"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times


Hillary Clinton: Let the Buyer Beware

Hillary Clinton has generally been leading almost every poll among Democratic voters since polling began for the 2008 presidential cycle. She generally performs 10-15 percentage points better than her closest rival, Barack Obama, who polls about 10-15 points better than 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

Clinton has several institutional and personal strengths that make her very difficult to defeat. First of all, she benefits from high name recognition. Everybody knows her so well that they often refer to her the same way they refer to "Rush" or "Paris." In other words, if you say "Hillary," everyone knows who you're talking about. This is a big deal because for voters who don't follow presidential politics so closely, name recognition alone may be the factor that determines who they vote for in the confines of the voting booth. Democratic voters don't know who Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are, for example. But they do know Hillary, so they'll often vote for her just because they "know" who she is.

Secondly, she has the immensely popular Bill Clinton available to campaign and conduct fundraisers for her. Many voters view Hillary as an extension of the former president, so there's a sense of loyalty to him that keeps voters in her camp. And most voters would agree that compared to the Bush presidency, Bill Clinton doesn't look so bad after all.

Third, the field is too crowded. With eight Democratic candidates in all, it is too difficult for the less established candidates to distinguish themselves. Clinton has the luxury of not having to deliver a campaign-changing one-liner during a debate in order to generate a spark. Bill Richardson needs to generate such a spark. In other words, the longer the other candidates merely "do okay" in the debates, the more the Democratic field will look like "Hillary and the gang," which only works to Clinton's advantage.

Fourth, her fundraising totals are incredible. With all the cash she has available to her, she can afford to compete seriously in many states while hiring and retaining top talent regarding campaign managers, public relations staff, and consultants. Candidates on shoestring budgets like Joe Biden can't afford to do this and have to target their battlegrounds more carefully.

A fifth and final advantage Clinton has is her sense of inevitability. One gets the sense that her campaign has taken on a "get on board, get out of the way, or get run over" aura. She's so far ahead in the polls in almost every state, she has the name recognition, she has the former president on her side, and she has the cash on hand to make her a political juggernaut. So perhaps her confidence is justified.

But the Democrats should think carefully before they anoint Clinton as their nominee for the general election. The 2008 political landscape provides a better than even chance that the Democrats can wrest control of the White House away from the Republicans, especially since the GOP candidates are generally weaker this time around (hence all the polls showing dissatisfaction among Republican voters with their presidential choices). This is a very winnable election for the Democrats, but I believe they run a very real risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by nominating Hillary Clinton.

But why?

For starters, there's her name recognition, which I listed as a strength earlier. However, her name recognition is only a strength for the Democratic primary. It's an undeniable liability in the general election. People already know who this woman is and they've pretty much made up their mind about her. You either love her or you hate her; there are not a lot of persuadable voters left. This automatically restricts your playing field.

The current president provides my second reason why a Clinton nomination would likely lead to heartbreak in 2008. Republicans have often lamented that Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother and the former governor of Florida, would be a formidable candidate this year if his last name were different. Democrats are sick of the Bush brand. If you even mention the name Bush, Democrats (and probably a wide swath of independents) will likely recoil in anger. But do Democrats not realize that the prospect of another Clinton in the Oval Office evokes similar ire and consternation among Republican voters? GOP voters are not particularly energized this presidential cycle. The prospect of Hillary Clinton in the White House would only galvanize them and drive up Republican turnout.

The third reason is particularly important: Exactly what state could Hillary Clinton win that John Kerry or Al Gore couldn't win? A Clinton nomination automatically means the electoral map shrinks from the get-go because so many states would be out of play (particularly in the South and West). Clinton's presidential hopes would hinge on Florida, Missouri, and the Upper Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin). That's it. And Florida, Missouri, and Ohio all voted Republican in the last election. A smaller electoral map means spending more time on defense. More time on defense means less time and resources the Republicans have to spend protecting their home turf.

On a related note, Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly a polarizing figure. Even if she were to win the presidency in 2008, half of the nation would automatically "strongly approve" of her performance while the other half would "strongly disapprove" when pollsters contact them. Under the George Bush presidency, the United States has become exceedingly polarized. This whole Red State/Blue State dichotomy is very real and very unfortunate. It would be nice if Clinton could actually bridge the divide and bring Americans together, but that's not going to happen. And it could even open up the door to Jeb Bush in 2012, thus further inflaming fears of two dynastic political families holding the reins of power for potentially 40 years (since George H.W. Bush's vice presidency under Ronald Reagan in 1980). When will voters say enough is enough?

The Democrats have at least two or three very powerful candidates in Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd. These candidates (especially Richardson) would be an electoral nightmare for the GOP as they find themselves having to defend Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and Florida. A Richardson candidacy in particular would also allow the Democrats to trump the Republicans on foreign policy and gun rights (if the opponent is Rudy Giuliani--can you imagine a Democrat being better than a Republican on guns in a presidential election?) without being tarred with the "tax-hiking New England liberal" label.

How does a Clinton nomination intimidate Republicans? By being able to dig up dirt on them? By being able to outmaneuver them rhetorically? Clinton certainly has the loyal foot soldiers and opposition researchers available to do her dirty work for her, but who really wins in such a scenario? Clinton might, but America sure won't.

Choose wisely, Democrats.


The Problem With Hillary vs. Obama

John Edwards recently spoke at a National Urban League forum along with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Dennis Kucinich. (Invitations were extended to all the GOP candidates as well, but they declined.) Anyway, John Edwards said the following:

If you're looking for what's wrong in Washington, why the system is broken, why the system doesn't work, one perfect example is what's been happening just over the course of the last four days. We've had two good people, Democratic candidates for president, who spent their time attacking each other instead of attacking the problems that this country's [facing]."
John Edwards chose a politically wise thing to say, but I think he's right for a different reason.

The media have effectively whittled an eight-member Democratic field down to just two, and sometimes three if Edwards is included. It does a terrible disservice to the other candidates as well as to voters as a whole because some of the more obscure candidates, particularly Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd bring certain elements to the table that Hillary Edbama doesn't. Perhaps the greatest asset those three candidates possess is experience. Each of them has more government experience that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards combined.

So why do the media focus on Clinton and Obama so much? For better or worse, media entities want to generate ratings and boost circulation. And the Hillary vs. Obama soap opera offers a treasure trove of potential news stories that are sometimes more sensational than substantive. (Case in point: Clinton's cleavage" is suddenly somehow newsworthy, much like the coverage of Obama's abs and pecs last winter while he was on vacation with his family.) Are journalists lazy? Are they giving the public what they want? Do they believe the electorate doesn't have the attention span to focus on seven or eight candidates at once? Or do they think the electorate isn't interested in hearing actual policy discussions between veteran senators? Are we truly a sound byte culture? And if so, why? Is it our fault as voters, or is it the media's fault for giving us this news diet of he said/she said?

But I digress.

There have been a lot of analyses about the recent salvos between Clinton and Obama regarding foreign policy. That pretty much sucked all the oxygen out of the room, so nobody really knew what the other six Democratic presidential candidates were doing. Edwards' quote at the beginning of this blog was a good way of grabbing voters' attention and refocusing the debate on the actual issues.

But Edwards doesn't get it. And neither does Clinton. Or Obama.

If they are not careful, they run the very real risk of falling out of favor with voters and ultimately losing the nomination. It's not about setting rhetorical traps for your political opponents, nor is it about claiming to take the high road by "focusing on the issues." It's not even about "changing Washington," as Obama commonly says on the stump.

The problem is, voters have heard politicians say stuff like that over and over again. The "politician" brand has been corrupted by accusations ("irresponsible and naive"), name-calling ("Bush-Cheney lite"), and holier than thou claims ("that's what's wrong with Washington; let's focus on the issues facing the American people"). People are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs on CNN knows how much disconnect there is between Washington rhetoric and the painful reality confronting millions and millions of jaded Americans who see that "Washington" is broken.

This is why Biden, Dodd, and Richardson have an advantage. They seem to spend far more time talking about actual policy rather than pettiness and platitudes. I think voters may eventually reach a point when they kick the whining kids out and seek out adult supervision. And that's their ticket to the nomination.

Have you heard Hillary Edbama express their views on Iraq as clearly as Joe Biden has?

Have you heard Hillary Edbama express their views on energy as clearly as Bill Richardson has?

Have you heard Hillary Edbama express their views on health care as clearly as Chris Dodd has? (John Edwards has come close, but he seems to spend more time talking about the "crisis," but not so much time talking about the "cure.")

The politics of Hillary Edbama might have been sufficient a few years ago, but the George W. Bush presidency has changed the laws of political physics. Even though Clinton may be a legacy candidate, Obama may be the fresh candidate, and Edwards may still have a golden halo from the last election, I really think Democrats and voters in general will be looking competence in their next chief executive. Scoring gotcha points with name-calling may win a few battles (news cycles), but it might not be enough to win the war (the nomination).

The so called "second tier" candidates (Richardson, Biden, and Dodd) would do well to pick up on this. They're not out of the race at all. And they may even be in better shape than the so called "frontrunners" simply because they've been flying under the radar for so long. Richardson in particular has picked up on the "experience" void left by Hillary Edbama and has benefited from it in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Biden and Dodd have a huge opening too, in my opinion. (Notice the large number of undecided voters despite the deluge of Hillary Edbama coverage in the news.)

Nobody on the Democratic side is running as the grown-up--the capable, experienced pragmatist who is not afraid to get into the gory details of his policy proposals and truthfully explain how such proposals would be implemented. In other words, there's a huge opening for someone who wants to run as the way a "politician" should be: a competent statesman.

Joe Biden in particular would be wise to heed this advice based on his debate performances thus far.


Hillary vs. Obama: Hillary's Second Mistake

At the recent You Tube debate in Charleston, Hillary Clinton landed a strong blow against Barack Obama by making him look inexperienced in regards to foreign policy. Her methodical, presidential response about making no guarantees about meeting leaders of rogue nations and not wanting to be used "for propoganda purposes" caught Obama off guard and struck at his greatest perceived weakness and one of her greatest perceived strengths.

She would have been in far better shape if she had just stopped there.

The press generally agreed that Clinton got the better of Obama in this exchange and even I was wondering if that could mark the end of Obama's candidacy. However, Clinton sought to get more mileage out of this exchange by calling Obama "irresponsible and naive" in a radio interview later on.

And that is when the tables turned.

Obama was not about to take this criticism lying down, so he said that "the only thing irresponsible and naive was voting for the Iraq War without having an exit strategy." He also compared her policies to "Bush-Cheney Lite." Yikes. Obama was able to successfully pivot from defense to offense in the blink of an eye by switching the debate from his inexperience to her war vote.

Talk about a way to fire up your supporters. This is the first time voters got a chance to see Obama take a punch and deliver an even stronger counterpunch. This exchange signifies that he is not going to be pushed around. Clinton had a lame response to Obama's criticism of her: After calling the whole spat (which she initiated) "silly," she lamented the lost "politics of hope" that Obama preached.

But it gets worse. Republicans delighted in this exchange and even took Clinton's side--presumably to show they are tough on national security issues. McCain and Romney weighed in, for example. That only further bolstered Obama. If Clinton is "Romney-approved," how do you think liberal Democratic primary voters are going to view her? "If they like her, she couldn't possibly be good for us, right?"

Once again, Obama has become the insurgent candidate while Clinton has become the candidate of the past. And worse yet, the Republican candidates' taking Clinton's side in this spat only legitimizes Obama's "Bush-Cheney Lite" claim! And it also contradicts Clinton's debate statements of being able to deliver "change" and being a "modern progressive."

Having said all that, it must be stressed that Clinton is not in trouble at all. However, she managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory here. Also, it is quite possible that she underestimated her chief rival. Clinton was beating Obama easily when she was simply ignoring him. On top of that, Obama's momentum was beginning to stall. So instead of letting his campaign slowly deflate, why did she give him oxygen?

Hillary Clinton needs to choose her battles more carefully. In short, she tried to deliver a knockout punch, but ended up with a black eye and a stronger rival instead.


After the Debate (D)

After having a bit of time to let Monday's Democratic presidential debate sink in, I'm ready to chime in with my own assessment of how well the candidates did, how they should be feeling, and where they should go from here.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton has done a superb job of moving to the left without burning her bridges with moderates and even conservatives regarding Iraq. The fact that she voted for the Iraq war authorization should have doomed her in the primary, at least according to many pundits. However, now there is not much daylight between her and Obama regarding getting out. Being able to pull this off is a significant political feat. In the debate, she did an excellent job of appearing competent, resolute, thoughtful, and even approachable. Simply put, she looked presidential. Her performance will continue to allay the fears voters have that she is a shrill, polarizing candidate. Perhaps some of the perceived hatred towards her is simply a kneejerk reaction to the Hillary "brand?" (This is similar to the thoughts evoked by hearing the names of other famous people with whom we simply call by their first names: "Brittney, Paris, and Rush." Either you love them or you hate them, right?) Anyway, it seems now like the more people hear her speak in the debates, the more comfortable they become with her. She did not win the debate by any means, but the most important point is that she did well enough and probably beat expectations. One point cannot be denied, however. Hillary Clinton is an extremely talented and gifted politician, and this was reflected in the debate on Tuesday.

Best moment: Her smackdown of Barack Obama regarding talking with leaders of rogue nations "in the first year of their presidency." Even though Obama's response was sufficient, especially for the left-leaning Democrats, Clinton's "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes" remark displayed a sense of executive cunning that made Obama look like a greenhorn. Seeing that Obama is seen as her chief rival for the nomination, this was exchange was political manna from the heavens.

Worst moment: Clinton's avoidance of the term "liberal" to describe herself was both predictable and calculated. "Modern progressive" sounds a bit PC and reminds voters of how cautious she tries to be. It was a response that reeked of Clintonian triangulation that flusters Democrats. No doubt Republicans will have a field day with that on talk radio as they blast it as elitist, PC bombast.

Immediate threat: Obama is obviously Clinton's biggest threat simply because of the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign and the fact that it makes the subtext of "Clinton vs. Obama" "experience vs. optimism." Clinton can survive without going on offense, but Obama does not have that luxury.

Indispensable ally: The sheer size of the Democratic field works to Clinton's advantage. The longer this race is between Clinton and 7 other candidates, the easier it is for Clinton to win the nomination. She clearly benefits from a larger field because it makes it harder for the other candidates to distinguish themselves and challenge her.

Where to go from here: Clinton should pound the "experience" issue. Again, I must stress that Obama did not make a fatal mistake. However, Clinton was able to successfully turn his remarks into her advantage. Knowing that "inexperience" is Obama's greatest weakness, this exchange provides a perfect example of this. She does not need to engage the other candidates. The general political rule is that you go on offense when you're running behind. However, pressing Obama's "naivity" could do a good job of stalling Obama or sending him into a tailspin. She also needs to be on the lookout for a new "ABH (Anybody But Hillary)" candidate in the event that Obama fades.

Barack Obama: One cannot deny the enthusiasm people have about Obama's campaign. Clearly, he has tapped into something that other candidates haven't. However, Obama seems unable to meet the lofty expectations people have of him. When he opens his mouth, they expect a near-religious experience. However, many of them are getting the sense that there's not much there. Is Obama underwhelming? Has he peaked too soon? In the debate, Obama did okay, but not great. Perhaps the harshest attack came from the grenade-lobbing Mike Gravel, but he weathered it nicely. However, a more fatal exchange took place later in the debate between him and Clinton. My sense is that voters really want Obama to succeed because of what an Obama nomination would say about the Democratic Party and the United States (if he wins it all in November). However, he does not quite seem to have what it takes in terms of policy. The "what does he stand for?" and "is he experienced enough?" questions were not erased because of his performance on Monday. Again, Obama did okay at the debate. However, when expectations are as high as they are for him, "okay" isn't good enough.

Best moment: Obama had a good line about withdrawing troops from Iraq: "[paraphrased quote] the time for thinking about how to get out of Iraq was before voting to authorize the war." That reminded voters of how Hillary's "experience" still led to poor "judgment." Her war vote and his early opposition to it are two of his strongest weapons against Clinton and he is wise to press them.

Worst moment: See Clinton's "best moment." Basically, this exchange caught Obama off guard and made Clinton look presidential at his expense. The high population of Cuban-Americans in Florida probably wrote off Obama bigtime when he said he'd meet with Castro. Those voters vote the issue, rather than the party. And Obama is on the wrong side of that.

Immediate threat: Himself. Obama has it all. He has good looks, a compelling biography, the gift of rhetoric, a legion of fired up volunteers, and a solid campaign apparatus. However, the main attraction is failing to live up to expectations in a lot of people's minds. Obama seems to be a "yes, but" candidate in that voters generally seem to like him and respond well to him, but their support is a bit tepid. Are voters dating Obama now and preparing to marry another candidate later?

Indispensable ally: The media. The media are doing their best to frame the Democratic race as "Clinton vs. Obama." This keeps Obama's name in the news and may encourage new voters to figure out what "Obama" is all about. This increased exposure also allows Obama more opportunities to get his message out. And in the event that the media go overboard, Obama could always turn the media into a useful foil, just like he did when he railed against them "talking about how he looked in a swimsuit."

Where to go from here: Obama needs to confront the experience issue. Highlighting his work as a community organizer is not going to satisfy these concerns. He's going to have to flesh out one meaningful policy proposal, including how much it costs, how he plans to pay for it, why it's necessary, who it will benefit, and how it will be implemented. This is not an issue he can dodge for much longer. Granted, other candidates haven't really done this either. But Obama should think of this as a necessary test that is unique to his candidacy.

John Edwards: The air is slowly deflating from the balloon that is Edwards' candidacy. He has had a rough couple of weeks, courtesy of self-inflicted wounds (e.g., the "haircut") and attacks from others (e.g., Ann Coulter and the proxy war between Elizabeth Edwards and Bill Clinton). I've read several debate reviews that said Edwards performed well and was one of the "winners," but I must disagree. I thought his attacks were too weak or too indirect to be effective (e.g., "we don't need triangulation"), his empathy seemed contrived, and he failed to have a breakout moment. John Edwards' campaign is in a lot of trouble, and this debate didn't help.

Best moment: Edwards looked classy when he said that if a person didn't want to vote for Clinton because of her gender or Obama because of his race, he doesn't want his vote. I really thought he responded to that question ("Is Clinton 'woman' enough? Is Obama 'Black' enough?") in the best possible way a White male could.

Worst moment: Why in the world did John Edwards make that stupid remark about Clinton's pink jacket? Yes, it was a minor issue, but that's the kind of self-inflicted wound that Edwards can ill afford to make. It turned the crowd against him and in favor of Clinton who could play the victim. And it reminded female voters everywhere about how males may treat them diminutively both at home and at work. Women are sensitive about issues related to their appearance and don't want people telling them they are unattractive or their clothes are no good. And the fact that this happened at the end of the date means it's more likely that this gaffe was the last memory people had of his performance at the debate. Oops.

Immediate threat: Bill Richardson. Richardson has been methodically chipping away at the daylight between the two candidates in the polls. Richardson is now running third or tied for third in New Hampshire, for example. And this is leading to several stories in the media that talk about "Edwards jostling with Richardson for third place," "Edwards tied with Richardson in latest poll," and "Richardson replacing Edwards in the top tier." And when one looks at experience while comparing Edwards and Richardson, Richardson will win every time. If Richardson can overtake Edwards in an early primary state, Edwards is through.

Indispensable ally: Elizabeth Edwards. She speaks passionately and is highly sought after. In light of "Jacketgate," Edwards may need her to help smooth over tensions with female voters. Also, because Edwards is portrayed as a "rich trial lawyer" whose convictions "change with the polls," putting his wife on the campaign trail may serve to humanize him. Perhaps she can help him improve his standing among females by picking them off from Clinton's camp.

Where to go from here: Edwards needs a new issue. Even though poverty has been the main focus of his campaign so far, the debate audience cheered wildly when he grew angry and passionate as he railed against America's failed health care system and lack of health insurance. His anger seemed genuine too. That was a moment when he truly connected with average people. The poverty issue just doesn't seem to evoke such passion. Health insurance and access may be a new good direction for him.

Bill Richardson: Richardson did a much better job in this debate than he did in the previous ones, although he still doesn't sound as polished or as disciplined. However, there was no getting around the fact that Richardson is an exceptionally well-qualified candidate. And he made sure voters knew he was a governor (an executive), rather than a senator (a talker). Voters who worry about the collective lack of experience Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have may find Richardson to be an appealing alternative. Look for his standing in the polls to continue their slow rise, as he easily beat the low expectations his previous debate performances have created.

Best moment: The way Richardson spoke about education and No Child Left Behind connected with voters. I saw the post-debate stories about focus groups and dial-testing and they all agreed that Richardson evoked the most favorable responses when he talked about this. He gave an itemized list of what's wrong and how to fix it. That take-charge executive style of speaking really served him well.

Worst moment: Joe Biden challenged Richardson's Iraq withdrawal plan on the basis that it is not feasible to transport so many troops so quickly. This may have made some voters wonder if his "no residual forces" plan was really well thought out or if it was more of a slogan to appease the antiwar left.

Immediate threat: Joe Biden is probably the second most qualified candidate in the race. Biden is also the only candidate that can stand up to Richardson when it comes to foreign policy. Because of the force with which Biden speaks and how thoughtful his arguments are, Richardson must be careful not to let Biden encroach on his turf. After all, Richardson is supposed to be the "foreign policy" candidate, right? If voters believe Biden provides a foreign policy alternative, that could hurt Richardson.

Indispensable ally: John Edwards is making Bill Richardson look good, especially because the two of them are being mentioned together more frequently. The top-tier candidates receive a lot more media attention than the second-tier candidates. But because of Richardson's momentum, he is overtaking Edwards for the third slot. So stories of Edwards' decline are also yielding stories of Richardson's ascent.

Where to go from here: If Obama and Edwards continue on their current path (downward), Richardson could very well emerge as the Clinton alternative, or the ABH candidate. His job interview ads are clearly resonating and the depth of his knowledge of world affairs and executive issues is piercing through his lackluster debating skills. Could slow and steady be the ticket to winning the race?

Joe Biden: Biden turned in yet another superior debate performance. There is no denying the fact that for all his quirks and verbal gaffes, this is a very intelligent man. The way he talked about Iraq and why we can't withdraw displayed a level of thoughtfulness and engagement that voters around America could only wish the current president had. His honesty and painful truths also came across well. This provided a good contrast to Obama (even if it was only implicit) because it shows that we are living in a dangerous world with no easy solutions and that rhetoric and sparring over past votes ignores the perils facing the nation now. In my estimation, Biden won this debate in a rout.

Best moment: As stated above, the way he dissected the Iraq and Darfur issues clearly showed that Biden understands the world in which we live. He sounded authoritative, but not angry. I wonder how many Democrats in the audience wish he had run in '04 when there was a much weaker field of candidates?

Worst moment: Biden did not really have any bad moments during the debate, but the way he tried joking about Dennis Kucinich at the end was a bit off-putting. ("I don't like a damn thing about him.") For someone who is still recovering from the stigma of having a mouth that is out of control, he should be a bit more careful. Biden is not through yet, but he doesn't have much margin for error.

Immediate threat: Bill Richardson is occupying the same territory that Biden wants to occupy in terms of his experience, competence, and ability to get things done. Richardson has also provided a blueprint for how a middle of the pack candidate can vault into the top tier. There are still too many candidates in the race for Biden to get media ink. Richardson began to get more ink only recently. But if Richardson weren't in the race, Biden's ascent and passion would be the story. Richardson is to Biden what Obama and Edwards are to Gore. He needs the other guy to stumble before he has his opening.

Indispensable ally: Interestingly enough, Bill Richardson is also Joe Biden's ally in that they can both double team Obama and Edwards in terms of their youth and lack of experience. I've even seen a few people asking about a Richardson-Biden ticket or even having Biden as Secretary of State. This is all favorable press that Richardson helped generate. If Richardson is the "experience" candidate, then Biden is the "experience" alternative.

Where to go from here: Biden's future really depends on fundraising. I've seen campaign e-mails and other pundits raving about Biden's debate performance, so perhaps a "Biden boomlet" will take place. He's doing everything he possibly can, but there's just too much going on and there are too many candidates for him to break out. Perhaps he should call for issues debates in which all the candidates get together and talk about only one issue at a time. In other words, there could be an Iraq debate, an economy debate, an immigration debate, etc. An Iraq debate would be particularly beneficial for Biden.

Chris Dodd: Dodd is saying all the right things, he seems like a likable candidate, he is experienced, and he is a good speaker. But he's not catching any traction whatsoever. It took me a while, but I've finally figured it out. Dodd comes across as senatorial, rather than presidential. It's not his message, it's his presentation. He just doesn't seem to inspire or excite voters. So he gets lost in the shuffle. Monday's debate is no exception. He made no mistakes in the debate and seemed to be in line with most Democrats on most issues. However, for someone who is so far behind, Dodd lost by not winning. In other words, Dodd has to compel people to support him. And until he does that, people will continue to ignore him. When he speaks, one gets the impression that he is talking to the debate moderator, rather than to the voters. That's his biggest problem.

Best moment: Do you remember anything that Dodd said?

Worst moment: Again, do you remember anything that Dodd said?

Immediate threat: His presentation. Dodd is vanilla ice cream, white bread, and corn flakes all rolled into one. There's the Hillary, who needs no introduction; Obama, who is new and fresh; Edwards, who was the 2004 vice presidential nominee; Richardson, who has the funky job interview ads; Kucinich, the "peacenik" liberal (that's the caricature); and now Biden, the forceful foreign policy authority. What is Dodd? A senator.

Indispensable ally: Perhaps Dodd benefits from being the invisible candidate because this allows him to fly under the radar undetected. The only problem is, Bill Richardson was doing the same thing and is finally getting some buzz. Where is Dodd's buzz? At least he can benefit from exceeding expectations simply because there are no expectations at all right now.

Where to go from here: I'm really not sure what Dodd can do to improve his lot. He's going to need help from the other candidates in order to succeed. Perhaps other candidates will have to flame out or keep wailing on each other so much that voters get sick of all the candidates and leave the untouched Dodd as a new option. Dodd should also call for issues-oriented debates to help him demonstrate his grasp of policy at the expense of making Obama and Edwards look unready for prime time.

Dennis Kucinich: I thought Kucinich did a good job at the debate, as he was clearly unafraid to say things and express positions that the other more viable candidates don't have the political flexibility to say, such as unequivocally supporting gay marriage. He might not be the nominee, but at least he can serve as the liberal conscience for other candidates.

Best moment: "Strength through peace." To Democrats and war-weary independents, that sounds so much more appealing than "peace through strength."

Worst moment: Kucinich seemed a bit too eager to plug that text messaging service to end the war. Anderson Cooper rebuffed him by saying "this was not time for a political ad." Kucinich repeated the text messaging service during his "minivideo," which was a wasted opportunity to generate interest in his campaign. Is Kucinich running to be president, or is he running to end the war in Iraq? As for the slavery reparations question, that was an obvious low moment. However, it wasn't Kucinich's fault simply because the question came from a random citizen and the moderator asked him to respond to it. (Imagine if Clinton had to respond to that...)

Immediate threat: Until the media take him and his positions seriously, Kucinich is going nowhere.

Indispensable ally: His unimposing demeanor makes it difficult for other candidates to attack him. Attacking the "nonviolent, antiwar, liberal pushover" is not a good way to generate positive press about you or your campaign, right?

Where to go from here: If Kucinich keeps holding the other candidates' feet to the fire regarding the war, he may become a kingmaker. Other candidates don't want to engage him because he may become a gadfly candidate to them or because his rhetorical purity may put them on the defensive.

Mike Gravel: He did not do anything but take up valuable time, embarrass himself, and try to take another candidate down with him. His demeanor was angry, overly aggressive, and completely unnecessary. I really don't know what his platform is, as he seems to spend most of his time talking about how "electing the other candidates means maintaining the status quo." So, is he an advocate or a candidate? Or does he only want to lob grenades?

Best moment: In a moment of graciousness, Gravel took the time to thank one of the You Tube questioners for directing a question specifically to him. That was one of the few times when he did not seem to be foaming at the mouth.

Worst moment: Gravel tried to take down Obama unprovoked, but did not have the facts to back it up. This came off ugly and was in bad form.

Immediate threat: Future debate sponsors and organizers will probably take steps to exclude him from future debates. So they are a bigger threat to him than any issue or any candidate.

Where to go from here: Out the exit. Preferably sooner.

If I had to rank the candidates by how well they performed, I'd say the order would be:

1. Joe Biden (maybe he'll finally catch a spark)
2. Bill Richardson (the buzz about his candidacy is growing)
3. Hillary Clinton (she wins by not losing and continues to run out the clock)
4. Barack Obama (storm clouds are on the horizon; is the love affair over?)
5. Dennis Kucinich (his candor is refreshing)
6. John Edwards (once his Iowa support is gone, he's finished)
7. Chris Dodd (voters still don't know who this guy is)
8. Mike Gravel (whatever)


Some advice for CNN

I am writing this post more as a student of journalism, rather than a political analyst.

The CNN/You Tube debate tonight was fresh, and the format will be here to stay. Many of the questions were pointed and reflected the concerns of millions of Americans. However, I also believe there was a lot of wasted potential and a few issues that simply should be fixed:

1. There should be no excuse for technical problems at these debates. Why in the world were the microphones cutting off in the middle of the candidates' responses? Did anyone not conduct a sound check? This is not the first debate CNN has sponsored that was plagued by technical problems. The CNN brand is supposed to reflect the gold standard of journalism. However, having microphone problems (again) makes it look like the junior varsity squad is in charge of production.

2. Mike Gravel should not be invited to any further debates. He serves no purpose other than to vent and waste everyone's time. As I predicted in my previous post, I anticipated him trying to take somebody else down with him. Obama almost got caught in the crossfire, but Gravel bungled the attack, much to Obama's relief. However, all in all, Gravel clearly sounds angry, rather than presidential, and is only good for making the other Democrats look moderate by comparison. He is not a credible candidate, nor is he a viable one.

3. Whose idea was it to leave all that blank space on the screen when the actual You Tube videos were being played? It was quite difficult to see some of the videos, especially those that had no voiceovers and relied solely on printed words on the screen or placards. There was so much wasted space there. Either enlarge the video size or cut out the dead space. Why not put the submitter's name and location under the video and then enlarge both? Having them side by side created a lot of empty space.

4. When a candidate veers off topic and reverts to his or her talking points, the moderator should cut the microphone and move onto the next question for the next candidate. Chris Dodd and John Edwards were especially guilty of this. Anderson Cooper did his best to rein in the candidates, but they were determined to stay on message. This violated the request mentioned at the very beginning--that candidates actually respond to the questions directly rather than revert to their stump speeches. The candidates knew they could get away with violating this rule, and they did.

5. Questions that have no real merit or have nothing to do with policy positions or agendas should not be included. What was the point of the question from the guy holding up a quarter and asking what "in God we trust" means? What was the point of the "is Hillary woman enough" and "is Obama Black enough" questions? To feature these questions is to legitimize them. But these are not real issues at all and serve no real purpose other than to reinforce class and racial divisions, which benefits nobody.

Having said that, credit should be given where credit is due:

1. Anderson Cooper did a reasonably good job of balancing talk time among the candidates while giving more credible candidates a bit more time to respond. Mike Gravel complained a bit about not having enough talk time, but I think the audience appreciated this particular imbalance.

2. Most of the questions asked were sharp and put the candidates in a bind. Credit should be given to the team that sifted through the thousands and thousands of submissions. I found myself criticizing the candidates for not answering some of the questions directly because I knew some of the questions were too hot for them to handle. The question about sending US troops to Darfur was a perfect example of this.

3. Including a few of the lighter videos added a nice touch. Sprinkling a few of these questions throughout the debate helped keep the audience interested and the candidates loose. This even led to a few memorable moments, such as Biden saying the people of Tennessee were probably embarrassed by the man with the exaggerated Southern accent who asked if their feelings were hurt by stories of Al Gore's possible entry into the race.

4. Anderson Cooper did his best to pin down some of the candidates when they tried to dodge some of the questions. Credit goes to Cooper for trying to cut through the spin and political-speak and get a clear answer to an honest question.

5. This format worked and is likely here to stay. I think this format is a triumph for citizen journalists and will definitely make politics more accessible to young people and average people. It gives voters a real sense of ownership and control to know that they can directly influence events such as this.

Final grade: B+


The You Tube Test (D)

The Democratic presidential candidates will debate once again at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. This debate will be unique in that all the questions in the debate will come from private citizens who submitted them via You Tube. This format will be a potential minefield for the candidates because some of the questions may catch them off guard and make it difficult for them to revert to their talking points in their responses.

This debate is significant for another reason as well, in my estimation. This debate marks the last best chance for some of the candidates to right their ships. Even though the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries are still six months away, more and more people are beginning to tune into the political process and make up their minds about who they do and do not like.

Hillary Clinton: Hillary Clinton enters the debate in as enviable a position as anyone, especially after her high profile battle with the Pentagon. Clinton has been able to bolster her defense credentials and put the "woman" issue to rest. Perhaps her biggest weakness remains her biggest strength--her last name. She has no reason to take any bold positions, as all she has to do is look competent and sound approachable. As the leader of the pack, she has little need to go on offense against the other candidates.

The perception she wants to create: Clinton wants to solidify her position among anti-war liberals regarding the war. It seems like she has gotten a free pass in terms of her Iraq War vote. Her "I take responsibility for my vote" explanations seem to have served her well enough. In short, she wants to look like an antiwar candidate with a backbone that will allow her to stand up to the president. Look for her to challenge Bush's Iraq policy more forcefully in the debate. Also look for her to bolster her street cred among Black voters, many of whom are in Obama's camp.

The questions she wants to put to rest: Clinton has to put to rest questions about her electability in the general contest next November. While she definitely has the inside track to securing the Democratic nomination, she will start the general election off with a lot of unpersuadable voters against her. She has to allay concerns that she is not as polarizing as her name indicates.

What she definitely wants to avoid: Clinton's standing in the polls has slowly been on an uptick as voters become more comfortable with the idea of a second Clinton presidency. Complaints about her harshness seem to have been replaced by complaints about her wonkiness, which is a definite step in the right direction. She needs to avoid any hint of arrogance because that would remind voters of the open mic gaffe from a few days ago and make people question exactly why Clinton is the "inevitable candidate."

Margin of error: As the front-runner, she has a lot of room in which to maneuver. She doesn't have to hit any home runs, but she does need to keep belting out those singles and doubles. If she's able to do this, she will continue to gain inertia and make it even more difficult for her to be beaten. She doesn't need to take any risks during this debate, as the status quo is probably good enough for her.

Barack Obama: Barack Obama has not had a good couple of weeks. I get the sense that despite his incredible fundraising, some of the bloom is off of his rose. His fundraising prowess does not seem to be translating into support at the polls, unfortunately. And while Hillary Clinton was going toe to toe with the Pentagon and the State Department, Obama was on defense against Mitt Romney about sex education in kindergarten. He also implored the United States to send its military to Darfur to stop the genocide there, but recently said that the goal of the United States military in Iraq should not be to prevent genocide there. Contradictions and rookie mistakes such as this make this debate far more important for Obama than it is for Clinton simply because those doubts about his readiness for primetime are creeping back up. Could Obama '08 be Dean '04?

The perception he wants to create: Simply put, Obama needs to show that he knows how to lead. His inspirational language has gotten everyone's attention, but they will not commit to him for too much longer if they believe he's trying to get by solely on optimism and vision. Voters have been patient so far, but the expectations for him are a bit higher than they are for someone like John Edwards, who is similarly inexperienced. Look for Obama to put forth some new policy proposals with reasonably fine details about how he plans to implement them. He has successfully introduced himself to voters so far, but now they are impatiently waiting for the second act. Obama needs to show voters that there's more to him than lofty rhetoric and platitudes.

The questions he wants to put to rest: As I said earlier, Obama would be wise to squelch those nagging doubts people have about his inexperience. If Democratic voters are hungry for competence, then Obama is in trouble. If he is unable to do this, look for his support to plummet. Then he'll become one of the leading candidates for the vice presidency.

What he definitely wants to avoid: The genocide contradiction I listed earlier is potentially fatal because it strikes at the heart of why so many people have such reservations about him. Should he issue a mea culpa? Will he be able to tap dance his way around reconciling those two statements about Iraq and Darfur? He also needs to avoid ceding any further ground among Blacks to Clinton because this could lead to a rash of bad press about "why aren't Blacks supporting Obama?"

Margin of error: Very, very small. The status quo will not work for Obama for too much longer. The last thing he needs is for Democratic voters to view him as a "yeah, but" candidate. He needs to be forceful, he needs to be thorough, and he needs to be a leader. The vision thing won't work this time.

John Edwards: Like Obama, John Edwards is in trouble. His entire campaign now rests solely on Iowa, seeing that he is running third in his home state of South Carolina and fourth in New Hampshire behind Bill Richardson. He has already been defined by the media and his political opponents as a lightweight rich kid who can't stand up for himself. He can thank his wife for that (see her recent spat with Ann Coulter on MSNBC's Hardball). One gets the sense that there's really not much reason to vote for Edwards because he seems to be an empty shell who is having diminished credibility talking about "his" issue (poverty). John Edwards needs to stop the bleeding because if he loses his support in Iowa, his campaign is finished.

The perception he wants to create: John Edwards needs to neutralize Obama. He can do this by playing up his own limited experience. He also needs to use his geography to his advantage. Surprisingly, this is something he hasn't talked about much on the campaign trail. Edwards should be running much stronger in South Carolina and in other Southern states. He should portray himself as someone who knows what rural and Southern voters think about. He should portray himself as someone who understands Southern history and why Southerners have such a distrust for the government and for the North. Voters already know he's the anti-poverty candidate, but voters looking for "hope" are already in Obama's camp. Edwards needs to define himself differently. A "Southerner" may be the last best way to do this.

The questions he wants to put to rest: Edwards could portray himself as an acceptable alternative to Obama if he demonstrates a bit of policy heft. Fortunately for him, Obama is receiving the brunt of scrutiny about inexperience, so Edwards can look like a veteran by comparison. However, he is still dogged by the inexperience question and needs to prove his critics wrong.

What he definitely wants to avoid: John Edwards should consider himself lucky if he doesn't give late night comedians any additional fodder about his "rich kid" lifestyle. Voters will not take him seriously if the first thing they think about with him is an expensive haircut. Edwards should confront any questions related to this caricature head on and remind voters that there are a lot of other more important issues they should be focusing on. Trying to say that other candidates are rich too or making a lame joke about it could prove fatal.

Margin of error: Like Obama, John Edwards is skating on thin ice. He runs the risk of slipping into the second tier and having his campaign come to an unceremonious, premature end. John McCain may have the fortitude and the sea legs to rise from the ashes and save his campaign, but John Edwards might not. Caricatures are destroying him right now.

Bill Richardson: Bill Richardson probably has the most to gain from this debate. Aside from Hillary Clinton, he enters the debate in the best position. Momentum is definitely with him, as he has seen his standing in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls improve considerably after a successful advertising campaign. Democratic voters who will not vote for Clinton under any circumstances and who seek a bit more heft than Obama and Edwards are demonstrating should be Richardson's prime target. He also has the ability to scoop up moderate and conservative Democrats based on his positions on taxes and guns. No other candidate can credibly talk about these issues without turning off a large segment of the general electorate.

The perception he wants to create: Bill Richardson needs to show that there is a bit of humor and likability to go along with his obvious intellect and experience. His performances in the debates so far have been lukewarm at best, as he seemed confused or even angry because of his poor stage presence. If he can improve the way he connects with voters on television, he may be able to pick off some of Obama's supporters who have reservations about his inexperience, but want to send a message about the Democratic Party's commitment to being friendly to ethnic minorities. Richardson also needs to remind moderate and conservative Democrats that he is their candidate. If he can remind them that all the other candidates are running to his left, he could see his standing in the polls continue to improve.

The questions he wants to put to rest: Richardson has been dogged by questions about his "evolving" positions and his lack of focus in the debates. He is also not good at speaking in sound bytes, which is a mixed blessing. However, voters would like for their presidents to be a bit more telegenic. Running over the established time limits as he goes through bullet point after bullet point might not be the best way for him to go about doing this. Voters know he's competent. Now he just has to show them that he has a lighter side as well.

What he definitely wants to avoid: The last thing Bill Richardson needs is to sound equivocal on illegal immigration. Nobody really knows where he stands on the issue other than that he is against a border fence. As a child of a White American father and a Mexican mother, voters with a nativist streak may plant doubts in voters' minds about where his loyalty lies.

Margin of error: It seems that voters are really looking for an alternative to the Clinton-Obama slugfest. Of all the second tier candidates, Richardson has the best chance to be this alternative. Richardson's previous debate performances haven't been all that good. But his standing in the polls has increased despite them. So perhaps more of the same would be good enough for him. However, a solid home run would be a boon to his campaign and a potentially fatal blow for Obama and Edwards, both of whom are flagging a bit.

Joe Biden: Joe Biden is definitely saying all the right things. He has not made any real mistakes at all since stepping all over his own campaign announcement several months ago. However, he is not really attracting much buzz. This debate will probably make or break his campaign unless he goes on offense and draws blood.

The perception he wants to create: Biden needs to show voters that he is a serious, viable candidate. Period. But in addition to that, he needs to press his Iraq policy a bit more forcefully because he seems to be all alone on that issue. Saying "out of Iraq now" is not enough. Putting forth his detailed partitioning policy sounds like something a commander in chief would propose. He needs to ride this horse all the way to the finish line if he wants to move up in the polls.

The questions he wants to put to rest: It's the same question that confronted him in the first debate: Is he a serious candidate?

What he definitely wants to avoid: Any gaffe at this point is fatal. Biden is still trying to deal with the caricature of him as always having his foot in his mouth. Validating this caricature with another gaffe would finish him off for sure.

Margin of error: When you're as far behind in the polls as Biden is, the margin of error simply doesn't exist. Time is running out for him to make some waves.

Chris Dodd: Dodd's inability to catch fire in the campaign has been a bit difficult to understand. He is experienced and intelligent, has put forth several good policy proposals, and hasn't made any real mistakes thus far. However, Dodd is coming across like a slice of white bread. How can a "generic liberal Northeastern Democrat" compete with the likes of a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama? And even Bill Richardson is scooping up voters who place a premium on competence and experience. There's simply not enough oxygen left for him.

The perception he wants to create: The one thing Dodd does have going for him is the fact that Democrats generally know who Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are. If they haven't made up their minds about them by now, they probably will never support them. Dodd needs to reach out to these unaffiliated voters and actually define himself to them. Dodd needs to stand behind the podium and say "I'm Chris Dodd and I believe I can be a more effective president than any other candidate on this stage. I'm not as fresh or as handsome as the other candidates here, but I'm a lot more experienced and a lot more electable." Mike Gravel was able to make an impression on voters in the first debate. Dodd wasn't. In fact, Dodd seems to be the most obscure candidate remaining in the race. In a nutshell, Dodd needs to have a moment and an issue that define his campaign.

The questions he wants to put to rest: "Who's Chris Dodd?" People shouldn't still be asking this at this stage of the game.

What he definitely wants to avoid: Dodd needs to avoid gaining name recognition the Mike Gravel way--by saying crazy things.

Margin of error: When you're running so far behind and are stuck in neutral, your back is pretty much against the wall. If Dodd doesn't have a breakout moment soon, he risks getting lapped by the other candidates. Dodd may have more to gain from this debate than any other candidate except Bill Richardson because none of the other candidates are as invisible as Dodd is right now. He should use this blank slate to his advantage.

Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich continues to soldier on. Voters know who he is, but he is still seen as a one-issue candidate (Iraq withdrawal). Until that perception changes, Kucinich's campaign is going nowhere. Even liberal Democrats seem to be throwing their support behind other candidates.

The perception he wants to create: An aura of viability. Can he really make liberalism trendy again? And can get any any traction from the bad form exhibited by Clinton and Edwards when they were speaking into open microphones about eliminating the gadfly candidates?

The questions he wants to put to rest: Any questions about his wife. Seriously, it's never a good sign when the media seem more interested in your wife than in you.

What he definitely wants to avoid: Kucinich is in a situation where it doesn't matter what people say about him because he will keep fighting what he believes is the good fight--even if that means he's fighting it all alone.

Margin of error: Kucinich has absolutely nothing to lose. To his credit, he has remained consistent on his main issues (Iraq and impeachment). He can afford to continue to challenge the more established candidates on "his" issues because his "truth" and the core of his convictions sound much stronger than their non-denial denials and dodging.

Mike Gravel: Gravel has lost any chance of being the nominee. Voters know who he is now, and they are tired of him. The field is expected to winnow soon, and voters will be looking for him to make his graceful exit.

The perception he wants to create: It's too late. Voters have already made up their minds about him. If anything, he needs to show voters that he is not a lunatic. When that's what you're trying to do as a politician, that's when it's time to reassess your campaign.

The questions he wants to put to rest: It's too late. Gravel has assumed the role of the crazy uncle we invite to family reunions just because he's family even though nobody really wants to talk to him.

What he definitely wants to avoid: It's too late. Voters don't like him.

Margin of error: It's too late. His campaign is finished. But look for him to leave on his own terms. He won't be pushed out of the race by any means. However, Gravel does have the unique ability to throw the other candidates off kilter. If he can do that, he may be able to bring a candidate or two down with him.

In short:
Clinton needs to just stay in cruise control.
Obama needs to take things to the next level.
Edwards needs to plug up his sinking ship.
Richardson needs to harness his momentum and use it to propel him into the top tier.
Biden needs to give voters a reason to take him seriously.
Dodd needs to give voters a reason to actually know who he is.
Kucinich needs to challenge the other candidates to put their money where their mouth is regarding the war and impeachment.
Gravel needs to drop out.


What Iowa Really Means

Next month is the first major contest that will likely significantly winnow the presidential field, at least on the GOP side. It's the Ames Straw Poll which takes place on August 11 in Ames, Iowa. This contest, while largely symbolic, is the first real test of candidates' organizational strength in Iowa--a state where retail politics and pressing flesh are more important than giving an impersonal 15-minute stump speech at an airport and saturating the airwaves with 30-second ads. So that levels the playing field a bit, thus allowing even underfinanced candidates and those with limited name recognition the opportunity to become competitive.

Expectations are the name of the game here. A strong showing is not as important as a stronger than expected showing. Likewise, a weaker than expected showing often tells a candidate that the writing is on the wall and that it's time to abandon their campaign and endorse a stronger, more viable candidate.

This year's straw poll will be a bit different from previous cycles'. The main reason why is because two of the biggest names will not participate (Giuliani and McCain) while a third is not yet under any oblication to participate because he remains undeclared (Fred Thompson). This leaves Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Ron Paul, Tommy Thompson, Tom Tancredo, and Duncan Hunter as the possible beneficiaries (or casualties) of the poll's results. Pundits have mentioned that Giuliani and McCain are making terrible mistakes by not participating in the straw poll because the Iowa voters will remember this come caucus time next January. Fred Thompson's case is a little bit different, although people may be beginning to wonder what's taking him so long to officially get in the race. In the meantime, he can cite the lack of time for establishing a campaign apparatus in the state as his reason for not participating in the straw poll. Mitt Romney, who has been advertising and campaigning heavily in the state, would seem to be the main beneficiary of these developments because that makes him the only big name candidate participating in the poll.

Again, this is all the conventional wisdom. I see things a bit differently.

While Romney certainly seems to be the odds-on favorite, is it possible that he lost by winning? Romney has invested so much time, energy, and financial resources into Iowa. And now Ames has less meaning because three of the biggest heavyweights are not participating in it. Seeing that Romney is the lone heavyweight remaining, he is expected to win the contest. Anything other than a Romney rout could be seen as a disappointment. And placing second would definitely be considered a shocking loss. And even if Romney won in a blow out, his opponents could diminish his victory as a Pyrrhic one simply because his toughest competition declined to participate. A second-tier candidate, such as Sam Brownback, could actually be seen as "winning" the straw poll simply by coming in second.

This straw poll will make or break several candidacies. A poor performance by Tommy Thompson from neighboring Wisconsin, Mike Huckabee from nearby Arkansas, or Sam Brownback from nearby Kansas will be fatal for their candidacy. Look for them to withdraw from the race. However, because Huckabee and Brownback are essentially positioning themselves as the same candidate (e.g., champion of social conservatives), don't look for both of them to drop out at the same time. Whoever performs more strongly will likely stick it out a few weeks longer and try to pillage the weaker candidate's support.

Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter remain longshots. Illegal immigration is probably not as much of an issue in Iowa, which is overwhelmingly White and nowhere near the border. Even if the issue inflames Iowa conservatives, they probably aren't as impacted by it as voters in Colorado or Georgia or Arizona. They have nothing to lose by staying in the race after Iowa because the gap between them and the first-tier candidates will undoubtedly shrink simply because the field of candidates will shrink. Instead of vaulting past five candidates to enter the top tier, they will only have to vault past one or two. A smaller field will allow for some of these lower tiered candidates to get a bit more media oxygen. After all, it's a lot easier to focus on a race with 6 or 7 candidates than it is to focus on one with 10 or 11.

Ron Paul is in a league by himself. It is really unknown how well he will perform in this poll. His message about Iraq resonates strongly with liberal antiwar Democrats and skeptical Republicans, his anti-abortion and anti-tax credentials are impeccable, and he is most definitely not an "insider." His online legions are quite vocal in getting the word out about his campaign, but I have yet to see a huge groundswelling for him in the polls. With the departures of Giuliani, whose moderate views probably don't match well with the socially conservative base of Iowa Republicans, and McCain, whose candidacy is in serious trouble, Paul may turn out to be the surprise story of the evening.

As for Giuliani, his campaign seems to be slowly losing altitude. If McCain's candidacy had not imploded, Giuliani's erosion in support would almost certainly be the major story. An Iowa victory for him seems a bit too much to ask, both in the straw poll and in the caucus next year. And Romney is performing better in New Hampshire than Giuliani is as well. And then Fred Thompson is running very strongly in South Carolina. Can Giuliani really survive until Super Tuesday if he doesn't win any of the first three major contests?

Fred Thompson can write off the Ames Straw Poll for now, but he can't "test the waters" for too much longer. There will come a point when voters get impatient or the media begin to look for new storylines about him possibly having something to hide or if he's more style than substance.

Iowa is crucial for Romney. If he fails there, he's in serious trouble because like John Edwards on the Democratic side, he has placed so many of his chips there. Any letdown in Ames or Des Moines could prove fatal. The departures of McCain and Giuliani make this straw poll a must-win for him, and they also guarantee that Romney likely will not receive a significant return on his investment simply because the straw poll has been rendered a bit more meaningless now--after he invested so much of his campaign war chest in the state.


Edwards and Romney: A Study in Caricatures

John Edwards is in a lot of trouble.

The $400 haircut fiasco has become for him what "I voted for it before I voted against it" became for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign. Fairly or not, this caricature is sticking to Edwards and I'm not so sure he is able to successfully play it off.

The problem with caricatures is that they interfere with a politician's actual message. Obviously, a $400 haircut is not really worth talking about, especially since wealthy people and politicians often spend far more than that on their private jets, aged wines, fine dining, and hired help at their homes. A caricature requires less thought to process and internalize than an actual policy position. How many people actually know what Joe Biden's position on the Iraq War is? I'm willing to bet that far more people know that "he's the guy who says stupid things" or that "he's the gaffe machine" than know of his idea of partitioning Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions.

Democrats in particular have fared the worst when they fall prey to a caricature. It seems that Democrats and Republicans respond to them differently. Democrats try to compensate for the perceived flaw, thus coming across as unprincipled or scripted because it seems awkward. They may then be labeled as an opportunist or a political weathervane. Think about Al Gore's presidential run in 2000. People criticized him for being stiff. How did he "solve" the problem? By being overly aggressive and getting in George Bush's face at a debate. His overcorrection led to unfair (but effective) charges of there being "multiple Al Gores," thus creating yet another caricature that provided a convenient foil for the "plainspoken" Bush. When Gore actually found the "right" balance in the final debate, it was too late because this "new" Al Gore was just like the "old" one in that nobody knew who the "real" Gore was.

In 2004, John Kerry was caricatured, among other things, as an elitist who had nothing in common with "the average American." To compensate for this, he donned hunting gear and participated in a hunting trip/photo op in Ohio in the weeks before Election Day. This was absolutely disastrous for him because he obviously seemed out of his element, thus reinforcing the charges that "he cannot relate to what average people do because he's an elitist." At the same time, the photo op reeked of political opportunism and pandering, thus reinforcing yet another caricature of him--that he would say or do anything if he thought it would get him elected.

Republicans, on the other hand, seem to handle caricatures a bit more effectively. When their warts are exposed, they shine a lantern on them and play it off as "authenticity." George Bush was derided as "a lightweight" or "a buffoon" in the 2000 campaign. But rather than attempting to compensate for it by staging photo ops in libraries or using advanced vocabulary in his speeches, he turned it into an opportunity to appear humble and average--just like the average voter. How many times have you heard Bush and his handlers respond to claims of ineloquence by saying "that's just how he is"? They made no apologies for it and moved on. In the end, what separates Bush from Gore and Kerry in this regard is that with Bush, the caricature became a part of his identity, but it actually became Gore and Kerry's identity.

It appears that John Edwards is falling into the same trap. And what makes this trap even more lethal is the fact that the expensive haircut story contradicts the main pillar of his campaign--his crusade against poverty. So when he rails against the "two Americas" on the campaign trail, voters may have a hard time discerning whether Edwards is authentically talking about "his" campaign issue (poverty) or if he is trying to awkwardly compensate for being branded as a "rich kid who gets expensive haircuts."

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is being blasted as a flip flopper. But you'll notice that this label is not sticking to him as easily as the "rich kid" label is sticking to John Edwards. Instead of denying his obvious "conversions" on issues social conservatives hold dear (e.g., abortion, gay rights), he is actually embracing these new positions. He is not apologizing for holding views that are in line with those of the GOP base. And it is working because he is now buoyed by strong poll performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. There may be derisive remarks about "flip flop Mitt," but there are a lot of other remarks about "how Mitt is clearly running to the right."

However, even though he is responding to the flip flop caricature effectively, I believe he is doing a far less sufficient job of responding to the panderer caricature. It is no secret that Romney is trying to appeal to the millions of evangelicals that form the religious right. It is also no secret that many voters are uncomfortable with the fact that he is a Mormon. Romney recently created an ad comparing America's children to being trapped in a sea of filth and smut. One would think this ad would go over well because it appeals directly to the people he's trying to reach--religious voters. However, his overtures appear awkward and this latest ad is no exception. Voters may forgive Romney for his flip-flopping on conservative issues, but they may not forgive him for appearing like a fraud. Perhaps it would be wiser for Romney to address his Mormonism head on, rather than let it percolate beneath the surface every time he makes overtures to evangelical Christians without addressing the very issue that makes these Christians skeptical of him to begin with.

Hillary Clinton seems to understand this, as she is now bringing Bill Clinton along on the campaign trail. She is caricatured as "living in Bill's shadow." So what does she do? Rather than feed into the caricature by campaigning solo and letting these doubts linger, she lets him warm up the crowd for her. And even if she is not as charismatic as he is, at least she's able to show that she can stand on her own two feet even in his presence.

Rudy Giuliani seems to get it too. He knows he is not going to be seen as the champion of family values. So he doesn't showcase his wife when he's on the trail. What's the point of trying to show that your marriage and family life are really healthy when people already accept the fact that it's not? So Giuliani doesn't showcase his wife in his campaign ads. He's not running as the "family values" candidate either. Why should he? There's no benefit for him to do that.

John Edwards really needs to be careful because he has little margin for error now, especially in light of recent polls showing him in a statistical tie for third with Bill Richardson in New Hampshire. Once the candidate becomes the caricature, you're doomed.


Whither Vitter: What is a Conservative?

I wrote the following letter to the editor of The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper. It was written in response to the ongoing statewide debate about ending blue laws. I wrote the letter on June 29 and it was published shortly before Independence Day:

The ongoing debate over blue laws perfectly illustrates why the Republican Party is in trouble.

Religious conservatives (primarily from the South) believe blue laws are necessary so that people can attend church or spend time at home with their families. Having to work on Sundays would prevent them from worshiping freely and spending Sundays in department stores and shopping malls goes against what the Sabbath represents.

Small government and libertarian-minded conservatives (primarily from the West), who may or may not be religiously devout, believe it should be up to individual people to determine how they want to spend their Sundays. If someone wants to go shopping at 11:00 Sunday morning, that is their perogative and they don't want other people taking this choice away from them.

How much longer will religious conservatives and libertarian conservatives be able to coexist as Republicans? I sense a divorce on the horizon.

-Anthony Palmer
Columbia, SC

What does this have to do with Senator David Vitter of Louisiana? Everything.

Politically savvy readers of The 7-10 probably know by now about Sen. Vitter's current political crisis by now. For those who are unaware, the phone number of Sen. Vitter appeared in the phone records of the "D.C. Madam," who is charged with running a prostitution ring out of D.C. area hotels. Sen. Vitter has since apologized and "asked for forgiveness."

Everybody loves a good sex scandal, no matter how much we complain about how the media focus too much on such tawdry subjects despite all the other more serious issues going on in the world. What makes this story all the more intriguing is the fact that it concerns a Republican. And it's not just any Republican--it's a "family values" Republican.

Jubilant squeals of hypocrisy from liberals and Democrats are predictable. Grumbling among conservatives and Republicans about liberal media bias and double standards as they investigate this story are also predictable. But not many people are talking about how this relative non-story illustrates a growing problem within the Republican Party. It's a problem that pits two major factions of the GOP against each other: small-government conservatives and the religious right.

Like I said in the letter I sent to The State, small-government conservatives generally want to be left alone. They don't want the government meddling in their personal lives and have more of a live and let live philosophy. These conservatives have a strong libertarian streak. While they may not agree with certain behaviors, they don't mind because they feel people should have the right to live their lives how they want, so long as they are not hurting anyone else. Soliciting prostitutes is probably not something most people would view as positive, but to these conservatives, to each his own. So their reaction to the Vitter story is likely one of lament that "big government" is interfering with personal liberties. Government itself is the enemy, not Vitter, and not the prostitutes.

Social and religious conservatives, however, are probably in mourning over one of their "lost sheep." To them, the enemy is not the government, but rather our society's decaying morality and liberals and homosexuals that promote this decay in values. These social and religious conservatives are staunch opponents of sex-related issues such as abortion and gay marriage. They passionately defend keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, advocate prayer in public schools, and want nothing other than monogamy to be taught to schoolchildren. Infidelity is obviously feverishly railed against.

The problem for Senator Vitter is that while he has campaigned and legislated as an "Ozzie and Harriet" Christianist conservative, his encounters with the D.C. Madam and her ring of prostitutes are more reflective of the freedoms a small-government leave-me-alone conservative would defend.

How can both types of conservatives coexist under the Republican nameplate?

This dynamic is playing out in the presidential race as well. John McCain is of the Barry Goldwater mold of leave-me-alone conservatism. Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback are vying for the mantle of torchbearer of the religious right. Both groups constitute two of the three main constituent groups of the GOP (with the final group being defense hawks). And now many jaded Republicans are looking optimistically at Fred Thompson because they believe he is a blend of all three.

However, the influence of religious conservatives has been growing. Terri Schaivo, stem-cell research, constitutional bans on gay marriage, and the Ten Commandments have galvanized these conservatives into action, with varying degrees of success. However, the fact that these issues have been pushed to the forefront of the political dialogue (especially when Capitol Hill was dominated by Republicans before the Democratic takeover in 2006) is a testament to the political muscle these conservatives have developed over the years.

Now the Republicans are cannibalizing each other because no one can really say what a "real conservative" is now. How many times have you heard the GOP presidential candidates stress their "conservative bonafides" in the debates? Rudy Giuliani talks about the importance of being on "offense" against the terrorists. Mike Huckabee is "pro-life for the whole life." Ron Paul is basically a full-blown rebadged Libertarian. John McCain yearns for "smaller, smarter government."

There's got to be some sort of compromise or mutual understanding between these camps. If they can't reconcile their differences, they stand no chance in 2008. A divided house cannot stand, right? Perhaps to get around this issue, many of the candidates are comparing themselves to Ronald Reagan. However, this is merely a distraction because these conservatives have no choice but to redefine themselves as themselves. Disingenuously trying to run as someone they obviously are not is not likely to be a winning strategy. (Just ask John Kerry.)

So that leaves us with my original question: Exactly what is a conservative? Hopefully the political fallout surrounding David Vitter will help us understand.


The Horserace (R)

While the Democratic presidential race has a clear king of the hill (or rather, a queen in this case), no such figure exists on the Republican side of the ledger. In a sense, the Republican nomination is truly a jump ball. There are maybe three or four candidates that could all be considered to have the inside track to the nomination, but all four have a potentially fatal flaw that keeps them from trouncing the opposition.

John McCain has seen his stock value fall considerably over the past few months. The maverick has become the establishment, and the establishment is not popular right now. McCain has tied himself too closely to President Bush on the Iraq War, which is unarguably the single most important issue facing the United States right now. As goes Iraq, so goes Bush. And as goes Bush, so goes McCain?

John McCain has angered conservatives by "compromising" with Senate Democrats on campaign finance reform, joining the "Gang of 14" in the previous congress, and not voting in lock step with the party line. Moderates and independents who flocked to his 2000 campaign are now giving Rudy Giuliani their attention. Conservatives who don't trust McCain are looking at Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney. So it's really no wonder why his fundraising is struggling. After all, who is his base? What does a John McCain voter look like?

Having said that, McCain might not be in as much trouble as one might initially suspect. One of McCain's weaknesses is also his strength: his record. McCain is a known quantity who could play the role of the elder statesman. Giuliani, Romney, and even Fred Thompson can't do that. If those three candidates turn out to be flashes in the pan, McCain could stand to benefit the most from their demise. Secondly, McCain has a compelling biography and is a true war hero. He is perhaps the only serious GOP candidate that Rudy Giuliani cannot accuse of being soft on terrorism. McCain has also consistently voted pro-life and has a libertarian streak that plays well in Western states. He could also put Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania into play because of his views on guns. Thus, he could make the electoral math a bit difficult for the Democrats.

If GOP primary voters realize this, they may view the raggedy, unsexy McCain as their best shot at maintaining control of the White House for a third consecutive term. And since he is no longer at the top of the polls, expectations for his campaign have likely been lowered, thus allowing him a greater chance of generating positive news coverage later if he exceeds these expectations in the future. However, having only $2 million on hand will force him to use his resources wisely. McCain will never win if he tries to "out conservative" his rivals. He needs to just run as himself--a competent, pragmatic veteran.

Rudy Giuliani has probably surprised a lot of political observers by being as viable as he has been so far. But I get the sense that he has already peaked. Aside from being "America's Mayor," what other reason is there to vote for Giuliani? Are there really that many moderates left in the GOP? Conservatives won't vote for him because they'll likely be in Fred Thompson's camp. And these moderates might be turned off by Giuliani's rhetoric as of late, such as insinuating that Bill Clinton failed to hear the call of war against us after the first World Trade Center attack. Saying that electing Democrats would only put the nation on defense against the terrorists also undermines his image as the national healer and determined unifier on September 11. Such red meat may placate conservatives, but I doubt they'll vote for him anyway because of his moderate to liberal social positions and the fact that Fred Thompson seems more genuine in his conservatism. And the moderates who would be inclined to vote for Giuliani are probably a bit put off by that divisive rhetoric. Having said that, a Giuliani nomination would put some of the blue states into play, including California. But would it make some of the red states better pick-up opportunities for the Democrats? And if Giuliani is the nominee, would conservatives stay home in November?

Mitt Romney is not performing so well in the national polls, but he is doing quite well in the polls in the states that matter: Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa's large percentage of social conservatives is buoying his poll numbers there. And New Hampshire is as close to a home state primary as he can get. However, because of McCain and Giuliani's departure from the Ames Straw Poll in August, expectations for a Romney blowout are too large to be ignored. If for some reason he does not win in Ames, he will be in serious trouble. The Mormon thing is also not going away even if people are not talking about it as much in the media. Could this explain why he is failing to gain much traction in South Carolina? The idea of voting for a Mormon from Massachusetts who recently found conservatism just isn't going to sit well with a large part of the GOP electorate. This has been the conventional wisdom for ages, but I really think it's true.

Fred Thompson has single-handedly turned the GOP race on its head. He's the GOP's Barack Obama in that people are swooning over his candidacy even though they really don't know so much about him or his positions. Thompson has shown a few chinks in his armor, however, as he clumsily stated that "he did not recall" having lobbied for a family planning (read pro-choice) organization. He also turned off moderates by weighing in on the Scooter Libby commutation. Conservatives were likely pleased by his comments, but if conservatives are splitting their votes between Thompson, McCain, and Romney, who is going to win out? So far it seems that Thompson is more style than substance, but he seems to be the candidate that conservatives are pinning their hopes on and placing the conservative mantle on. As more and more unsavory details from his past emerge regarding his time in the Senate and as a lobbyist, look to see how adequately he defends himself. If he's slow on his feet, his campaign could be over before it even gets started. He's got conservatives' attention now, but he needs a second act to keep them interested.

Sam Brownback and Jim Gilmore are irrelevant and will likely drop out next month after Ames. Tommy Thompson has also said that he would drop out if he didn't win the straw poll.

Mike Huckabee seems to be the emperor with no clothes. Time is running out for him to develop a viable campaign infrastructure. After several consistently strong debate performances, he has come to be held in high regard. But nobody wants to support a candidate who doesn't seem viable or credible. Huckabee still has a chance, especially if Rudy McRomney and Fred Thompson turn out to be a bust.

The campaigns of Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo received new life because of the Scooter Libby commutation. After all, if Libby's 30-month prison sentence was "excessive," what are conservatives to think of the 11- and 12-year sentences the two border control agents received for shooting a fleeing illegal immigrant drug dealer? The anti-illegal immigration and nativist wings of the Republican Party will continue to find a home with Tancredo, and the voters who are also interested in homeland security ones may be happy with Hunter. However, Hunter and Tancredo are cannibalizing each other. There's not enough room for both of them in this campaign.

Ron Paul remains a question mark. His $2.4 million in campaign funds is 20% more than what is in John McCain's coffers. (Imagine how the McCain camp felt dealing with those kinds of headlines...) Iowa might be a bit of a stretch for him, but a surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire is not out of the question because of its libertarian leanings.

Newt Gingrich is smart to sit on the sidelines while the other candidates are subjected to all this scrutiny and infighting. He has said before that he would make his decision this fall if none of the major candidates seem credible. If McCain runs out of money, Fred Thompson turns out to be an empty suit, Romney is not trusted, and Giuliani is abandoned by both conservatives and less partisan moderates, this would give Gingrich the opening he needs. Despite his character flaws, one cannot deny his competence and genuine conservative bonafides. It is this competence and credibility, combined with memories of Gingrich standing on the Capitol steps after the Republican takeover in 1995, that could propel him to the nomination.

Are we looking at Gingrich vs. Gore in '08? With Huckabee and Obama duking it out for the vice presidency?

The Republican field is a bit oversubscribed right now. However, the field will winnow within the next few weeks. After that, the debates should become a bit more meaningful. And even though 2008 appears to be a Democratic year, the Republicans have a much stronger bench than their level of satisfaction with their current candidates indicates.


Hillary's First Mistake

It finally happened.

Hillary Clinton and her rock-solid campaign apparatus have finally gotten themselves off message. Hillary Clinton and her husband both stepped into the maelstrom that is the Scooter Libby commutation. They blasted Bush as advocating cronyism and issuing what is essentially a pardon to someone who they believe doesn't deserve it.

Of course, people in glass houses should not throw stones. However, some political strategists think the Clintons were going to have to confront this issue eventually because of the controversial pardons the former president granted in the final days of his presidency. So rather than deny your weakness, a common strategy is to shine a light on it because it may make you appear candid or make your own warts appear less gruesome by comparison.

However, I think in Hillary Clinton's case, this was the wrong strategy to pursue. I think she would have been better off expressing her disappointment with the commutation and then remaining silent. The Libby commutation is not much of a political winner for her because it reminds voters of her husband's controversial pardons. This has the added detriment of reminding voters of her husband (and thus overshadowing her in the process). Oh, and and it also reminds voters of the constant partisan volleying between the Bushes and the Clintons.

So now the spotlight is off of Scooter Libby and on Bill and Hillary Clinton. And the White House was all too happy to engage them. Bush is already toast, so he has nowhere to go but up. By attacking the Clintons, he can energize conservatives and get a bit of political breathing room because how is the Libby commutation any less controversial than the Marc Rich pardon?

Hillary looks a bit odd criticizing Bush in this regard. And Bill Clinton would have been wise to stay above the fray. So now Hillary has changed the subject, to Bush's advantage. Now she has to deal with questions about hypocrisy, polarization, and reliving the past instead of questions about health care and the environment (right as Al Gore gets ready to showcase his Live Earth concerts).

The most damaging result of this confrontation is the fact that it reminds voters of what America most definitely does not need right now: more partisanship. George Bush campaigned in 2000 as "a uniter, not a divider." He failed miserably. The nation is now even more polarized than it was under Clinton. I really think voters want to start over in 2008 with a fresh slate. Eight years of polarization under Clinton followed by eight more years of even worse polarization under Bush will make the appetite for another eight years of Clinton a bit weaker. So while Hillary may be able to display her political chops and her brass knuckles as she goes to the mat against Bush, voters may ultimately decide that they've simply had enough. Once Hillary's support begins to weaken, she's finished. Her unfavorables are too high to allow for any margin of error.

Obama should watch these developments carefully because he stands to reap a political windfall should these predictions actually materialize. In the meantime, Hillary needs to pick her battles more carefully. One could argue that the average voter won't remember how she retorted to this issue about Libby, but they may be paying more attention than we think. And they know hypocrisy when they see it.

The Horserace (D)

The second quarter fundraising totals are out and there are a few surprises.

First and foremost, Barack Obama raised the most cash between April and June--an impressive $30+ million haul. More significantly is the fact that this money came from over 250,000 donors. Hillary Clinton raised more than $20 million, most of which coming from a smaller cadre of mega-donors. This is significant because it suggests that Obama's support is broader. It also gives him a larger network from which he can solicit more funds.

John Edwards finished third with about $9 million and Bill Richardson raised about $7 million. Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich raised under $4 million each.

What does this mean?

This means Obama must be taken seriously. People may criticize him for being inexperienced and for being a blank slate that speaks in platitudes without saying anything of substance. And he hasn't been able to overtake Hillary Clinton in the polls. However, he is still generating large crowds and is getting a lot of people involved in his campaign who are new to politics. The importance of this cannot be overstressed.

Obama is clearly making a connection with voters. It could be because he is the first Black candidate with a legitimate shot at winning the presidency, but I think there's more to him than that. Obama, despite his inexperience, seems to truly be a person who remembers where he came from and seems much more genuine. And it's not just rhetoric either. Obama is one of the few senators who has consistently shunned earmarks, or pet projects. He ventures into the neighborhoods that other politicians generally ignore. And he is giving regular people significant roles in helping organize his campaign, as is evidenced by his "friends" on MySpace and Facebook.

Clinton may have the establishment's support, but Obama truly seems to be a man of the people. He's not going away. But he's going to have to be a bit more aggressive in his campaigning if he wants to overtake Clinton because she is not going to shoot herself in the foot and allow him to overtake her. Her strategy should be to just run out the clock and engage the Republicans, as opposed to her Democratic rivals.

However, Obama's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Obama has prided himself on running a positive campaign because "voters are sick of negativity and cynicism." And this message resonates with voters who desperately want Republicans and Democrats to get along and get something done. However, if he were to run an attack ad on Clinton, she could retaliate by saying Obama does not practice what he preaches. So he is stuck in a box.

John Edwards is in trouble. $9 million is a bit underwhelming for a supposed top-tier candidate. His campaign has basically come down to Iowa. If he fails to win that state, his campaign is finished. Edwards has been making a few tactical errors that are preventing him from getting his message out. One of these errors is engaging Ann Coulter, as his wife did on a recent edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. John Edwards will never be able to convert Coulter's followers, so he should stop wasting his time because all he's doing is firing up her base and the Republicans. Democratic voters who are sick of Coulter are probably in Obama's camp simply because she represents what Obama rails against.

Another problem for Edwards is his falling poll numbers. He is now in danger of being overtaken by Bill Richardson in New Hampshire. If Richardson had raised $2 million more during the 2nd quarter, Edwards would have had to deal with a rash of stories about how a second-tier candidate raised more campaign cash than he did. For Edwards to get back on the right track, I think he would be wise to spend his time in Iowa and Florida. South Carolina might be a little too tough for him to win even though he's a native son because of the strength of Hillary Clinton and the Black vote going to Obama. Edwards might be a good fit for Floridians, however, because of his favorable geography and the high population of White retirees. He also needs to spend less time with this tit for tat with Ann Coulter because she's a loose cannon that is not even worth using as an effective foil. After all, when TV stations spend time talking about the latest spat between Edwards and Coulter, that's less time being spent talking about Edwards and health care, Iraq, and labor.

Bill Richardson is slowly seeing his fortunes improve. He seems to have separated himself from Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and is now just a half step behind John Edwards. He is rising in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. And while his debate performances have not been stellar in terms of charisma, he has definitely shown that he is executive material based on the thoroughness of his responses to the debate questions. Voters who yearn for competence may be responding well to Richardson. If this is the case, then President Bush is Richardson's greatest ally.

Richardson is well-positioned for a breakthrough. Edwards is fading. Obama is threatening Hillary's aura of invincibility. Once this aura is shattered, her campaign is in serious trouble because her campaign strategy is to prevent attrition since she will have great difficulty attracting new voters. What if Obama takes out Hillary and people then worry about Obama's lack of heft in the experience department? That might give Richardson the opening he needs. A strong showing in Iowa and Nevada should help launch his campaign.

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd are doing all they can reasonably be expected to do, but the writing is on the wall. There just isn't enough oxygen left for them. Biden in particular would have been better off running for president in '04 when the field was much weaker. Had he done so, he wouldn't have had to deal with Hillary and Obama. He has nothing to lose by staying in the race though. Perhaps he knows he has a 1% chance of winning the nomination, so maybe he's auditioning for Secretary of State?

Chris Dodd has also been campaigning hard and meeting the right people. But he seems to be the generic Democrat that has no real niche or identity in this campaign. Hillary is Hillary and needs no further explanation. Obama is the new kid on the block with all the buzz. Edwards is the former vice presidential nominee. Richardson has the Latino angle working for him. Even Biden has gained a reputation as the funny guy who occasionally puts his foot in his mouth. But what is Dodd known for? After the Kerry debacle, are Democratic voters really looking for another career senator from the Northeast?

Dennis Kucinich is not going to be the Democratic nominee. However, the more he presses his case against the Iraq War and for impeaching Vice President Cheney, the greater his chances are of becoming a liberal kingmaker. Do the other more credible candidates want to be hounded by journalists asking if they support impeaching Cheney like Kucinich does? Who wants to be labeled as the politician who has less courage than Kucinich, "the liberal peacenik?"

Mike Gravel has worn out his welcome. He was entertaining at first, but now his 15 minutes of fame are over. I think voters would appreciate it if he dropped out so that future debates would be more meaningful. If he stays in the race, he could help the other candidates by making them seem moderate or reasonable by comparison.

Meanwhile, Al Gore's name is still floating around out there. He will not enter the race if both Obama and Edwards are still viable in the fall. But if one or both of them fade, look for him to take up the mantle of the non-Hillary candidate. Gore is the biggest threat to Clinton because he has much more experience, is much less polarizing, and reminds voters of the Clinton years without being tainted by nearly as much of the Clinton baggage. A Gore candidacy will single-handedly eliminate Richardson, Dodd, and Biden because they are all trying to position themselves as accomplished, veteran statesmen--something Obama, Edwards, and Clinton are not.

The next Democratic debate is on July 23. Time is definitely running out for the second-tier candidates. The Iowa caucuses are only six months away now and Hillary's lead is solidifying. Someone needs to throw some punches, and quick. While the candidates should be commended for having generally civil debates so far, that benefits no one except for Hillary.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.