his campaign cash to portray himself as an unpolarizing elder statesman. Maybe that will be enough to get him to place third in Iowa, but it's hard to see him doing any better than that.
Dennis Kucinich (.5%)
For antiwar liberals, Kucinich's ideological purity has been refreshing to listen to. However, outside of this wing of the party, Kucinich is not seen as a credible candidate. The only scenario I can envision that has Kucinich becoming a serious threat would be if there were some sort of groundswell of antiwar voters who were railing against the status quo. And it would have to take place in state after state.
Mike Gravel (0%)
For this favorite of late night comedians to win, Gravel needs all of the other candidates to drop out of the race, hope Al Gore does not jump in the race, and then hope Mickey Mouse does not emerge as a write-in candidate somewhere along the way. Gravel has made a lot of strong and insightful arguments, but he is not a credible candidate.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote an excellent analysis about how national polling obscures the true state of the presidential race. By looking at the national polls, one would think that Hillary Clinton was light years ahead of the rest of the field and that Rudy Giuliani was favored to win the GOP nomination.
I found this recent CNN news item about Hillary Clinton claiming Blacks are "invisible" to the Bush Administration and the GOP's response to it, courtesy of Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Here is the main part of Dawson's response:
"[I]f you're a hardworking parent, you're invisible to Hillary Clinton because she voted for the largest tax increase in history. If you're a member of our armed forces, you're invisible to Hillary Clinton because she wants America to surrender to the terrorists in Iraq. If you believe all life is sacred and that marriage is between one man and one woman, you're invisible to Hillary Clinton because she joins with radical groups that support federal funding for abortion and forcing us to recognize same-sex marriages."Remarks like this make it easy to understand why regular people have such a distaste for politics and such a high level of disapproval of Congress.
There's a difference between hardball politics, scare-mongering, and flat-out garbage, and this exchange involving Clinton and Dawson captures all three. To me, perhaps the most offensive of Dawson's remarks is the idea that Hillary Clinton "wants America to surrender to the terrorists in Iraq." What is the basis for accusing the former First Lady and a current senator of wanting to surrender to our nation's enemies? Should Clinton be charged with treason? That's a serious accusation, so if Clinton has indeed committed treason, she must be tried and summarily executed! Of course, when you put it that way, these people immediately backtrack and say they shouldn't be taken literally. So why bother making such an accusation at all?
To be sure, Hillary Clinton does not get a free pass with this kind of ridiculous rhetoric either. Neither should other Democrats who have made similar suggestions that the Bush Administration doesn't care about Black people. His appointees for Secretary of State (Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice) suggest otherwise. And regarding negligence, there are a lot of Whites along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and regions of Louisiana outside of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans who are still struggling even two years after Katrina. And Americans of all races are dying in Iraq with no clear leadership from the president and no clear statement of exactly what the mission is that we're trying to accomplish there. Children of all races are going to be impacted by his decision to veto the proposed expansion of the popular SCHIP program that provides health care coverage for lower income children. Bush is not a racist, as he seems to have no biases whatsoever when it comes to disadvantaging people.
The "surrender" charge commonly used by Republicans particularly bothers me though. How have they been able to survive as long as they have in politics by accusing Democrats, liberals, and Iraq War opponents of "wanting to surrender" to terrorists? Is this what qualifies as intelligent political discussion in this country? Do the people who say such garbage not realize that they are becoming the very people we're trying to defeat abroad? After all, Islamic radicals and terrorists use the same false choices to justify their misguided policies. Americans say "if you don't support the war and the president, you don't support America." Islamic radicals say "if you don't agree with us and our interpretation of the Koran, you are an infidel." Unfortunately, this line of thinking is a bit too cerebral to fit in with our current culture of soundbytes and 30-second ads. Of course, as soon as someone shows a similarity between an American (who is naturally the paragon of virtue by virtue of his nationality) and an outsider (who by definition must be inferior to us), that person is immediately pilloried as an America-hater, terrorist sympathizer, or even worse, French. Meanwhile, the substance of their argument goes unaddressed.
The patent dishonesty and intellectual laziness so many of us illustrate are only digging our nation deeper into a hole that weakens us collectively. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University is only the most recent example of this. It's much easier to beat up on a dictator without thinking twice about it than it is to calmly let him self-destruct. Obviously Ahmadinejad had a big scarlet X on his back when he went to the university, but the way the university president condescendingly introduced him only served to make the Iranian president look good. What's the point of inviting a guest to speak at your university if you're only going to call him a "petty dictator?" While Ahmadinejad would never win a public relations battle in the United States, he looked far more victorious in the eyes of Muslims and Iranians around the world for standing up to his so-called American "hosts." And that's only going to make him more popular there and less likely to cooperate with us here. I wrote about the dangers of resorting to the easiest way of thinking ("us good, them bad") in a previous post and look how everything turned out.
Something very dangerous has happened in this nation since September 11. I'm not talking about subsequent terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, or Iraq. I'm talking about the way fear has transformed our nation's political discourse. Gone are the days of expressing legitimate political differences like adults. Meaningful discussion about the great issues of the day has been replaced by buzzwords, soundbytes, and slogans that impugn the character and patriotism of our political adversaries, usually to our collective detriment. So while politicians on both sides criticize, posture, filibuster, and hyperbolize, people continue to die in Iraq. People continue to struggle with a lack of health care. People continue to send their children to failing schools. People continue to wonder if North Korea really will launch a nuclear weapon. People continue to worry about illegal aliens sneaking across the border. People continue to worry about the safety of their pension.
And it has to stop.
The current crop of presidential candidates just doesn't get it. John McCain is using the word "surrender" again. John Edwards is talking about getting 50,000 troops out of Iraq instantly without saying exactly how that is logistically possible. Rudy Giuliani says electing Democrats would put America on "defense" against the terrorists. Hillary Clinton doesn't do "hypotheticals." Fred Thompson doesn't seem to have a clue about anything going on in the world today. And Barack Obama speaks as if electing him will almost magically put an end to all the nonsense in Washington.
It's really hard to take any of these candidates seriously. Nothing is ever that simple.
A part of me can't help but wonder if there are voters out there who will support someone they philosophically disagree with simply because they are cerebral candidates who don't oversimplify the issues or insult voters' intelligence by making childish accusations against their political opponents. There seem to be two Republicans who fall into this category: Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. I've listened to them defend themselves in all the presidential debates so far and notice that they have shied away from the groupthink mantra of "stay the course" and "fight them over there so they won't follow us here" and other silly slogans. Their arguments tend to be much more cogent and much more difficult to encapsulate in a 15 second radio ad. The only cerebral Democrats I see in the field are Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, with the latter making straight-shooting his calling card in the debates, especially when it comes to Iraq. Speaking of Biden, it appears that pundits are slowly picking up on his unique role in the field as well.
Governance is serious business. Managing billions and billions of dollars is serious business. War and peace are serious business. Having said that, why are so many of our leaders saying so much nonsense (in the form of ridiculous attacks or overly simplistic rhetoric) that makes us take them so much less seriously?
This nation really can't take too much more of this.
(NOTE: This blog post is an analysis of the Democratic debate that took place in New Hampshire in September 2007. For my analysis of the debate that took place in New Hampshire in January 2008, click here for the Republicans and here for the Democrats.)
Wednesday night the eight declared Democratic presidential candidates met in New Hampshire for a debate moderated by Tim Russert. Of all the Democratic debates so far, this debate was the most substantive in that the moderator tried and succeeded in forcing the candidates to move beyond their traditional talking points and actually explain their policies in meaningful detail. Several of the questions also put the candidates in awkward positions as they had to explain away apparent contradictions in their rhetoric.
Regarding the focus of the debate, there was a heavy emphasis on Iraq and Iran. Surprisingly little attention was paid to economic issues. Only one question was asked about Chinese product safety and that was in the lightning round towards the end of the debate. And there were also no questions addressing the recent United Auto Workers strike. This surprised me, as labor and consumer safety are traditional Democratic issues.
As for the balance of time, most of the questions were directed at Hillary Clinton. This made sense, as she is leading in all national and most state polls. Generally, the higher the candidate's position is in the overall horserace, the more talk time the candidate had, as is evidenced by the latest debate talk clock, courtesy of Chris Dodd. Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel received the least amount of time, but they did not complain about it. Joe Biden was irritated that he did not get more chances to participate during the foreign policy section of the debate, to his disadvantage. The other candidates seemed content with how much they could participate.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened at the debate was the fact that none of the three leading candidates could clearly state that they'd have all of the troops out of Iraq by 2013, the end of their first term. They probably do want to get the troops out before then, but they couldn't risk saying that because they had to prevent themselves from being attacked by the Republican nominee in the general election for "giving the terrorists a date of our surrender so they can wait us out." Having said that, Obama, Clinton, and Edwards sounded quite similar to George Bush on Iraq, which I'm sure totally deflated antiwar voters on the left.
As for how well the individual candidates performed...
Hillary Clinton did it again. Her performance was not stellar by any means, but because she made no fatal mistakes and was not bloodied too badly by the other candidates, she will continue to be seen as THE candidate to beat. "Hillary vs. Obama" has since become "Hillary vs. Everyone Else." Her strongest moment was when she deftly fielded a question that almost trapped her regarding a significant policy difference between her and her husband on the issue of torture. Her stern response, "Well, he's not here," was very strong and showed her toughness, her independence, and her ability to think on her feet. She later softened up by joking, "Well, I'll talk to him later." This made her seem warm, inviting, down to earth, and even funny. Her shrillness has been one of the common criticisms of her, but this exchange should force even her fiercest detractors to admit that she is an exceptionally disciplined and talented candidate.
This is not to say her performance was without fault. She used her "I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals" line again to avoid answering questions that would require her to stick her neck out more than she was politically comfortable doing. She tried her best to avoid answering a question about how justified Israel would be in launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran and chose to talk over the moderator and filibuster instead. Also, her response to the issue of Social Security was absolutely terrible. She would not specify what she would and would not put on the table regarding maintaining its solvency and instead chose to have her Social Security fixes be contingent on the prior establishment of fiscal responsibility. These exchanges evoked images of political calculation rather than presidential leadership. If anything, it gave her opponents their blueprints for how they can attack her from now on. Some voters may not be too keen on her lack of boldness on these issues as well, but until another candidate compels them to vote for him instead, these voters are Clinton's to lose.
Overall, Hillary Clinton did reasonably well, but she may need to worry about a new front opening up from her left in John Edwards, who seems to be a bit less inhibited than Barack Obama when it comes to going on offense. She also seems to be pursuing a general election strategy of straddling the center and avoiding stepping on anyone's toes. However, while this strategy may work for a general election, it may be what prevents her from getting that far in the primary, especially if the other candidates force her to take clear stands on the issues.
Barack Obama was almost a nonentity during the debate. His answers were flat, he demonstrated little passion, he didn't offer much in the way of specifics (such as on sanctuary cities and Social Security), he didn't go on offense even when given the chance, and he didn't give voters a new reason why they should vote for him. This was most definitely not the performance he needed to have in order to regain his momentum. His aides say he was suffering from the flu, which may be true. However, I fear that more voters will think the bloom is off the Obama rose than will know his unspirited performance resulted from being sick. That might not be fair, but unfortunately, that's politics. Perception matters.
In a moment that likely frustrated supporters anxiously waiting for him to go on offense, Obama was asked who he was referring to when he mentioned "turning the page"--the Bushes or the Clintons. Obama essentially punted by saying he was talking about "divisive politics in general." Give Obama credit for taking the high road, but how does he expect to overtake his chief rival if he won't lay a glove on her, even if civilly? Making veiled attacks against your rivals and then denying that they are even attacks on them at all is lame. Ignoring your main rival works if you're on top. But unfortunately for Obama, he doesn't have this luxury because he's the one trailing her.
His best moment was when he spoke inspirationally. "We should stop feeding our children fear and conflict. If we feed them hope, reason, and tolerance, they become tolerant, reasonable, and hopeful." This was a very powerful statement, but I think the problem with this is that it might not be enough to sustain his candidacy. Fairly or unfairly, even though there is a large segment of voters who like this message, a lot of these voters simply want to hear more substance from him. And these voters may reach a point where they tune him out when he speaks inspirationally because they've heard that enough times already without it being followed up by anything. Obama should consider himself lucky that he was not asked why he did not vote on the Senate resolution to condemn the MoveOn.org ad or the vote to label Iran's army a terrorist organization.
As a whole, Barack Obama was disappointing, which is a tough break because of his illness. His biggest threat now is no longer Clinton; it's the media. The media fell in love with Obama earlier this year because he was the "new" and "fresh" candidate. But with Obama's message becoming repetitive and Edwards' persistent attempts to seize the mantle of the outsider, Obama should fear that the media begin to generate stories about his possible fall from grace. It seems that the media are already turning on his campaign in terms of how they cover him.
John Edwards: As I expected, Edwards was considerably more aggressive at this debate than in previous ones. He received little help from Obama on the Hillary-bashing front, so he was Clinton's primary aggressor. From a substantive standpoint, he outlined clear contrasts between himself and Clinton regarding Iraq. This was important, as Clinton has successfully moved to the left on this issue without abandoning the center. As a result, Clinton and Edwards' Iraq policies became more indistinguishable. Now voters realize their differences again.
The toughest moments for Edwards involved the question about his past work at a hedge fund and how his current rhetoric about Social Security contradicts his rhetoric from the 2004 campaign. This was damaging because Edwards has a negative perception of being a hypocrite who has no core values and will say anything to get elected.
All in all, Edwards spoke with great passion and was clearly the outsider on stage. Democrats are angry, and I think Edwards tapped into this anger. Because of his fire, I can't help but wonder if he poached some of Obama's supporters. He was probably the most audacious candidate on stage and I really think he took a huge step towards overtaking Obama and becoming the main Clinton alternative candidate. Obama is generally seen as the firewall separating Edwards from Clinton. However, if Obama continues to hold his fire and Edwards continues to strongly engage Clinton, this may give the media a fresh storyline that Edwards could use to improve his fundraising totals. Also, given that Edwards has run quite far to the left, he may have exposed himself a bit too much for the general election. However, at least he took a major step towards just making it that far based on his strong performance Wednesday night.
Bill Richardson turned in another erratic performance consisting of a strong grasp of policy mixed with off-putting remarks. He is clearly competent on foreign policy, but did not come across as galvanizing. His knowledge of Iran and how to leverage it economically was impressive indeed. Having said that, Iraq may very well be the issue that saves him since the top three candidates could not clearly state that they would get American troops out of Iraq by the end of their first presidential term in 2013. Even though Richardson is a moderate, his Iraq withdrawal position should be quite popular with the left.
However, the credibility he built up on foreign policy may have been diminished by his weak response to the issue of Social Security. He basically said that Social Security could be solved by growing the economy. Tim Russert seemed incredulous and quipped, "this is not funny money" before giving him a chance to elaborate. Richardson clearly seemed averse to raising taxes or raising the eligibility age, perhaps so he could maintain his appeal among moderates and fiscal conservatives without scaring senior citizens.
Richardson also foolishly made the mistake of veering off topic and reverting to his talking points regarding "getting all of our troops out of Iraq in one year," but he was reprimanded by the moderator for doing so and was forced to express exactly how he planned to do that. His follow-up answer was a bit less convincing.
His worst moment, however, was his unfunny quip to one of the questioners when she asked him about illegal immigration. He said, "You asked me that because I was Hispanic, right?" The audience laughed nervously, but it was clearly an uncomfortable moment and a stupid remark that would have been better left unsaid. Unfortunately for Richardson, his response to the question of illegal immigration was quite sensible and comprehensive, but I think many voters didn't hear what he was saying because they were so put off by his initial remark.
In short, Richardson didn't do much to change the narrative that he is a great candidate on paper, but a disappointing candidate in person. Richardson was a popular dark horse candidate who, in my mind, has gone from being a possible surprise presidential nominee, to being on the VP short list, to being a good Secretary of State choice, to being sent back to New Mexico. Richardson has a lot of good policy ideas, but his delivery seems to be a hybrid consisting of the worst elements of Bush's inappropriateness and Kerry's awkwardness.
Joe Biden started fairly slowly, but gained steam in the second half of the debate. One of his most effective lines was his attack on Clinton asserting that she would have difficulty generating Republican support for her legislation simply because so many Republicans do not like her and would love to politically weaken her by blocking her initiatives. He contrasted this by trumpeting his own success with getting his nonbinding resolution on Iraq passed with the support of a majority of Republicans. Whether pragmatists pick up on this contrast remains to be seen, but it was a strong attack that did not seem like an attack.
Biden's greatest strength was his directness. Several of the other candidates obfuscated and had to be pinned down by the moderator, but Biden was usually much more succinct. He displayed a firm command of all the issues presented to him and took things a step further by addressing why popular solutions to some of the nation's ills are unfeasible. He was clearly frustrated early in the debate as he wanted to express his opinions on Iran and foreign policy in general, but calmed down and made no major mistakes. He has clearly found his niche, but whether he will be able to capitalize on this in terms of fundraising remains to be seen. He is definitely the strongest of the second tier candidates.
Chris Dodd was already in the back of the pack before the debate started, and he did nothing to break out from the pack by the time it finished. In perhaps his most memorable moment, he was given the chance to directly challenge Clinton's electability (by expounding on his assertion that Republicans would be happy to face her) and he demurred just like Obama did. This made him look very weak. He later tried to attack Obama by saying that "proven results" matter in addition to "experience and judgment," but Dodd had already weakened himself so much that this attack on Obama did not really draw any blood. In addition to this, he continued to speak like a senator rather than a president and was generally uninspiring to listen to. He did clearly state that he would have all the military troops out by 2013, but I doubt many people were listening.
Unfortunately, even though he has a credible campaign operation and a respectable campaign war chest, I believe Dodd has slid into political obsolescence. He seems to be a me-too generic Democrat who is less provocative than Mike Gravel and less compelling than Dennis Kucinich.
As for Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, it's hard to to classify these two candidates. Kucinich raised some good points about Iraq, Gravel made a good point about lowering the drinking age to 18, and they both made a few other good points (like Gravel on illegal immigration and scapegoating). However, they also made some totally bizarre statements that remind voters why they will not receive the nomination and why they should not be invited to future debates. Kucinich managed to give a very unpresidential shoutout to his mother ("Hi, Mom!") and advocated paying reparations to the Iraqis (which surely did not go over well) and Gravel said he shouldn't have to repay his credit card debts. I'm sure there are millions of voters out there who owe Master Card and Visa hundreds or thousands of dollars and shook their heads in disbelief when they heard that. For all of Gravel's good moments (like saying he was "ashamed" of Clinton for her Iran vote, calling out Obama for not even voting at all, and his advice to congressional Democrats about ending the war), there are so many other moments that make him seem unstable. The end result is lost time that could have been spent having the more credible candidates flesh out their policy differences more thoroughly.
All in all...
Hillary Clinton did okay during the debate, but should avoid looking ahead to the general election prematurely.
Barack Obama clearly underperformed in this debate and risks having his message co-opted by John Edwards.
John Edwards turned in the best performance of the night with a spirited delivery and some strong attacks on his strongest rival, Hillary Clinton.
Bill Richardson was mediocre. I get the sense that his momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire will fade a bit after this performance.
Joe Biden did a very good job and has the best message on Iraq. As long as the focus remains on Iraq, Iran, and foreign policy, he has a chance to move up.
Chris Dodd was weak and uninspiring.
Dennis Kucinich was Dennis Kucinich. The problem is, voters already know what he stands for and aren't interested.
Mike Gravel made strong, excellent points. But they were clearly overshadowed by his off the wall remark about not having to repay his credit card debt.
It seems like there are now five plausible candidates remaining.
All eight declared Democratic presidential candidates will meet for yet another debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire tomorrow evening. The debate will be moderated by Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press." This will be the first major Democratic presidential debate of the fall. It also may be the final best chance some of the candidates have to make a move in the race, as the Iowa caucuses are only about three months away, more voters are paying more attention, and voters who hadn't paid much attention to the race before may get their first exposure to these candidates tomorrow evening. So this may be the candidates' last best chance to make a good first impression.
Here are my expectations for the debate:
The last Republican debate on Fox was the most contentious of all the debates by far. The exchange between Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul over Iraq likely hasn't been forgotten even by Democrats who are unlikely to vote Republican. It made for great television, provided one of the rare substantive exchanges of policy positions, and really helped voters understand the differences between the candidates. I expect moderator Tim Russert to use his discretion to allow and encourage the candidates to mix it up a bit. Frankly, while most of the Democratic debates have been relatively tame and civil thus far, they have disadvantaged all candidates not named Clinton because they succeeded in doing nothing but maintain the status quo. In other words, the longer the Democrats keep their powder dry, the stronger Clinton's political inertia becomes.
In addition to expecting Russert to set the stage for confrontation, I'm expecting him to grill the candidates a bit more on their policy positions and why their positions are better than their opponents'. On Iraq, look for him to probe the candidates to go beyond "we must get out now" or "cut off the funding immediately" and focus more on where we go from here. Health care, union rights, Chinese products, and Iran should also receive a lot of time in light of Bush's threatening to veto the expansion of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, the United Auto Workers' strike, the Chinese product recalls, and Iranian president's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent speech at the United Nations and Columbia University.
Russert may also set some traps for the other candidates which may require them to hedge their bets. He can do this by asking the other candidates why Hillary Clinton is the wrong candidate for the Democrats. Candidates who have avoided attacking her too harshly in the past because they are angling for a cabinet position or the vice presidency slot in a Clinton administration would have to either go for broke and attack her or demure and risk eliminating their chances of seizing the nomination for themselves. This race has been in such statis for so long that this may be the only thing that shakes things up a bit. In light of Clinton's rising polls and burgeoning sense of inevitability, withstanding attacks about why she's not the best candidate may be the only thing that stops her.
Here's what I expect from the actual candidates:
Hillary Clinton: This debate is hers to lose. All she has to do is maintain the status quo. If all the candidates attack her collectively, she will be able to use that to show that she's tough, she's the frontrunner, and she's staying positive while everyone else resorts to negative politics. I expect her to discredit Obama and Edwards' Iraq policies implicitly by stressing how unfeasible their policies are. Iraq is no longer the Achilees Heel that it used to be for her because of how she has finessed the issue thus far. Look for her to continue taking potshots at Bush and the Republicans. In addition to ginning up the base, this also contributes to the aura of inevitability surrounding her campaign. Either get on board now or get left in the cold. She should expect to be attacked more severely than in previous debates, particularly by all candidates not named Obama. If she beats expectations again tomorrow, she will be very difficult to beat.
Barack Obama: Obama clearly seems to have lost some of his momentum, as his standing in the polls has trended downward in Iowa and New Hampshire. I think he has done a good job of introducing himself to voters, but he seems not to have compelled them to support his candidacy. He needs to go on the attack against Clinton in order to bring her back from the stratosphere, but I think he's uncomfortable doing so. His rhetoric about "a different kind of politics" and "the politics of hope" may be contradicted by being too aggressive against Clinton. Obama needs a second act in order to remind voters why they liked him in the first place. Displaying a strong grasp of policy and being able to articulate himself beyond his common slogans would serve him well because lack of depth is still one of the criticisms of his campaign. Look for him to be asked why he did not vote on the condemnation of the Moveon.org ad. John Edwards will probably launch several attacks on Obama, but do not look for Obama to take the bait because his focus is on Clinton.
John Edwards: This debate is particularly important for John Edwards because of how fragile his campaign is right now. His fundraising has lagged behind Obama and Clinton's, and the momentum is clearly on Clinton's side in Iowa, which is a must-win for Edwards. It's his firewall. If John Edwards loses Iowa, his campaign is finished. So look for him to speak with great passion. Even though the debate is taking place in New Hampshire, he'll be speaking directly to Iowans. He should hope he is asked several questions about labor and the UAW strike to burnish his labor credentials because he cannot afford to cede the labor vote to Clinton. Other than Mike Gravel, look for Edwards be on offense more than any other candidate. Also, John Edwards should make sure that Joe Biden does not outshine him when it comes to having a grasp of the concerns of organized labor.
Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson has seen his poll position in Iowa and New Hampshire improve as a result of his humorous "Job Interview" campaign ads. However, he has since seen his momentum and support trail off. Richardson's experience has been co-opted by Clinton, who is now seen as the "experience" candidate. So he needs to find a way to differentiate himself somehow. He does have one ace in the hole that should appeal to moderate Democrats in Iowa and independent voters in New Hampshire: guns. Richardson was the only Democrat to address the recent meeting of the National Rifle Association. Playing up his moderate credentials may endear him to a wing of the Democratic Party that is not well-represented by its presidential candidates in light of the departures of Tom Vilsack, Evan Bayh, and Mark Warner. Of course, Richardson has gone very much to the left on Iraq, but he should have plenty of daylight in the center regarding social and cultural issues.
Joe Biden: There was a presidential debate early Sunday morning in Iowa a few weeks ago that featured a sharp exchange between Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, arguably the two most experienced candidates in the field. The exchange was about Iraq and how many troops should be removed. Joe Biden came out on top in exchange and made Richardson's Iraq policy seem unfeasible. Since then, Biden has been speaking out a lot on Iraq and has made that the main issue of his campaign. (Consider this editorial he wrote that appeared in today's edition of my local paper.) Richardson is generally running 4th in Iowa, so he is the easiest candidate for Biden to catch. Even though they are personal friends, look for Biden to be particularly aggressive with him. Aside from voters who place a premium on Iraq, voters who like Richardson on paper but don't like him in person constitute Biden's main audience. The other candidates have expressed support for his Iraq policy before, but if they do it too much again at the debate, that could be turned into an easy campaign ad for Biden.
Chris Dodd: Dodd does not have much to lose. He is unlikely to be a vice presidential choice (he hails from an already-blue state) and he is unlikely to be a choice for a cabinet secretary (because Connecticut's governor is a Republican and she would likely appoint a Republican to fill his Senate seat), so Dodd might as well just come out swinging and hope he lands a few blows. Dodd is saying all the right things that Democrats like to hear, but his delivery sounds more senatorial than presidential. If Dodd were to speak with a bit more force and a greater sense of authority, he could be the breakout candidate of the night.
Dennis Kucinich: Look for Kucinich to own the labor issue and express genuine outrage over the Chinese product recalls. I expect that he'll get a lot of applause lines, but will ultimately win little new support. Kucinich is not a gadfly candidate, but he does not have much of a campaign apparatus. This may very well be the last debate he is invited to.
Mike Gravel: The threat from Mike Gravel is his confrontational style. He will not be the Democratic nominee, but he might play a role in determining who else it won't be. He is not afraid to challenge the other candidates and may put another more credible candidate in a particularly awkward position. He tried going after Barack Obama in a previous debate, but Obama successfully parried his attack. Will his next target be as lucky? I do not expect him to be invited to any future debates either.
In short, look for Clinton to do what she's been doing in all the debates thus far. Obama has been struggling a bit as of late and needs to present something new. Edwards is in trouble and is going to have a laser beam aimed directly at Clinton. Richardson may try to stay above the fray, but end up lost in the shuffle. Biden is going to ride Iraq to the very end. Dodd has nothing to lose and everything to gain, so he can afford to be loose. Kucinich will be the Democrats' conscience once again, but is not going to move his poll numbers. Gravel will be a wild card yet again who either brings down an unsuspecting candidate or provides more fodder for the late night comedians.
Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.
Shortly after writing this post about how unprepared Fred Thompson seemed to run from the presidency, I found an article by The Politico's Mike Allen addressing this exact same point. While Allen's article included a few trivial gripes, such as criticizing him for his choice of which football team he claimed to support, the overall point of the article cannot be ignored. I'm not sure if it's a lack of campaign discipline or a genuine unfamiliarity with some of the major news issues of the day. But whatever it is, Fred Thompson had better right his ship before these types of media stories submarine his campaign. Once voters make a connection between Thompson and Bush in terms of competence and awareness of what's going on in the world, I strongly doubt he could ever recover from that.
However, as damning as this type of coverage may be, it does offer Thompson a potential advantage. The very same media that once helped him become the mysterious larger-than-life figure he came to be over the course of the summer could potentially be turned into an effective foil. If the media continue to beat up on Thompson by writing stories that are unflattering to him and his campaign, he can attack the media's credibility and motives. Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" quip might be an effective retort to use in a debate or an interview in which the questioner (a media member) asks him a question about a previous gaffe of some sort. This retort would conjure up images of the Republican-revered Reagan while attacking the Republican-hated media at the same time. So basically, attacking the messenger while ignoring the message may work to Thompson's benefit.
Interestingly, some of Thompson's "gaffes" are not really gaffes at all. I believe they are considered "gaffes" only because they could stall his momentum among the voters in the wing of the party he's trying to cultivate, rather than the electorate as a whole. For example, when he was asked if Osama bin Laden should be killed immediately upon capture, he said bin Laden was entitled to due process. This is actually a rational response based on the workings of our justice system. However, conservative voters who want their politicians to be tough on terrorism and terrorists may find this rational response to be unacceptably weak.
Do you remember how the other conservative candidates were almost tripping over themselves to appear the toughest on terror? Mitt Romney claimed he wanted to "double" the size of Guantanamo. Tom Tancredo said "he was looking for Jack Bauer," a remark that suggests torture is an option under a Tancredo administration. This is the kind of red meat conservative voters want to hear. Instead of echoing the sentiments of those candidates addressing the right wing of the Republican Party, Thompson instead echoed Howard Dean, who made a similar statement in 2003 and was ridiculed for doing so. If Thompson were trying to win the votes of moderate Republicans, his "due process" remark would have been a politically savvy move because it would have allowed him to position himself as a level-headed conservative who was tough, but fair.
However, Thompson is boxed into the right wing of his party. And in light of his recent remarks about not going to church regularly, his federalism approach to gay marriage, his lobbying for Planned Parenthood, and his links to defending the Libyan bombing suspects of Pan Am Flight 103, he does not seem to be a good fit for the niche his candidacy was supposed to represent. Is Fred Thompson more similar to Rudy Giuliani than to Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney?
Thompson doesn't really have the ability to reposition himself towards the center because Giuliani already occupies that piece of political real estate and both the media and Republican voters have identified him with the conservative wing of the party.
As a result, perhaps more than his gaffes and his apparent lack of preparedness on the campaign trail, identity confusion may be Fred Thompson's biggest problem.
I recently wrote about Fred Thompson's unpreparedness to answer various questions about issues that a credible presidential candidate should reasonably be expected to have a grasp of. Drilling in Florida and Terri Schiavo were two of the issues of which Thompson expressed a surprising degree of ignorance.
The day after I wrote that post, I found a damning critique of Thompson written by Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson. Dobson wrote this critique in a private e-mail that eventually got leaked to the media. In the e-mail, Dobson blasted Thompson for not talking about what he really believes and "not being able to speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail."
Dobson then goes on to question Thompson's conservative credentials and express bewilderment about why such a disappointing candidate is considered the "Great Hope for conservative Christians" before concluding that he will not support his candidacy.
This is terrible news for Thompson. James Dobson is one of the most influential figures of the Christian right. Having such a luminary write off your campaign so forcefully is only going to keep Thompson off message while splintering the very constituency whose votes he was supposed to have a virtual lock on.
Before I go any further, I want to remind readers that The 7-10 is not a partisan blog. I have my own political leanings, but I am not a firebreather or a bomb-thrower. But I have to say that Fred Thompson has reached a whole new level of ridiculousness.
Today Thompson was asked about the infamous "Jena 6" on his way to a fundraiser. Anyone who has a television or reads a newspaper knows about this case as it has been in the national headlines for days now. Jesse Jackson, one of Republicans' favorite punching bags, even weighed in and broadsided Barack Obama (while further embarrassing himself) in the process.
Anyway, when Thompson was asked about the case, this was his response:
"I don't know anything about it."Is this guy serious?
It's one thing to "not remember" something (even if it's something major and recent), but it's an entirely different matter to be completely ignorant of a major story happening so close to home right now. (The epicenter of the Jena 6 case is in Louisiana; Thompson hails from Tennessee.)
How in the world could a credible presidential candidate not know about major news happening in his own country? If Thompson doesn't know what's going on in Louisiana, how could he be trusted to know what's going on in Iraq? Or Iran? Or North Korea? Or China? Or at the dinner tables of poor and middle class families across the nation?
Thompson's simplicity and casual demeanor remind voters of what they initially liked about George Bush, especially when compared to John Kerry and Al Gore. But his obvious lack of intellectual curiosity, understanding of the issues, and actual preparation also remind voters of something else they have come to strongly dislike about Bush: incompetence.
I'm sure evangelical Christians were bewildered and a bit put off by his inability to remember anything about the Terri Schiavo controversy. But his ignorance of the Jena 6 is probably far more offensive to far more people. Should Thompson somehow win the Republican nomination, even Hillary Clinton could beat him in a landslide.
Look for Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee to make a strong pitch to evangelical voters who will almost certainly abandon the Thompson bandwagon in the wake of this nonsense. Newt Gingrich is probably also working on his own stump speech even as I type this blog. You are about to witness a spectacular political flameout. This is one less candidate that Rudy Giuliani has to worry about.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently sought to visit Ground Zero during his visit to New York for a United Nations summit. He wanted to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site in honor of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The New York City Police Department reviewed his request, but ultimately denied it citing security concerns. Various presidential candidates weighed in and blasted the Iranian president's "outrageous" request and called him a "state sponsor of terrorism." I watched MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning and they expressed similar sentiments.
Seeing that Ahmadinejad has made no secret about his desire to seek nuclear power and that he has made several controversial and incendiary remarks, such as "wiping Israel off the map" and denying the Holocaust, it is no surprise that politicians and the public reacted so vehemently to his request to visit the site of the World Trade Center. However, while this knee-jerk reaction of anger towards the Iranian president may make us feel good for standing up to someone we consider an enemy, I believe it is symptomatic of a larger problem with the American psyche that we are either unaware of or simply don't want to address.
Obviously, I am not saying this to defend Ahmadinejad at the expense of the United States. However, there was a huge missed opportunity here.
President Bush has called Iran part of an "axis of evil." Lots of neoconservatives and even some of the current presidential candidates have alluded to launching a preemptive attack on Iran. The United States maintains no diplomatic relations with Iran. We view Iran as one of the main enemies of one of our most important allies, Israel. We stress that Iran cannot pursue nuclear technology and that if they develop nuclear weapons, we will attack them. In short, the United States has made its disdain for Iran perfectly clear.
Despite this, the Iranian president sought to visit the site of the worst terrorist attack in history and lay a wreath there in honor of the victims. While we may never know his true motives, the fact is he acted in a way that is incongruent with the negative way in which we portray him. Ahmadinejad can now go back to Iran and tell his government and the Iranian people that he tried to extend an olive branch to the United States, but was shot down. So he could plausibly state that the United States is the belligerent nation, not Iran. Young Iranians (those in their 20s and 30s) who are not hostile to America like Iranians from the previous generation will then be given a reason to think less favorably about this nation while placing a bit more confidence in their own leader. Why should we expect the Iranians to listen to our demands about major issues like their military and nuclear technology if we won't even honor their request to visit the site of an international tragedy? Even if the United States wouldn't let him enter Ground Zero itself, would it have been too difficult for them to at least let him see the site from behind a fence or a block away?
Had the United States (I say the United States because I'm sure the New York Police Department was acting as its surrogate) allowed Ahmadinejad to visit Ground Zero, that may have led to a slight thawing of the ice between the two countries. At the very least, it may have given both countries some much needed breathing space as they jockey and posture and rattle their sabres.
Yes, Ahmadinejad is not the poster child of peace, liberty, and human rights. However, the United States should not worry about losing a propoganda battle to Iran. And Democrats and Republicans alike have repeatedly said that 9-11 should not be politicized. However, thumping their chests about how "the dangerous Iranian president should not be allowed to visit this sacred ground" is doing just that. It may win them a few votes, but it doesn't do anything to improve relations between the two countries.
Having lived abroad, I can easily understand that it is foolish to classify nations and politicians as "friends" and "enemies." When you do this, people are less inclined to respect or work with you. The world is much more complicated than "good" and "bad," and any politician who tries to simplify such matters is doing a terrible disservice. President Bush has taken his "either you're with us or against us" rhetoric and led large swaths of the nation to think in a similarly bimodal fashion.
Interestingly, although Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel may have been reduced to a common punchline on late night television and stands no chance of winning his party's presidential nomination, his views on our policy towards Iran and terrorism are particularly prescient.
Be careful of overly simplistic knee-jerk thinking. That is what got us into Iraq and may potentially be what gets us into Iran, but it won't be what gets us out of Iraq responsibly, nor will it be what resolves the Iranian conflict sensibly. Wisdom is more important than pride.
Fred Thompson has been in the news a lot lately.
I consider Fred Thompson to be the Barack Obama of the GOP because it seems that voters are setting high expectations for him and are flocking to his campaign even though they don't really know much about his positions on the issues. Consider this news item that hasn't gotten much play in the media, courtesy of Taegan Goodard's Political Wire. In short, a significant number of Republican voters in the early states (29% of Republican voters in Nevada and 24% of Republican voters in South Carolina) claim to be familiar with Thompson's healthcare plan. This seems like a valid statistic, but there's a problem. Fred Thompson has not even discussed his healthcare plan yet.
So are voters buying into something they don't know anything about? Are they basing their support on what they perceive the candidate to represent? Although things have changed, that was certainly the case with Barack Obama earlier this year. After his rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, there was endless buzz about how Obama was the future of his party. When he jumped into the race, voters were almost tripping over each other to support his campaign. Naysayers, especially those on the right, would ridicule these Obama supporters for blindly supporting someone who hadn't yet accomplished anything. They derided Obama as speaking in platitudes, having no substance, and being a blank slate.
I can't help but wonder if the shoe is now on the other foot. Consider this recent story about Thompson as it pertains to the Terri Schiavo case. Basically, Thompson was asked about the case and he claimed that he couldn't pass judgment on it because "that's going back in history." He said he doesn't remember the details of it.
This episode is quite revealing. How could Fred Thompson, the candidate who is supposedly coming to the rescue of disgruntled conservatives, "not remember" the details of the person at the center of one of the most intense culture wars over the past two years? A layperson might not know about the right to life issues involved in the case, but a credible presidential candidate most certainly should be expected to. And for a candidate who will need to win the support of the evangelical community in order to win the nomination, such a lack of political awareness and sensitivity to an issue so critical to his base may be fatal.
Another example of his possible lack of awareness can be found in this story about drilling in the Florida Everglades. When asked if drilling should be an option, he responded:
"Well, gosh. Nobody has told me that there are any major reserves in the Everglades, but maybe that's one of the things I need to learn while I'm down here."Has Fred Thompson done any of his political homework? First he couldn't comment on Terri Schiavo. Now he can't take a stand on the merits or problems with drilling in Florida. Even worse, he seems to be fundamentally unaware of the most basic elements of these contentious issues. Is he really exhibiting presidential leadership?
(Anyway, Republican Governor Charlie Crist was with Thompson during this media availability and quickly changed the subject after Thompson's remark.)
Then we have the issue of church. Needless to say, Republicans have long been perceived as the party more sympathetic to religion. Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported George Bush over John Kerry in the 2004 election. Knowing this, one would expect Republican candidates to proudly proclaim their religious beliefs and take pride in talking about how often they go to church or how God has touched their lives. Not so with Thompson, who recently said he doesn't go to church regularly. Despite this, he says "he's right with God." Interestingly, a lot of non-evangelical Christians probably can relate to this. However, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party is almost certainly not going to take comfort in these remarks. This wing is suspicious of Mitt Romney's Mormonism and they don't view Rudy Giuliani as the paragon of religious virtue either. Now knowing this about Fred Thompson, I can't help but wonder if he's ceding the evangelical vote to Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister.
All of these stories and events are feeding into a damaging stereotype of Fred Thompson. Is he really a serious candidate? Is he really as conservative as people claim he is? (Here's a good article that questions his conservative credentials.) Yes, Thompson talks a lot about "common sense values," states' rights, and being tough on our nation's enemies, but is there any substance behind his style? After all the hype surrounding Barack Obama's entry to the race, why is the exact same scenario taking place again with the Republicans? I live in South Carolina and I've read many letters to the editor of the local paper praising Thompson as the most qualified candidate who will stand up for conservative values. Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran endorsed him for the very same reason.
Much has been written by the punditry about Thompson and his candidacy, including this particularly scathing critique from George Will. But regular people seem to disagree and I am having difficulty understanding why. Is it name recognition? Is it his Southern drawl? Is it his craggly "don't mess with me" face? Is it his geography? Is it his "aw, shucks" way of speaking? Is it his role on "Law and Order?" Whatever it is, Thompson's strong polling indicates a possible disconnect between the chattering political classes and the average voter, much like the disconnect that existed this spring with Obama. It seems he is not being penalized for his generalities and lack of policy depth in terms of polling right now, but at some point he should expect to be scrutinized much more closely. It would be in his best interest to display a firmer command of the issues in the future because laughing questions off and being noncommittal on the great political issues of the day will only serve to hasten his return to the private sector. Voters might not have an appetite for a 10-point plan on revising the tax code or tackling global warming, but they should reasonably be expected to have their candidates for president comment on the issues important to them.
Rudy Giuliani is generally considered the frontrunner among GOP presidential hopefuls based on his standing in most national polls. His standing in the polls has defied conventional wisdom in that a pro-choice, thrice married, New Yorker who is sympathetic to gay rights would never be nominated by a party that has a base that is very much pro-life and anti-gay rights. But it turned out that something else trumped his positions on social issues which explains his polling strength: electability.
Rudy Giuliani has a unique ability to make the electability argument. As a moderate from a blue state, he could put a lot of states into play that most of the other Republican candidates could not do. Giuliani could seriously contest states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and even California. And even if he doesn't win those states, he would force the Democratic nominee to invest time and financial resources in defending his (or her) turf. How well Giuliani could keep red states red is another issue, but his argument about the blue states is credible. A $300,000 ad buy the Democratic nominee must purchase in Los Angeles or Newark is a $300,000 ad buy that can't be used in St. Louis. Or Cleveland. Or Milwaukee.
Tying into this is Giuliani's rationale that because of his probable appeal in blue states, he is able to beat Hillary Clinton. He's been attacking her quite a bit over the past few weeks, including this most recent attack over her criticism of General Petraeus.
So it seems like Giuliani's campaign for the GOP nomination boils down to: 1) being buoyed nationally by September 11, 2) being the Hillary-slayer, and 3) being able to turn blue states a bit more purple.
This is a very risky strategy for the former mayor.
First of all, despite Giuliani's strong national poll numbers, he is not leading in any of the early voting states except for South Carolina, where he is suddenly in a dogfight with newly minted rival Fred Thompson. If Mitt Romney, currently running first in Iowa and New Hampshire, wins both states, Giuliani will have his back against the wall. And to make matters worse, Michigan has moved its primary up to January 15, which is after Iowa and New Hampshire, but before South Carolina. This is a terrible development for the Giuliani campaign because Mitt Romney was born in Michigan and his father was a former governor of that state. Needless to say, Romney is winning the money chase and polls in Michigan. If the primary contest dates hold steady (e.g., South Carolina doesn't move up its primary), Mitt Romney may very well go 3 for 3 and be almost impossible to stop despite the swath of Super Tuesday states that are perceived to be states where Giuliani is expected to do well.
Mitt Romney has really complicated Giuliani's path to the nomination. Giuliani will need to contest one of the early states beyond South Carolina if he wants to improve his chances at the nomination. However, Giuliani did himself no favors by not participating in the Ames straw poll back in August. Iowa voters have long memories and may penalize him for not showing up. So perhaps Iowa is out of reach for Giuliani. This leaves New Hampshire, which is right next door to the state where Romney served as governor.
As for Fred Thompson, if he is able to win South Carolina while Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan, the nomination fight may turn into a two-man race between Romney and Thompson while leaving Giuliani out in the cold. The benefits of the momentum and good press that can be generated by winning the early voting states cannot be overstressed. This also goes to show that national polling numbers don't mean anything if they aren't backed up by strong polling numbers in the early voting states.
Ironically, another major problem for Giuliani is one of the selling points of his candidacy--Hillary Clinton. Again, Giuliani has said repeatedly that he is the one Republican who can defeat her. But what happens if Clinton somehow stumbles and is no longer a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination? The Republicans won't need a Hillary-slayer if she doesn't even become the nominee! So then one of the pillars of his candidacy would be moot. Even though Republicans may look with glee at the Norman Hsu controversy, I can't help but wonder if bad news for Clinton is also bad news for Giuliani. Whether Giuliani likes it or not, Democratic voters get their crack at Clinton before he does. If I were Giuliani, I'd think twice before launching broadsides at her because such attacks may only make her appear less appealing to the Democratic voters she needs to even make it to the general election.
The longer the Hsu controversy remains in the news, the rosier it makes the other Democratic candidates look--especially Barack Obama. And voters who supported Clinton primarily because of her experience may defect to Richardson, Biden, or Dodd. In a nutshell, should any other candidate wrest the nomination away from Clinton, the Republicans could then decide that ideology matters more to them than electability. This would open up the door for Romney, Thompson, McCain, or Huckabee--all of whom are more in tune with the party base than Giuliani is. And if this happens, the conventional wisdom about Giuliani's chances will finally vindicate itself.
Joe Biden has picked up an endorsement from Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader of the Iowa House of Representatives. This brings the total number of presidential endorsements Biden has received from Iowa legislators to eight. When asked why he decided to support Biden, Rep. McCarthy said :
"Iraq is by far the single most important issue facing America today and Joe Biden has the most credible plan to get us out without causing further chaos."He also said in response to speculation that Biden is really running for Secretary of State (presumably under Hillary Clinton):
"Given that Iraq is the number one issue facing this country, and it will be for the next few years, wouldn't it be nice to have a president of the United States who's smarter than his Secretary of State?"This endorsement and its rationale will probably be ignored by the chattering classes and most politicos, but I think McCarthy strikes at something that I've been thinking about for quite some time.
Could Joe Biden really be the best candidate among all the Democrats? I originally hinted at this back in July, but am now certain that Biden is on the right track.
Earlier in the campaign, Biden was ridiculed as a silly old senator who kept putting his foot in his mouth (i.e., "clean" and "Indians in convenience stores"). The very first question Biden received in the very first Democratic debate was about whether voters should take his candidacy seriously given his verbal gaffes. He was mercilessly raked over the coals for this before and continues to be derided today. However, lately Joe Biden has gained recognition for something much more important: being the only Democratic presidential candidate who has a serious Iraq policy that addresses what will happen to the country after the troops leave. None of his rivals has done so whatsoever.
When the other Democratic presidential candidates talk about Iraq, they seem to oversimplify the issue by talking about how George Bush mismanaged the war, how they should cut off funding immediately, how they were against the war from the very beginning, how we should withdraw all troops by a certain date, and how they should keep sending Bush bills with timelines even if he vetoes them.
Let's contrast these generalities and simplicities with Joe Biden, who has articulated a detailed policy of federalizing Iraq while getting the international community to sign onto helping provide security. This plan cannot be summed up in a 15-second soundbyte, but it does offer a serious solution to a serious problem. Nobody can criticize him for this because their plans are so vague. Does anybody remember how many times his rivals said "I agree with Joe Biden" during the Sunday morning debate in Iowa?
Biden has said that his presidential campaign basically comes down to "two I's: Iowa and Iraq." And it is seeming more and more like this may very well be his ticket to becoming a serious player in the Democratic race.
In light of how desperate the Iraq situation has become, I believe voters may be receptive to a candidate who doesn't offer platitudes, I-told-you-so's, and overly rosy impossibilities (such as cutting off funding or immediate withdrawal). Barack Obama is right in that voters may be hungry for change, but I think more than that voters may be hungry for competence and leadership, which also provide a change from what the nation has now with Bush.
Biden is running as the competent statesman. Like I said about John McCain of the Republicans, Biden is trying to position himself as the grownup in the field. He is less about soundbytes and trying to one-up his rivals; he's about actual substance and separating politics from principle. For example, Biden voted to fund the surge because even though that put him at odds with his party, it is not fair to penalize the troops for the commander in chief's mistakes. Joe Biden on Iraq with Democrats is identical to John McCain on illegal immigration with Republicans in that both politicians are staking out positions that, while unpopular with their party bases, happen to be the most pragmatic choices simply because there are no easy solutions.
I think Biden can appeal to the following voters:
1. Voters who like Obama, but have reservations about his lack of experience.
2. Voters who are not drawn to Obama because of what they consider to be empty platitudes and pie in the sky rhetoric.
3. Voters who view Edwards as insincere or inexperienced.
4. Voters who like Clinton because of her experience, but fear she's unelectable.
5. Moderates and independents who like Clinton's experience, but don't want to follow eight years of Bush-bashing with eight more years of Clinton-bashing.
6. Voters who were initially drawn to Richardson because of his wealth of experience, but are disappointed by him as a candidate.
7. Voters who consider Iraq to be the single most important issue confronting the nation and want the conflict to be ended competently and pragmatically.
It seems like a lot of state legislators in Iowa are picking up on Biden's appeal. But will the Iowa voters follow these legislators? Yes, voters want to be inspired. Yes, voters want to be empowered. And yes, voters want to make a change from what we have now in the White House. But above all that, I strongly believe voters want their nation to be headed by a leader who is competent and mature.
This is one reason why I think Newt Gingrich continues to flirt with jumping into the race. Soundbyte politics may gin up the base and increase media ratings, but at what point does actual governance become more important?
That is the appeal of Joe Biden.
In my previous post I mentioned how Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee were jockeying to improve their positioning in the race for the Republican nomination. Huckabee challenged Thompson to a debate and Romney tried to discourage Huckabee and Thompson by citing how much money they'd need to raise if they wanted to compete in the top tier.
Well, it now appears that at least two of these candidates are running scared.
First, Thompson refused to Huckabee's debate invitation by saying they "will have many opportunities to exchange their views before [the primary season] is over." They just won't exchange these views one on one. Presumably, debates consisting of the entire field are okay, even though such a format is less conducive to a meaningful exchange of ideas--something Thompson supposedly supports.
It appears that Huckabee looked Thompson right in the eye and Thompson blinked. Is Thompson afraid of Huckabee and his superior debating skills? Does he fear that Huckabee could wrest the mantle of the conservative favorite away from him? Either way, this is a definite victory for Huckabee because he can now say on the stump that Thompson chose not to debate him. This also feeds into the stereotype that Thompson is a lazy candidate or is trying to avoid engaging in any meaningful or substantive exchange of ideas. How long can Thompson run solely on his name, his drawl, and his geography?
To Thompson's credit, he had the political antenna to know that this debate challenge presented an unacceptable risk to his nascent campaign. The spotlight is on him now, so if he had a less than shining moment or failed to meet the lofty expectations he inadvertently brought upon himself, it would be magnified to the point that it could stop his campaign in its tracks.
However, Thompson will not be able to get away with this too much longer. More on that later.
As for Mitt Romney, he now has the misfortune of being linked to yet another unsavory figure. Larry Craig was the first such figure. Now he has to deal with Warren Tompkins, Romney's lead consultant in South Carolina. Tompkins was behind a website blasting Fred Thompson with names like "Flip-Flop Fred, Five O'clock Fred, and Playboy Fred." It also derided him as a "pro-choice skirt chaser." The site was later taken down, but Tompkins did not comment on it and Romney tried to wash his hands of the manner:
"Our campaign is focused on the issues and ideas that are of paramount concern to voters. The website we are focused on is MittRomney.com."So it appears that while Romney has a squeaky clean image, he is having his henchmen do his dirty work.
Just a few days ago Mitt Romney was trying to dampen the hopes of Thompson by telling them how much money he'd need to be a top tier candidate. So if that's the case, then why elevate Thompson by creating a website solely for the purpose of discrediting him? Hillary Clinton isn't going after John Edwards! She doesn't have to because she knows that he must catch her. The person who's running behind is the person who must go on offense. Does this mean that despite Romney's money, he fears Thompson? After all, Thompson is laying claim to the very voters Romney has been trying to cultivate for months. And does Romney expect people to believe he had no knowledge of this whatsoever? Seeing that Romney is Tompkins' boss, wouldn't Romney be the person who signed off on his actions?
Of course, Thompson used this opportunity to do a bit of political posturing of his own, courtesy of his spokesman:
"Gov. Romney should exercise some of his much-touted executive acumen, take control of his flailing campaign, and immediately terminate anyone and everyone related to this outrage."So does this mean Thompson should be expected to exercise some of his own much-touted conservative credentials, take control of his campaign, and debate Mike Huckabee?
It seems like Romney is afraid of Thompson while Thompson is afraid of Huckabee. I personally think Huckabee and McCain benefit the most from these events. Huckabee looks strong, in control, and above the fray while Romney looks shady and Thompson looks like he's avoiding debating one of his conservative rivals. McCain is removed from all this foolishness and can focus on his hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In the end, I doubt any of these day to day events will make or break any particular candidate. However, they do feed into the perceptions voters may have about the candidates and that can dampen enthusiasm about their campaigns and make their claims of taking the high road less credible in the future. Leadership is going to be one of the most critical qualities voters look for in their next president, so these candidates would be wise to focus on taking control of their campaigns and standing up for themselves and their positions. Basically, they'd be wise to act like adults. John McCain seems to understand this. Railing against politics as usual has helped Barack Obama. So by the same token, wouldn't that hurt Thompson and Romney?
Hillary Clinton continues to outpoll her rivals by significant margins. As a result, media storylines have tended to be of the "can anybody catch Hillary" or the "Hillary vs. Obama" variety.
The race for the Republican nomination, however, is much more competitive. Because there is no true heir to Bush-Cheney and no clear figure standing at the head of the line "whose time has come," primary voters and pundits are truly confused.
I do know this much, however. The GOP nomination will come down to Rudy Giuliani and his conservative alternative. This alternative will not be Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, or Ron Paul. It will be Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Fred Thompson. (Newt Gingrich has said he would not run if Fred Thompson's campaign is successful, but regardless, I think Gingrich is running out of time. And I'll talk about John McCain a bit later in this post.)
Now that Thompson is officially in and a few debates have taken place, it's a little easier to analyze the dynamics of this three-way contest (excluding Giuliani).
Romney has the advantages of a large campaign war chest, generally strong debating skills (although he absolutely tanked in the most recent debate in New Hampshire), good looks, and a traditional family. Social conservatives highly respect the fact that he's still on his first wife and has been married for over 30 years. He has also been a governor, so he has executive experience. He could potentially be a difficult candidate for Democrats to run against because he was able to implement a comprehensive health insurance program while he was the governor of Massachusetts. He is also leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
On the negative side, Romney is a Mormon. It's been discussed a lot in the media as well as in The 7-10, but it cannot be stressed enough. Romney might be doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but his South Carolina poll numbers are anemic. Fred Thompson, who didn't even officially join the race until last week, is up on Romney by more than 2 to 1 in the Palmetto State even though Romney has been on the air here for months. Because Romney is doing much better in the early states than nationally, he will need to win as many early states as possible to generate the momentum to offset the probable victories by Giuliani on Super Tuesday. If Romney wins IA and NH while Thompson or someone else wins South Carolina, there will be no consensus conservative candidate, thus clearing the path for Rudy Giuliani to secure the nomination. (The Democrats have the exact same problem because Obama, Edwards, Richardson, Biden, Dodd, and Kucinich are all trying to be the alternative to Hillary Clinton. Until one of them emerges, Clinton can sleepwalk to the nomination.)
Another major negative for Romney is the fact that his views on several issues that are dear to social conservatives have "evolved," to put it nicely. Had he been a Democrat, Republicans would have had a field day with him. He makes John Kerry look like a man of consistency and unflinching principles. Abortion rights, gay rights, and gun rights are all issues that he has done an about face on in recent years. So there's a perception of him that he's a political opportunist, a flip-flopper, and a soothsayer. Romney also looks clean, but perhaps a bit too clean. Can he really relate to average voters? Also, Massachusetts is a state that Republicans have historically ridiculed as being a hotbed of out of touch liberals. (Think Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy.) A Romney nomination will essentially remove the "yet another Northeastern liberal" weapon from the Republicans' arsenal in the general election.
Mike Huckabee has become a popular choice for a dark horse candidate. He is young, has a compelling biography, and has consistently performed strongly in the debates. His biggest advantage is the fact that he is a more credible and more affable conservative than any other candidate running. He is staunchly pro-life and pro-Second Amendment and he has a record to back this up, so he is not viewed with suspicion by evangelicals or sportsmen. And because of his humility and soft-spokenness, he does not come across as the harsh, knuckle-dragging Bible thumper that makes liberals recoil in horror. Republican voters who are looking for alternatives to Rudy McRomney and think Fred Thompson is overhyped may be quite pleased with Huckabee. A Huckabee nomination will make the current Red states very difficult for the Democrats to pick off.
Unfortunately, however, Huckabee is trailing badly in terms of campaign cash and overall campaign structure. He did very well at the Ames straw poll, and this has increased his campaign coffers a bit, but he still trails Mitt Romney badly. Even if Huckabee may be a better fit for conservatives than Romney, Romney has the cash to go the distance. This is really Huckabee's only weakness. The Grover Norquist crowd may have reservations about his candidacy because he raised taxes while he was the governor of Arkansas, but I think overall that conservatives will be quite pleased with his record.
Fred Thompson is the Barack Obama of the GOP field. He is the mysterious, hyped up candidate who is revered by what voters think he represents. Right now, Thompson is largely seen as the shining knight that is coming to the conservatives' rescue. He has even been compared to Ronald Reagan, though the main similarity they have is their acting career. Aside from that, Thompson is performing exceptionally well in national polls despite not formally entering the race until this week. Because of all the interest his candidacy is generating (be it justified or not), he has a large megaphone and a prime opportunity to make a strong impression with a wide swath of voters. Southerners also like the folksy "aw, shucks" demeanor he has. This could be a tremendous asset in South Carolina.
Thompson's biggest strength is also his most glaring weakness. Because he had been teasing and tantalizing the media and voters for weeks while he was "testing the waters," people came to know more about the Thompson image, rather than the Thompson candidacy. Barack Obama experienced something similar this spring when Democrats were fawning over him even though nobody really knew much about his record or his policy positions. As a result, Fred Thompson now has a very high bar to clear in terms of expectations now that he's officially a candidate. People have already talked about his seemingly disappointing fundraising totals over the summer. Voters and the media have been waiting a long time for him to jump in the race, so now that he's in, they're going to be examining him closely to see if he's all hype. He has already piqued everyone's interest, but now it's up to him to keep everyone interested. This means that his margin for error is very small. If he fails to live up to the hype, his campaign might not even make it to the Iowa caucuses. This is a very real possibility because Thompson's previous career in the Senate was not particularly ambitious or highly regarded.
In the aftermath of the debate in New Hampshire, Mike Huckabee challenged Fred Thompson to debate:
"I agree that what is needed is a real discussion by the candidates about their vision for the future of our country...Senator, let's lead by example and get the ball rolling."Clearly, Huckabee knows that his strong debating skills may be fatal to the laconic Thompson.
Mitt Romney has been doing a bit of jockeying as well. He told both Huckabee and Thompson that they needed $20 million to join him in the top tier. It seems Romney is trying to discourage his rivals by using his greatest strength (campaign cash) to attack their weaknesses (a lack of campaign cash). You'll notice that he didn't say anything about John McCain.
So who's up and who's down?
The race for the conservative alternative to Giuliani is like a game of paper-rock-scissors.
Mitt Romney has the money and the best polling in the early voting states, but doesn't have the trusted conservative credentials that Mike Huckabee has.
Mike Huckabee has unimpeachable conservative credentials and a superior debating record, but doesn't have the national polling strength and name recognition that Fred Thompson has.
Fred Thompson has the national polling strength and the media spotlight, but doesn't have the money or the campaign apparatus that Mitt Romney has.
In short, Romney has the most money, Huckabee has the best conservative record, and Thompson has the best national polling. Romney generates the most suspicion, Huckabee has the least money, and Thompson is a blank slate in terms of campaign strength.
What about John McCain?
John McCain does not really occupy the same niche that Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson are trying to fill. McCain is generally a conservative, but he is positioning himself as something of an elder statesman. Fred Thompson is the outsider, Mitt Romney is the executive, and Mike Huckabee is often considered more as being a strong pick for the VP slot than at the top of the ticket. Think of John McCain as the grownup in the room. He has the experience, he has the record, and he knows Washington. Conservatives have been really hard on him because of his views on illegal immigration. However, if conservatives remain restless and dissatisfied with their current choices, they may think of McCain as the battle-tested warhorse candidate. And his military and national security credentials would allow him to neutralize Rudy Giuliani as well. McCain doesn't really need to engage the other candidates as much as they need to engage each other. Pundits have written McCain off as a result of his sagging poll numbers and fundraising problems, but I would not count him out just yet because he has the most extensive record of all the GOP candidates and cannot be attacked as inexperienced or not sufficiently conservative. I like to think of McCain as the Joe Biden of the Republicans.
After the semifinals
Excluding John McCain, all the candidates I mentioned earlier are competing for the opportunity to challenge Rudy Giuliani for the nomination. It's clear that he is a formidable candidate and that his personal history and his moderate positions on social issues are not as much of a liability for him as was once thought. However, he currently has the luxury of having no other candidate occupy the same political real estate that he does, so the true weakness of his biography and policy positions cannot accurately be measured at present. Once a true consensus conservative candidate emerges, Giuliani's appeal and campaign strength will truly be tested.