"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


Stray Pins: 8-31-07

I found an excellent article by National Review's Peter Wehner which uses the Larry Craig controversy as a springboard to a higher level discussion about hypocrisy. After reading his well-written article, I wholeheartedly agree with him that Craig himself is a nonissue. Sen. Craig is simply a vehicle that we can all use to examine the two types of hypocrisy Wehner mentioned in his article:

The issue, then, is whether one sees hypocrisy and wants people to live up to higher standards — or whether one sees hypocrisy and says that we should dissolve moral standards.
At first glance, it seems like conservatives would be more inclined to fall into the former camp while liberals and libertarians would be more inclined to fall into the latter one. This would explain why conservatives are "disappointed" by Sen. Craig's "sins" while liberals speak ill of him as yet another "hypocrite." I can only wonder how partisanship alters this equation when the person at the center of a political controversy is a member of the opposing party. This would be a fascinating study for political scientists and sociologists to research.

It looks like Hillary Clinton has a little problem with a fundraiser. It turns out that one of her top fundraisers is a fugitive. This story just adds yet another brick to the wall of controversy surrounding the Clinton brand. This is the type of story that reminds voters of what they don't like about the Clintons. But even more telling is the fact that neither Barack Obama nor John Edwards can take advantage of this development. Barack Obama has his problems with Tony Rezko and John Edwards has his problems with his work at a hedge fund. Obama in particular is probably kicking himself for not being able to capitalize on this issue and is missing a prime opportunity to attack Clinton's weakest point with his strongest point: her tainted past vs. his advocacy of hope and good government. Edwards has talked about "not replacing their (Republican) insiders with our (Clinton's) insiders" and has also challenged Clinton to stop accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists. But as the old saying goes, people in glass houses...

(Oh, and are the Republicans licking their chops?)

Elizabeth Edwards continues to make her husband's campaign look absolutely ridiculous. First she accused Hillary Clinton of not being a "leader" and then accused Barack Obama of being "holier than thou." But then she later said "she doesn't think the hatred against Hillary Clinton is justified" and had the gall to say "she doesn't know where it comes from!" Is she serious? And remember, a few days earlier when John Edwards made his "Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent" attack, he later said "it wasn't directed at any particular candidate" and that "They need to move on from thinking about themselves and think about what's important to the country." John Edwards is right. It's clear from his and his wife's remarks that Clinton and Obama aren't even on the Edwards' political radar. That "non-leader" and that "holier than thou guy" must be paranoid and conceited. Look, I can understand that politics is a contact sport, but if you're going to attack your opponents, at least keep your stories straight and don't contradict yourself! I really think the Edwards campaign is going for broke this time. I don't know where all the anger and desperation are coming from, but it is very off-putting, at least to this voter.

Looks like Republicans missed an excellent opportunity to improve their standing among Latino voters. There was supposed to be a Spanish-language debate for the Republicans on September 16 in Miami, but it was canceled due to a lack of interest among the candidates. To John McCain's credit, he accepted the invitation. Even though Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic, the Latino vote is a bit more competitive. Blowing off opportunities like this is not a good way to improve your standing in the Latino community. I wrote about identity politics and pandering earlier. But unlike the gay issues debate I was talking about in that previous post, the risk-reward ratio is far more favorable to Republicans when it comes to the Latino community. If the Democrats nominate a candidate who can put the Southwest in play, such as Bill Richardson, Republicans may rue the day they decided to blow off this debate and blunt some of his strength in that part of the country.

And could Fred Thompson possibly have bungled his own campaign rollout any worse than he already has? First he was "thinking" about running. Then he was supposed to jump in the race shortly after Independence Day. Then his fundraising totals were a bit disappointing. Then the media coverage became less favorable. Then Huckabee and Romney snatched up all the media coverage after the Ames straw poll. And then he had all sorts of campaign shakeups and defections. And then the date he chose to formally enter the race is right after a Republican debate in New Hampshire, much to the consternation of Republican operatives because it further fuels the perception of him being a lazy candidate. So Fred Thompson now has a very high bar to clear when he actually does get in the race. And if he doesn't meet expectations, his campaign is finished.

Gay marriage ballot initiatives undoubtedly contributed to John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 election. (It was on the ballot in Ohio.) But how will this Iowa court's recent decision allowing gay marriage impact the race? I'd imagine the Democratic candidates don't have to treat it as delicately as the Republicans do. Will Mitt Romney, who was governor at that time gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, get sandbagged? Will his conservative credentials be further scrutinized? How will Rudy Giuliani respond? At what point will conservatives reach their dealbreaker with him? And how enthusiastically will Democrats embrace this decision? I haven't seen many media outlets talking about this issue so far, but I think it could potentially turn the Iowa caucuses upside down.


Craig's Quagmire

August is generally no man's land when it comes to politics. Congress is not in session; Americans are on summer vacation; and people spend so much time away from their televisions because of barbecues, picnics, parties, and those warm summer evening chats on front porches and in backyards all across the nation.

Then all of a sudden came Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho. This story is pretty bizarre. In a nutshell, an undercover cop busted Sen. Craig for engaging in lewd acts in a public restroom at an airport in Minneapolis. Craig then pleaded guilty because he thought that would allow the situation to blow over more quickly. Even more bizarre, he later reversed course and blamed his guilty plea on being confused and not seeking legal counsel. (So why didn't he get a lawyer? And is he perjuring himself? And why would anyone plead guilty to charges they're innocent of?) Anyway, to top it all off, Craig gave a press conference in which he strongly asserted that "he's not gay" and that "he's never been gay." He also managed to blame the media too. Whew!

Anyway, you can read more about this crazy story here.

Much has been written and debated about Sen. Craig's electoral prospects, how this scandal will affect the Republican Party, and what it means for evangelical Christians. Sen. Craig, who has run as a "family values" conservative, was a staunch opponent of gay marriage, allowing gays to serve in the military, and gay rights in general. The 7-10 doesn't need to pile on with similar stories about Craig's (and by extension, Republicans') hypocrisy. What I wrote about this subject earlier as it pertains to Senator David Vitter of Louisiana applies here too. (You can read that post here.)

What I am more interested in writing about this time is how it may affect the presidential race.

Sen. Craig was serving as Mitt Romney's Senate liaison. Needless to say, videos of Craig supporting Romney have been scrubbed from Romney's campaign website. When Romney was asked to comment on the Craig story, he invoked Bill Clinton and said that Clinton should have resigned.

When I heard this, I initially rolled my eyes because it was yet another example of Republicans citing Bill Clinton's transgressions as a way of diminishing their own even though Monica took place about 10 years ago and politicians of both parties still haven't learned their lesson yet.

After my initial bewilderment passed, I thought more about Romney's statement and realized that he had demonstrated exactly why Hillary Clinton would be a terrible nominee for the Democrats. Yes, there have been many Republican sex scandals since Monica (David Vitter, Mark Foley, Duke Cunningham, etc.), but Bill Clinton's was probably the most divisive. "Monica" reminds voters of impeachment, legalese ("it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is"), and the Clinton scandals in general.

Voters are sick of George W. Bush. The split decision of the 2000 election showed that even though voters didn't want a change in direction, they did want a change in leadership. And President Bush has failed to deliver on this change. Hillary Clinton's candidacy may offer a change from Bush's policies, but it's not really a change. It's a reversion.

Do Democratic voters really think the broader electorate wants to go back to that? And even if they don't mind the bad elements of the Clinton years, do they really want to deal with yet more polarization? Aren't Democrats sick of hearing "look at what Bill Clinton did?" when it comes to explaining their own (Republicans') ethical shortcomings? Aren't Democrats sick of being mocked as having no moral compass because the face of their party is reviled as a liar? These attacks will most certainly not go away with a Clinton nomination or a Clinton presidency.

Nominating someone other than Hillary Clinton effectively removes this issue from the Republicans' arsenal. A Clinton nomination only makes a very winnable election that much more unwinnable.

Voters who have soured on Bush and are sick of hearing Republicans compare themselves to Bill Clinton may find Obama's message of "change" much more appealing. I had written off Barack Obama earlier, but he has been acquitting himself quite nicely as of late. And for voters who wish for their candidates to have a bit more experience, there is Joe Biden. Bill Richardson also offers "change," but he served as Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton, so the "Clinton issue" is not completely blunted by his nomination.

Republicans are also impacted by the Sen. Craig fallout. Mitt Romney obviously has to deal with a few bad days of press simply because of Craig's link to his presidential campaign. Some bigots who only want to stir up trouble may try to link Craig's allegations of homosexuality with Romney's Mormonism.

But moreso than Romney, I think Rudy Giuliani in particular should be worried. Evangelical conservatives have been disappointed time after time by "their" politicians. Rudy Giuliani is obviously not running as a "traditional values" Republican, but he has been leading most national polls regardless. This strong support would be impossible without support from the evangelical community. Giuliani's moderate to liberal social views and the idea of "New York values" are anathema to these voters. Will their outrage turn Rudy Giuliani into an indirect casualty of Sen. Craig's alleged behavior?

Mike Huckabee is probably the most credible and most viable social conservative in the race. Could he benefit from the fallout at Giuliani and Romney's expense?

In a nutshell, the Craig quagmire is obviously not good for Romney, potentially troublesome for Giuliani, and possibly beneficial for Huckabee. The potential danger to Clinton is more long term, especially if Republicans keep reminding voters of her husband. Where will disaffected Democratic voters go if they abandon her?


John Edwards: Wails of Desperation

I offered a stinging critique of John Edwards in my previous post. Since then, he has given his opponents even more ammunition to use against him. After boldly asserting that the Lincoln Bedroom was not for rent, John Edwards offered this lame disclaimer to NBC news:

Nothing I said yesterday has to do with other presidential candidates. They need to move on from thinking about themselves and think about what's important to the country.
How unbelievably childish.

The 7-10 is not a partisan blog. While I have my own political leanings, I try not to let these biases influence my writing here to the point that I become a fire-breather or a bomb-thrower. There are enough bloggers like that out there and I do not wish to join their ranks. But I must say that John Edwards is rapidly losing any respect I once had for him, and I can only imagine how many other voters feel the same way.

How stupid does John Edwards think voters are? Since he seems to think voters are absolutely brainless, let me break it down. In politics, the person sitting at the top of the hill has the advantage of not having to go on offense because that elevates their rivals. When you're running behind, you have to attack and draw blood. Nobody really wants to go negative, but that's what you have to do if you want to gain ground on a candidate who's ahead of you in the polls. It is no secret that Hillary Clinton is way ahead of John Edwards in most national polls and in most polls of the early voting states, with the exception of Iowa, which John Edwards absolutely must win if he wants to have a shot at the nomination.

Because Clinton has been gaining ground on Edwards in Iowa, he has opened up a steady barrage of attacks against her. First, he attacked her for accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists. That was an effective line of attack because despite Edwards' hypocrisy on this issue (as a former trial lawyer who received lots of campaign contributions from other trial lawyers), he at least planted a legitimate question in voters' minds and forced her into the awkward position of having to defend lobbyists, which never really looks good. He has also challenged Clinton to refuse all contributions from lobbyists for the rest of the campaign. That was fine too, even though many politicians attempt such shenanigans only to find there are no takers. Edwards also had a good talking point attacking Clinton by saying "we can't replace their (Republican) insiders with our insiders."

So, in light of all these recent attacks aimed directly at Hillary Clinton, how can he then make a quip about the Lincoln Bedroom and then deny that it had anything to do with her? He never said anything about the Lincoln Bedroom in his 2004 campaign! It is very obvious that he was taking a swipe at the Clinton brand and all of the controversy and scandals surrounding it. The attack itself was strong, but his denial of its intended target is absolutely pathetic and causes the listener to remember the weak denial more than the actual attack. And then he has the gall to tell the other candidates that they need to get over themselves and "think about what's important for the country?" Whatever happened to no more personal Washington-style attacks?

I smell a loser. Name-calling is not presidential. Hypocrisy is not presidential. Denying the obvious is not presidential. Simply put, John Edwards' campaign is unraveling and he knows it. Voters can support outraged candidates, particularly if their outrage is shared. This is why populist campaigns can be so effective. But there's a difference between running as someone who is "sick and tired" of whatever ails this country and running as someone who is simply angry. And right now, John Edwards is coming across angry. And ugly. And petty.

And unpresidential.

The Dick Gephardt presidential campaign model of placing all your chips in Iowa failed in 2004. John Edwards adopted the same model in 2008 and it's failing him too.

I expect him to be the next candidate to drop out of the race. At this rate, he might not even make it to Halloween.


Will John Edwards make it to Iowa?

When assessing the Democratic presidential candidates, the media tend to focus on the so-called "top tier" of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. But recently, the Hillary vs. Obama storyline has proven irresistible, as even minute details of their campaigns can lead to prolonged news cycles, such as the recent dustup over Michelle Obama's recent remarks that were somehow contorted by the media to be some sort of dig at Hillary Clinton.

Other times the media focus on Clinton's appeal to voters who value experience vs. Obama's appeal to voters who value change and compare them directly. Never mind the fact that the so-called second-tier candidates have much more experience than Clinton and could offer the change Obama is advocating in terms of competence and new ideas. In light of all this punching and counterpunching with the media helping to gin things up between the two rivals, one candidate is getting lost in the shuffle and is struggling to stay relevant: John Edwards.

Of all the major candidates, I believe John Edwards is in the most precarious position. He is pulling campaign staff out of Nevada, struggling or fading in must-win Iowa, is way behind in his home state of South Carolina, and is trailing Clinton and Obama by wide margins in most national polls. Absent Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson, John Edwards is commonly seen as the longshot.

How did John Edwards go from placing second in the race for the nomination in 2004 to being a near also ran in 2008? In my estimation, there are several root causes.

For starters, the 2004 field was much weaker than the 2008 field. Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and Dick Gephardt were far weaker candidates collectively than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden are probably kicking themselves for not running in the last cycle when they could have fared much better than they are now.

Secondly, the John Edwards of 2004 had his message taken away by Barack Obama in 2008. John Edwards was running as the fresh face with the bold new ideas in 2004. But now Barack Obama occupies that political turf. The humble "son of a mill worker" narrative contrasted greatly with the pampered, well-connected Bush caricature. But now this narrative has lost a bit of its punch because voters already know who he is. And how can his personal story compete with the new kid on the block who has a White mother and an African father and grew up in Indonesia?

Third, Obama and Edwards are similar in that they don't have much in terms of political experience. Obama is receiving the brunt of this criticism now, but the problem for Edwards is that he cannot attack Obama for his inexperience without calling his own inexperience into question. So this potentially potent line of attack is available to his other rivals (especially the well-established Clinton), but not to him. Can you point to anything John Edwards has done since 2004 to buff up his political resume?

Also, in the current era of image-based politics, John Edwards seems a bit slow on the uptake. Voters remember how clueless George H.W. Bush seemed when he was at a supermarket and didn't seem to know what a scanner was. They also remember him sneaking a peek at his wristwatch in a debate. Older voters may also remember Richard Nixon wearing a business suit and loafers while walking on the beach. Michael Dukakis foolishly staged a photo op in a tank. There was also Jimmy Carter and the "killer rabbit." There was Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on the now defunct Arsenio Hall Show. John Kerry got caught windsurfing and probably wishes he never took that hunting trip. And there was George W. Bush standing atop the rubble of the World Trade Center before standing on that aircraft carrier under the banner "Mission Accomplished."

Image matters because those are easier to ingrain in voters' memories than detailed policy positions and speeches. Unfortunately for John Edwards, the $400 haircut story, the story about his personal estate, and the YouTube video of him fussing with his hair are feeding into an image of a candidate who claims to represent "Two Americas," but only lives in one of them. One could argue that people should pay more attention to his views on free trade, Iraq, and the environment than on cosmetic issues and quirks, but that's just not what people respond to.

And finally, John Edwards now seems to be campaigning as someone who knows he's behind. He and his wife (who may be doing more harm than good) are lobbing all sorts of charges and insinuations at the other candidates hoping that they'll stick. While Edwards may only be trying to keep himself relevant or in the daily news cycle, he's increasingly coming across as desperate. His wife has been throwing out a lot of incendiary and loaded remarks as of late while Edwards lauds her as someone who speaks her mind. The fact that he hasn't reined her in yet suggests that either he agrees with what she's saying or he's hiding behind her simply because she's a lot more difficult to attack, presumably because of her cancer.

Exhibit 1: John Edwards calls Ann Coulter a "she devil" and then apologizes for calling her names. Of course, we all remember how much he protested when Coulter called him a "faggot." (He claimed to be offended but then used her remarks to solicit campaign donations on his website.) So is John Edwards a hypocrite? In light of recent remarks made by his communications director pompously stating that "The American people deserve specific answers, not more rhetoric, and surely not more personal Washington-style attacks", perhaps he really is.

Exhibit 2: Elizabeth Edwards claims she's uncomfortable with the other Democratic candidates because she doesn't know what drives them to be president other than their own personal motivation. Is that why John Edwards essentially became Iowa's third senator after losing the 2004 election? This may sound cynical, but in this age of consultant-driven politics where polls and money are king, does she honestly think that people who run for president now do so solely for altruistic reasons?

Exhibit 3: Elizabeth Edwards laments that her husband is neither Black nor a female when it comes to media coverage. So why aren't the media covering Bill Richardson's campaign as heavily? Or is being the first credible Latino candidate not newsworthy? I think it's more a matter of both Clinton and Obama leading Edwards when it comes to experience, change, electability, and even likability.

Exhibit 4: Edwards' campaign strategist Joe Trippi thinks Edwards is the one Democrat the Republicans are the most afraid of running against. This was said in response to Karl Rove demonizing Hillary Clinton in what many politicos and pundits believe is an attempt to rally Democrats to Clinton's defense and nominate her because Republicans think she's the easiest of the Democrats to beat. While I don't necessarily discount this possible strategy, I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that John Edwards is the most formidable of the Democratic candidates. He was manhandled by Dick Cheney in the VP debate in 2004 and was unable to deliver North Carolina for John Kerry in the election. On top of this, rural Southern voters probably remember the question at a previous debate asking which of the candidates had a gun in the house. John Edwards did not raise his hand. So Southern voters may look at Edwards with suspicion. Clinton has a lot of goodwill among rural, less educated, and lower class voters, which is where she's performing strongest. Clinton may be polarizing and she may have her flaws, but she's a lot tougher than Edwards and has far better message discipline.

Even if John Edwards is able to emerge from these potential minefields unscathed, he is still in a political straitjacket because of the threat Barack Obama in particular poses to his campaign. Barack Obama and John Edwards cannot coexist because they fit the same niche. They also have similar weaknesses, although Obama doesn't have an Iraq vote to atone for. Because their weaknesses overlap so much, Edwards can't really go on offense against his nearest rival without having it bounce back on him in the form of charges of hypocrisy, which feeds into the negative caricature that's developing about him. Because of these threats, he doesn't have much room in which he can maneuver. But he can't simply keep doing what he's doing now either because he can't afford to wait for Clinton and Obama to destroy themselves.

For John Edwards' sake, he had better hope that voters (especially those in Iowa) don't pick up on any of this because if they do, his campaign is history.


How to Ruin the Top Tier

Even though a sizable chunk of the electorate is still not paying much attention to the presidential race, time is running out for several of the candidates to make a move and position themselves to secure the nomination. Voters are already getting a sense of the underlying storylines of the race so far: Clinton vs. Obama, the demise of McCain, Romney vs. Giuliani, Edwards vs. Coulter, etc. But there are a lot of other intriguing candidates in the race that offer voters something Rudy McRomney and Barack Clintedwards cannot. However, the window for these so-called second-tier candidates is closing fast.

Democrats especially may be averse to attacking Hillary Clinton too forcefully because they are angling for a cabinet slot in her administration or even a spot at the bottom of her ticket as vice president. But like everyone running for the biggest prize in all of politics says, nobody ever runs for vice president. So if these candidates want to be president (not vice president or a cabinet secretary), they're going to have to take some risks because if they continue on their current paths of playing softball, they're going to end up stuck out in the cold or locked out of the White House until 2016.

So here's my free, unsolicited advice for all the second-tier candidates. Since nobody in the media is covering them, I might as well help them out. First of all, it is important for most of these candidates to realize that they benefit from low name recognition in that they still have many opportunities to make a good first impression among voters. People already know Hillary, Obama, Rudy, and McCain, for example. But if you mention the name "Bill," people will think of Bill Clinton instead of Bill Richardson. Similarly, if you mention the name "Mike," there's a better chance they're thinking of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, rather than Mike Huckabee. And "Joe" is Joe Lieberman, rather than Joe Biden.

This low name recognition is a valuable asset because there are surely a lot of voters who are not satisfied with either Clinton or Obama, or Romney or Giuliani. If the voters realize they have more options than the "Big 3," and these new alternatives appear credible, forceful, and compelling, they stand to reap a political windfall in terms of buzz, fundraising, and maybe even better polling. Mike Gravel had a perfect opportunity to capture lightning in a bottle at the first Democratic debate in Orangeburg, South Carolina, back in April. Everybody was so focused on Obama (coming to a Black college in a state with a high percentage of Black voters), Clinton (wife of the closest thing to God on Earth as far as many Blacks are concerned), and Edwards (South Carolina's native son and the vice presidential nominee in 2004) that they didn't even know Gravel existed. Had he outshone all three of them that evening, he would likely be a major contender today.

Obviously, Mike Gravel is going nowhere. Neither is Duncan Hunter. Nor Dennis Kucinich. But the sun has not quite set yet for Mike Huckabee, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson. So here are the questions they need to ask that will undoubtedly catch their top rivals off guard and potentially expose them as emperors who have no clothes.

Take notes, Biden and Richardson!

Hillary Clinton: Why do you repeatedly say the differences between the Democratic candidates are minor and that we should focus on the Republicans? Exactly what is the purpose of these debates if we're not supposed to talk about our differences, or do you feel you are the inevitable nominee? You also said you know how to beat the "right wing machine," and we don't doubt that. But is beating them more important than getting them to join us? Is what's good for Clinton the same as what's good for the nation? Can our great nation really survive another 51% presidency?

Barack Obama: You are to be commended for opposing the Iraq War from the start. And you are right to say that judgment is important. However, your good judgment doesn't change the fact that we are in Iraq now. You gave a good analogy about driving into a ditch at the debate in Iowa and having the judgment and foresight to avoid driving into another ditch in the future. But how do we get out of the ditch that we're already in? We all know there are no good options in Iraq. But exactly what is your plan for resolving this conflict and ultimately bringing the troops home? Coulda/shoulda/woulda is not a plan.

John Edwards: People are criticizing Barack Obama for his lack of experience in politics. As a one-term senator, how are you any different? You said so yourself that you weren't ready to be president in 2004. What happened since then that made you more qualified to be president now? And how are you a better advocate for labor than Joe Biden?

Listen up, Huckabee!

Mitt Romney: You say you are the candidate that conservatives, especially social conservatives, should place their trust in. But didn't you make a similar statement of affirmation to the gay community when you were running for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts? One quality that initially endeared voters to President Bush was his plainspokenness. Would you consider yourself plainspoken in light of how your views have "evolved" on taxes, gun rights, gay rights, abortion, and immigration?

Rudy Giuliani: You once said that Democrats would put the United States on defense while Republicans would keep us on offense regarding terrorists. Seeing that you have often been referred to as "America's Mayor," a symbol of unity, do you think your statement about Democrats and Republicans contradicts your perception of being the nation's healer from September 11?

John McCain: You are running as a fiscal conservative. If this is true, how do you explain the amount of waste that characterized and significantly sandbagged your presidential campaign? How can you be trusted to manage the nation's budget and our taxpayer dollars if you can't even manage your own campaign cash effectively?

Fred Thompson: How can you be trusted to act swiftly and decisively against our nation's enemies if it took you several months just to officially enter the presidential race?

All of these questions involve shining a lantern on what these candidates believe is their greatest strength. Obama has his "judgment" and Iraq war opposition. Clinton has her inevitability and history as the Republicans' nemesis. Edwards has his newfound "experience" and impeccable labor credentials. Giuliani has his 9-11 heroism. Romney has his conservative positioning. Thompson has his no nonsense, plainspoken demeanor. And McCain has his campaign finance reform/fiscal conservative image. Once someone traps them with their own rhetoric and exposes them as all hat and no cattle, this race can become a lot more interesting.


Iowa Debate Analysis (D)

The 8 Democratic presidential candidates met this morning for a debate on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. While the punching gloves still have yet to come off in any of the debates so far, this debate provided political observers and voters with some clear and strong differences between the candidates. While the tone generally remained civil, one could sense that there was a lot of resentment and frustration percolating beneath the surface. This resentment and frustration stem from the fact that Hillary Clinton is consolidating her support and pulling away from the rest of the pack in the polls, John Edwards' poll numbers are slowly declining, Barack Obama has been the subject of particularly harsh criticism over his foreign policy credentials and his "Blackness," Clinton is seen as the "most experienced" candidate instead of Bill Richardson and Joe Biden, Chris Dodd can't gain any traction, and the feeling among Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel that they are not getting a fair shake in terms of exposure.

Before I begin my assessment of how well each candidate performed, I must say that ABC did a exceptionally tacky job when they introduced the candidates at the beginning of the debate. While their locations on stage were randomly chosen, they were introduced in order of their strength in the most recent Iowa polls. Clinton, Obama, and Edwards were all introduced first with all three at about 26-27% in the polls, Richardson in fourth with 11%, Biden and Kucinich with 2%, Dodd with 1%, and Gravel with "no support registered." I thought this was very unprofessional, unnecessary, and counterproductive. Mike Gravel did his best to put on a smile after being introduced last with "no support registered," but this so-called "introduction" reeked of disrespect. Why invite all the candidates to the debate if you're only going to try and embarrass them on national television?

Another criticism I had was that some candidates got a lot more talk time than the others. According to the Chris Dodd debate talk clock, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got about twice as much time to express their views than several of the other candidates. I know this has happened before, but it was particularly pronounced this time. Slighting the other candidates on time in addition to the callous way in which they were introduced was bad form.

Regarding Mike Gravel, I cited in a previous post about an excellent column by respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg that he be excluded from future debates. Gravel has been something of a loose cannon before, but this time he flat out seemed senile. He turned a question about education into a long diatribe about nukes and somehow got Iran confused with Spain. The five minutes he wasted incoherently rambling could have been given to Biden and Richardson so they could continue their excellent, heated exchange about residual troops in Iraq.

Dennis Kucinich was also not amused by the lack of chances he had to participate and turned in the best line of the night. In response to a question about prayer, he said he's spent the past 45 minutes praying for a chance to speak. Dennis Kucinich seems like the Ron Paul of the Democrats. Like Paul and unlike Gravel, Kucinich has an actual platform. He has the ideas, the passion, and the commitment to his ideas. However, he doesn't have the support. So even though he provides a useful voice in the debates, perhaps future debate organizers should consider excluding him as well.

Chris Dodd seems like the next candidate that should either pack it in or be excluded from future debates. He is trying the best he can, but his presentation sounds too senatorial rather than presidential. When I was listening to him, I simply didn't feel inspired or compelled to support him. Unfortunately, the most memorable thing about Chris Dodd at this morning's debate was the fly in his hair towards the end. I expect him to be the object of ridicule on the late night comedy shows and on YouTube. People seem to rank Chris Dodd as 6th in the Democratic candidates' presidential pecking order, but I can't help but wonder if Kucinich is in a stronger position than he is. Even though Kucinich doesn't have much money, he blows Dodd away in terms of passion and compelling others to support him.

As for the main five candidates:

Again, Hillary Clinton won this debate by not losing it. In terms of her substance, she was outdone by some of the other candidates. However, until someone delivers a fatal blow or at least draws blood, she will remain the frontrunner. The issue of campaign contributions from lobbyists is not going away, so she better find a good way to respond to this question in the future. She also seemed to praise Joe Biden a few times regarding his Iraq policy. Could this be her way of thanking him for helping take down Obama in the previous debate in Chicago? If Clinton is the nominee, would she choose Biden as her vice president?

Barack Obama had a good opening line about preparing for the debate by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair. The media and the other candidates have really been piling on him as of late and the first question this morning was about his "inexperience." Obama's message of "a new way thinking" is clearly resonating and he has developed a good response to his detractors regarding experience: Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney both had tons of experience, but their failures show that judgment is more important than experience. The problem for Obama is that he can't keep reminding voters that "he was against the war from the start." While that may be his ace in the hole, it doesn't change the fact that the United States is in Iraq now and the next president is going to have to find a way out of it. As for Obama's overall debate performance, he did okay. He made no major mistakes and performed well under pressure. He was clearly the villain on stage this morning. Perhaps because Clinton is untouchable, the other candidates are vying for the #2 slot on her ticket? Or do they think they could be the ABH (anybody but Hillary) candidate?

John Edwards is setting a lot of bait for Obama and Clinton, but neither of them is taking it. Interestingly, Edwards defended Obama as a candidate of change, but the problem is that both Obama and Edwards cannot coexist as "change" candidates. If they split the "change" vote, then Clinton will waltz to the nomination. But could an Obama-Edwards or Edwards-Obama ticket be in the works? Such a ticket would be heavy on change, light on experience, and absolutely loaded with enthusiasm in that a true outsider (Obama) would be paired with a populist crusader (Edwards). Such thinking is a long way down the road, however. John Edwards may view Obama and Clinton as his chief rivals, but he may need to check his rear view mirror because Joe Biden and Bill Richardson flexed their foreign policy muscles at the debate quite well and demonstrated their superior grasp of those issues.

Bill Richardson had a much stronger performance in this debate. His previous performances have been lackluster in that he tended to ramble, had poor stage presence, and seemed unfocused at times. However, he was much more coherent today and reminded voters that instead of merely talking about North Korea, Saddam Hussein, and negotiating, he's actually done those things. Richardson also had a clever line about how while Clinton represented experience and Obama represented change, he represented both. He and Joe Biden had an actual debate over policy regarding Iraq that allowed them both to talk about a complex political issue at a level of detail that most of the other candidates haven't done so far. He knows he is prone to gaffes, but reminded the audience that when it mattered, he has come through (on securing the release of hostages, meeting dictators, receiving American servicemembers' remains from abroad, etc.). That was an effective way to remind voters to keep their eye on the ball, much like John Edwards' hair ad at the YouTube debate earlier this summer. In general, Richardson's performance this morning was undoubtedly quite reassuring to restless supporters who were becoming disillusioned or disappointed with his candidacy. I expect his poll numbers to rise.

Joe Biden very well may have won the debate. A lot of the debate focused on Iraq and foreign policy and allowed Biden to showcase his foreign policy credentials. The fact that Obama, Clinton, and Edwards said "they agree with Biden" was no doubt quite validating. It also seems like the other candidates are slowly coming around to the Biden position on Iraq, which gives him added credibility. Even though the Democratic field is oversubscribed right now, I believe Biden is trying to run as the straight-talking veteran statesman. John Edwards should be particularly concerned about Biden because Biden has more experience, more extensive labor credentials, and a more secure grasp of foreign policy. People seem to think Biden is either running for vice president or a cabinet position, but I think he still has a shot at the nomination. He'll need a little bit of help though. First, he'll need Obama and/or Edwards to fall out of favor. If the inexperience questions continue to dog Obama, they will naturally dog Edwards too. This would allow both Richardson and Biden to rise up. Then Biden will need to best Richardson on Iraq. The main difference between the two regarding Iraq is their positions on leaving residual forces there. If Biden can show that it's impossible to take all the troops out and show that Richardson's plan is irresponsible, then he may very well emerge as the ABH candidate.

In a nutshell:

Clinton should prepare to be bloodied in the future. There's not a lot of time left before the Iowa caucuses, so if anyone else wants to run at the top of the ticket, they're going to have to go after her. She did okay in the debate overall, but only won by not losing. She hardly won the actual debate.

Obama seems to be becoming a polarizing figure among Democrats. The naysayers worry about his inexperience. His supporters like his freshness and the way he talks about politics without being political. He likely hasn't been attacked so heavily in a political contest before, but he's holding up reasonably well.

Edwards is vulnerable. Clinton is way ahead of him in the polls, Obama is getting a lot of media attention, and now Richardson and Biden are knocking on the door. Edwards cannot afford to share political turf with Obama.

Richardson was the most improved candidate on stage. He definitely shored up his support today and did a lot to dismantle some of the negative perceptions that had been surrounding his campaign.

Biden probably won the debate. When will people start asking the question that's been on my mind: "When will he catch on? Could Joe Biden, of 'clean' and 'articulate' infamy, actually be a stronger general election candidate than Hillary Clinton?"

Kucinich had a legitimate gripe about the way he was ignored at the debate. Future debate organizers are going to have to do some serious soul-searching about including him because even though he has no chance of winning the nomination, he does provide an interesting, coherent, and useful voice that showcases the diversity of thought within the Democratic Party. If he's going to be included in future debates, they need to give him fair time to express his views. Otherwise, they shouldn't bother with him. Treating him like political window dressing is bad form.

Dodd was not the invisible candidate on stage today, which was good. However, he was also the generic Democrat on stage, which was not good. And unfortunately, in politics, image and perception matter. Fairly or unfairly, the fly in his hair will be what people remember the most about his performance, rather than his actual policy positions.

Gravel has participated in one too many debates and should end his campaign now before he further embarrasses himself. He should not be invited to any future debates because he serves no useful purpose.


Fred's Folly

Other than Newt Gingrich, no Republican has been more talked about regarding jumping into the presidential race than former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. Conservatives have been pinning their hopes on him because of dissatisfaction with Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and John McCain--all of whom are either not trusted by conservatives or have advocated policies that disappointed or enraged them. Fred Thompson has been able to assume the popular role of the "none of the above" candidate.

Thompson has been acting like a candidate for several months now in that he has been raising money and holding campaign events. However, because he hasn't formally declared his candidacy yet, he is not subject to the same level of scrutiny that the other declared candidates are facing now. Running by not running has other advantages as well. For example, it allows him to stay above the fray while all the other declared candidates tear each other down. Another advantage is that media coverage is generally favorable. Media outlets churn out a bunch of "will he or won't he" stories or stories about "how he will impact the race." This coverage paints him as a "reluctant warrior" or "a shining knight that can save the Republican Party." This coverage serves to build up anticipation before the big event, much like children counting down the days and hours before Christmas.

The problem with this is that once Christmas comes and the presents are all opened, the potential for a letdown is very real. And that is what makes Thompson's campaign strategy risky. Thompson has been hinting at throwing his hat in the ring all summer, but he has yet to do so. He has essentially kept conservatives and Republicans waiting and now there's the threat of them becoming restless. Thompson has been coy for a bit too long now, so the media coverage is shifting from "how Thompson will threaten Rudy McRomney" to "why is Thompson taking so long?"

Thompson missed a prime opportunity to make news at the recent Ames straw poll. Even though he didn't have a campaign organization in place, he could have participated anyway and potentially performed better than both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, two other major contenders that didn't compete there. Imagine the media coverage Thompson would be receiving now had he beaten Giuliani or McCain with only a skeletal campaign apparatus!

Even worse, Mitt Romney, the winner of the straw poll, is now becoming the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Even though Giuliani has been leading most national polls (often with Thompson running a strong second or close third), Romney is consistently leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's also showing signs of life in South Carolina. Mitt Romney is beginning to fill the void that Fred Thompson was supposed to fill.

And even worse still, Mike Huckabee has entered the picture by virtue of his surprise second-place finish in the straw poll. Voters who hadn't known much about Huckabee before are becoming attracted to him now. In fact, Huckabee has become the new "buzz" candidate. Why should voters wait for Thompson when they have the new and exciting Huckabee who's already in the race? After all, Huckabee is a credible conservative with executive experience, which Thompson lacks.

Simply put, if Romney and Huckabee continue to suck all the oxygen out of the room, there won't be any room left for Thompson.

It seems like Fred Thompson's biggest mistake is waiting too long to officially enter the race. I think voters genuinely like him and he could potentially attract a lot of support, but there's no point in keeping them waiting indefinitely. And because of how much Thompson has been hyped up, when he finally does enter the race (presumably around Labor Day), the expectations for him will be so high that it will be easy for him to disappoint and underwhelm everyone.

Could Fred Thompson's campaign be finished before it even begins?


Identity Politics: Risk vs. Reward

The Democrats have participated in a wide variety of interest group debates. They had a debate at Howard University which focused on Black and minority issues and a debate sponsored by the AFL-CIO which focused on labor issues, for example. The most recent such debate was about gay rights. Six of the eight Democratic presidential contenders participated in the debate; none of the Republicans participated even though they had been invited.

One could argue that because none of the Republican presidential candidates accepted the invitation to speak at the recent Logo forum on gay issues, Republicans were writing off the gay vote. From the gay community's point of view, these Republicans lacked courage or were stiffing them "just like they stiff other minority groups." Even if a gay audience might be a politically hostile crowd for them (because of the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments pushed by Republicans amongst other policies), the gay community could express appreciation for at least attempting to connect with them. After all, Tom Tancredo recently spoke at a forum about Black issues and was the only Republican presidential candidate to attend. He received a warm ovation when he found a common thread that united him with the Black audience he was speaking to--respect for the English language in America.

Republicans may argue that gays are never going to vote for them anyway, so they have no reason to waste their time. Republicans also deride "identity politics," which consists of "pandering" to various special interest groups. Some of them may have wanted to attend the gay forum, but chose to avoid it out of fear of repercussions they may face from their religious conservative base. Others may weigh all their options and simply decide that attending this forum isn't worth it. Too much risk and not much reward. After all, how many Black voters will support Tom Tancredo's campaign because of his recent speech in St. Louis at the National Urbal League forum?

Democrats, whom various minority groups tend to support overwhelmingly, are put in an awkward position any time one of these "identity group" forums takes place. If a Democrat doesn't attend such a forum or doesn't answer their questions completely to their liking, these voters question their commitment to their issues (only to probably still vote for them in November). If a Republican doesn't attend such a forum, these voters tend to simply write it off as another instance of them blowing them off.

So who has more to lose? And who's right? Are the Republicans being cold to identity-based groups or are they prudently avoiding situations where it's far easier to lose than win? Are Democrats pandering to identity-based groups to shore up their political support or are they geuninely interested in the issues these identity groups face?

I believe Democrats can easily lose more while Republicans can have a harder time making meaningful gains regarding such forums. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson provides a case study in how not to handle such forums.

In short, Richardson was asked if he believed homosexuality was a choice or if it had a biological explanation. He completely bungled his answer by initially saying it was a choice and ended up getting all sorts of negative press as a result of it. Even worse, his bungling of this answer strikes at one of the biggest criticisms of his campaign--that his major league resume doesn't match his little league message discipline. As a result, the gay community is probably angry with him while he fell victim to a self-inflicted wound. Even worse, he probably lost more votes among gay Democratic voters than he gained from straight Republican ones who are suspicious of or hostile to homosexuality.

Now the media are piling on and negative stories about Richardson are coming out. (See these pieces by Political Insider and Chris Cillizza for example.) The problem for Richardson is that he had been slowly rising in the polls under the radar with minimal media coverage. Now he's finally being covered in the media, but if the stories are negative ones like the ones I just linked to, his campaign momentum will be stopped dead in its tracks. For someone on the cusp of breaking into the top tier, this could prove fatal.

Looks like the Republicans who stayed away from the gay rights forum ended up making the right decision. The Democrats who attended it tended to leave the audience dissatisfied and frustrated with their responses (except for the liberal Dennis Kucinich, who has no chance to win the nomination). Neither Clinton nor Obama nor Edwards would go so far as to say they support gay marriage, which undoubtedly disappointed the crowd. However, I doubt they'll be losing any votes in the gay community over that, so the end result is the status quo, save for some grumbling among members of the gay community.

Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were the only two Democrats who did not attend the forum. Seeing that no news is generally good news regarding such forums, they came out of this smelling like roses comparatively speaking. Gay voters will still likely support their candidacies even though they didn't attend the forum.

Unfortunately for Bill Richardson, however, he clearly lost. He chose to participate in the forum and that left him in a weaker position than he was before it. And the Republicans, who had nothing to really gain from attending the forum that was worth the risk, can use this damning video footage against him and other Democratic candidates in the future.

Courage and commitment are admirable, but sometimes prudence is more important than anything else. Democrats would be wise to take their cues from Republicans a bit more often in the future regarding dealing with such forums and interest groups.


Winnow the Minnows

Stuart Rothenberg's latest piece about how there are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the presidential debates is a must read. I alluded to the crux of Rothenberg's point recently about narrowing the GOP field, but he expresses this much more forcefully than I ever could as a political novice.

Basically, Rothenberg believes it's time for a big chunk of the field to drop out of the race because they have absolutely no chance of being elected. Specifically, he cites Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich as candidates who are only needlessly crowding the stage and should no longer be a part of the debates or the national presidential dialogue.

You could give Ron Paul and Mike Gravel an hour of free TV time from now until Christmas and they still wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of being nominated by their respective parties.
He makes a very good point.

At the recent AFL-CIO debate in Chicago, Dennis Kucinich probably had the best performance of the evening in terms of substance, wooing the crowd, and the passion of his responses. He was probably the most supportive candidate of the labor movement on stage that evening and did not equivocate. But do you honestly think the Teamsters Union or the AFL-CIO is going to endorse Dennis Kucinich? It's not going to happen.

The same could be said for Duncan Hunter. Even though he seems to be the right match for conservative voters on almost every issue, he is stuck at 1% in almost every poll and even fared worse than nonparticipants in the recent Ames Straw Poll. There is no way he will receive the nomination, so there's no point in having him take up valuable time at future debates.
The point of debates, after all, is to help voters decide who they favor for President, not to give everyone who wants to be President exposure.
Again, another good point. Although everybody has the right to run for president, not everyone should be taken seriously enough to warrant presidential debate coverage. Mike Gravel adds nothing to the debates except color (and even that is becoming tiresome), but presidential debates should be much more substantive and consist of much more serious candidates. I will be old enough to run for president in 2012, but I am not a credible candidate. I don't have any political contacts, nor do I have any field offices in the early primary states. I have no money, no consultants, and no campaign staff. So why should I be given so many platforms to get my message out?

Ron Paul is an interesting case. I was not completely on board with Rothenberg regarding excluding him from future debates at first simply because there are no other candidates in the race who are saying the same things he is. I can't recall the last Republican candidate who ran as a Barry Goldwater libertarian conservative and generated such strong support online. His views are particularly interesting to listen to, but he's stuck at 1% in the polls just like Kucinich and Hunter. He performed fairly well at the Ames Straw Poll, but placed behind every candidate who actually participated in the event other than Duncan Hunter. However...
The long shots have raised money, put together experienced campaign teams and have at least some chance of being nominated. They certainly deserve more time on the national stage, while the Tancredo's and Kucinich's of the world have had their moment to make their cases and push their issues.
And that makes a lot of sense. People who follow politics obviously know who Ron Paul is by now, but it's not helping. Dennis Kucinich has run on a pure liberal platform before and lost badly. Voters didn't support him before, and they are not supporting him now no matter how much his rhetoric and positions may resonate with people, even if only privately (such as impeaching Vice President Cheney). So maybe Rothenberg is right about Ron Paul after all.

The people who are the most hurt by including these "no shots" (as Rothenberg put it) in the debates and national dialogues are people like Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson on the Democratic side, and Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback on the Republican side. At least those candidates have a credible campaign apparatus and campaign cash. But there's too much "noise" for them to break through. Huckabee caught a huge break in the Ames Straw Poll because that gave him so much favorable media coverage.

The people who benefit the most from including these "no shots" in the debates are the ones at the very top of the field. Clinton and Giuliani in particular should be beaming with joy every time they step on the stage with gadfly candidates like Hunter and Gravel standing a few feet away from them.

Mike Gravel was not missed at the AFL-CIO debate. He could have participated, but failed to complete the required questionnaire they sent him prior to the debate. Future debate sponsors would do the presidential nomination process a great service by taking things a step further and keeping the no shots away from the long shots and big shots.

At some point, voters, the media, and debate organizers have to get serious about this. Now would be a good time to start.


Overrated and Underrated Candidates

There is a fascinating new poll out by National Journal about the 2008 presidential field. National Journal asked about 200 Washington insiders (pundits, strategists, consultants, congressional staff, etc.) about which 2008 candidates were the most over- and underrated. The results are as follows:

Who is your party's most overrated candidate?

John Edwards: 42%
Barack Obama: 40%
Hillary Rodham Clinton: 7%
Bill Richardson: 7%
None: 2%
Joseph Biden: 1%

Fred Thompson: 58%
John McCain: 14%
Mitt Romney: 14%
Rudy Giuliani: 11%
Sam Brownback: 1%
Ron Paul: 1%
The results of this poll are quite intriguing. The candidates leading this poll are all running at or near the head of the pack in their respective fields. Does this poll suggest a level of disconnect between the Washington crowd and the average voter? Who's right?

Regarding the Democrats, the inexperience factor that plagues Obama and Edwards is strongly reflected in this poll. But more interesting than that is the significantly lower level of disenchantment expressed about Clinton. More on that later.

As for the Republicans, the undeclared Fred Thompson seems to be the candidate who is greeted with the most skepticism. But a greater point of interest is that all the other top tier candidates received fairly high (and even) levels of dissatisfaction. This reflects the restlessness Republicans have about their choices and points to how conservative voters may be pinning their hopes on Fred Thompson because of it. But if Thompson turns out to be a bust, then where do Republicans go? Would this give Newt Gingrich his opening?

Here's the flip side of the poll:
Who is your party's most underrated candidate?

Bill Richardson: 32%
Joseph Biden: 28%
Christopher Dodd: 22%
John Edwards: 7%
Hillary Rodham Clinton: 6%
Barack Obama: 3%
Dennis Kucinich: 1%
None: 1%

Mike Huckabee: 46%
Mitt Romney: 25%
John McCain: 12%
Rudy Giuliani: 8%
Sam Brownback: 3%
Tommy Thompson: 3%
Duncan Hunter: 1%
Ron Paul: 1%
None: 1%
For people who study politics in depth, these data should not be surprising. I can't help but wonder how many average people even know who Mike Huckabee or Joe Biden is. The media aren't doing voters any favors by focusing on "Clinton vs. Obama" or "John Edwards vs. Ann Coulter" or "Rudy McRomney vs. Fred Thompson." Perhaps because the media like a good storyline, they want to keep covering politics through a binary lens. In our American Idol rivalry culture, it's easy to understand the tit-for-tat between Clinton and Obama. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd don't neatly fit anywhere in this storyline and only serve to complicate things. So the media ignore them.

The most interesting statistics I see here are how Clinton only registered at 6% in the underrated category and 7% in the overrated category. So is she a balanced candidate? She is considerably more experienced than Obama and Edwards, but less so than Biden, Dodd, and Richardson. Does she have the right balance of freshness, charisma, and experience? Is this why she's performing so well in the polls? My sense is that some Washingtonians and even average voters might not particularly like Clinton, but they do acknowledge her strength, even if grudgingly. She might not be belting out home runs at the debates and in her speeches, but she's methodically hitting singles and doubles. To her, it doesn't matter if she wins ugly as long as she wins.

Not many people in this poll thought Obama and Edwards were underrated. The Washington crowd does have the benefit of experience (in terms of following politics intensely year after year), so perhaps they see one or both of these candidates flaming out sometime soon. They could be wrong though. After all, they thought George W. Bush didn't stand a chance against then Vice President Al Gore. Or could this poll really be a leading indicator of things to come? Will the public follow the pundits? After all, John Edwards' numbers have steadily been declining while Obama's have plateaued.

The most underrated Democrats in this poll turned out to be the three with the most experience. They are more cerebral than charismatic and that probably explains why they are failing to gain much traction in the polls. Bill Richardson, for example, would commonly list five-point plans for how he'd tackle certain problems in previous debates. Joe Biden has talked at length about how he wanted to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions. And Chris Dodd sounds like a policy wonk in general, perhaps because of his lengthy tenure in the Senate. Voters who want to be inspired probably aren't going to respond well to this. Dodd has largely been invisible in the debates while Richardson has been criticized for sounding emotionless. My thinking is that if these debates took place over the radio instead of on television, Biden, Dodd, and Richardson would be doing far better in the polls than they are now.

As for the Republicans, the most interesting thing I noticed was how aside from Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, no other Republican really stood out. (John McCain is an exception because the media may have prematurely written his campaign obituary.) In other words, in a ten-candidate field (actually, now it's nine candidates because Tommy Thompson dropped out of the race), only Rudy McRomney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee were mentioned. Tancredo, Hunter, Brownback, and Paul were almost invisible, and that seems to be where they are in most polling, although Tancredo probably got a boost from Ames. So right now, they are only role players in the primary race, rather than protagonists. That could change though.

Could Mike Huckabee be the strongest Republican candidate this cycle? I think he very well could be. He has the right geography, an approachable demeanor, the right conservative credentials, sufficient executive experience, and strong debating skills. I believe Mike Huckabee is Mitt Romney's worst nightmare because Romney has planted his flag on what should be Huckabee's turf even though Huckabee can more credibly claim that this turf belongs to him. If Fred Thompson turns out to be a bust, Mitt Romney's support remains a mile wide and an inch deep, and John McCain runs out of money, the Republican race could come down to the conservative Huckabee vs. the moderate Giuliani. If this happens, this is when I expect the social conservative base to stop Giuliani's campaign dead in its tracks. And if Huckabee wins the nomination, I believe he will be exceptionally difficult to defeat because even though he's a conservative (voters are probably turned off from conservatism after Bush, Iraq, and the previous GOP Congress), he does not come across as a fire-breathing partisan. I'm not so sure Clinton can easily defeat him because Huckabee is not a part of the "right wing smear machine" that she commonly rails against. Huckabee truly is an outsider and can neutralize Obama's message of "change."

There are some truly great candidates in this race on both sides. I only lament the fact that they are not able to get their messages out with equal ability. If I were a Democrat, I'd be watching Mike Huckabee carefully. And if I were a Republican, I'd be watching Bill Richardson carefully. Both candidates are perhaps the most difficult to run against and are slowly working their way up the polls beneath the radar while Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Giuliani, Thompson, Romney, and McCain cannibalize themselves.


Ready, Ames, Fire!

Per the Washington Post, Mitt Romney won the Ames Straw Poll while Mike Huckabee took second. Here are the results:

1. Romney: 4516 (31.5%)
2. Huckabee: 2587 (18.1%)
3. Brownback: 2192 (15.3%)
4. Tancredo: 1961 (13.7%)
5. Paul: 1305 (9.1%)
6. T. Thompson: 1039 (7.3%)
7. F. Thompson: 203 (1.4%)
8. Giuliani: 183 (1.3%)
9. Hunter: 174 (1.2%)
10. McCain: 101 (1%)
11. Cox: 41 (.1%)

Total ballots cast: 14,302

Before providing my analysis of these results, allow me to crow about predicting wins by Tancredo and Huckabee in my previous post.

Having said that, here's what I think about the results:

Mitt Romney won the contest as expected. Whether he beat expectations or not is anyone's guess. He did invest a lot of resources into Ames, however, so he might not be pleased with how much this "victory" cost him. The departures of Giuliani and McCain made this victory more of a Pyrrhic one than a genuine one. The tricky part for Romney now is to translate his Iowa success into South Carolina success. Seeing that he is well positioned in both Iowa and New Hampshire, if he can go three for three by snagging South Carolina, he might back Rudy Giuliani into a serious corner before Super Tuesday even begins. Could Mitt Romney really be the Republican presidential nominee? Six months ago, I couldn't see it. But now it looks quite plausible.

Mike Huckabee won Ames by coming in second. He did the best job of beating expectations and should benefit from a strong infusion of campaign cash. The importance of Huckabee's performance in the straw poll cannot be overstressed. By placing second ahead of Christian conservative rival Sam Brownback, he likely eliminated Brownback from the race. In addition to that, the media attention that will follow Huckabee may pose a serious threat to Mitt Romney. I think Huckabee is a more genuine conservative than Romney is, so Romney better hope the media don't begin comparing them side by side. Huckabee's fundraising has been lackluster, but if he's able to catch a spark in terms of campaign donations, Romney (along with Fred Thompson and John McCain) could be in serious trouble.

Sam Brownback is obviously disappointed. While coming in third is nothing to sneeze at, he placed lower than the candidate who was occupying the same piece of political real estate--Mike Huckabee. How can he convince people to donate to his campaign because he's the best candidate to carry the Christian conservative mantle in light of Huckabee's stronger showing? I don't expect Brownback to stay in the race much longer.

Tom Tancredo did an excellent job of beating expectations. Seeing that he has traditionally been mired in the 1-2% range in most polls, these straw poll results have to be sweet vindication for him. The 10-candidate field is going to shrink over the next few days, so he'll have a better chance to get his message out. He is still not yet positioned to take on the frontrunners, but he's getting closer. His strong showing should serve as a warning to the other Republicans that the illegal immigration issue still matters to an awful lot of Republicans. The other candidates (particularly the top-tier ones) would be wise to start speaking Tancredo's language, otherwise future voters will punish them by supporting Tancredo instead. On a related note, someone responded to my recent post Why Minorities Don't Vote Republican by saying people should ignore Tancredo's "fringe" candidacy. However, the strength of Tancredo's performance here suggests anything but a "fringe" candidacy. For better or for worse, there is a large segment of people in the Republican Party that support Tancredo and his rhetoric and that is very off-putting to people who are suspicious of the Republican Party's commitment to people who are not White, heterosexual, English-speaking, married, Christian males.

Ron Paul did reasonably well. The fact that he did better than McCain, Giuliani, and Fred Thompson means something because they are all far better known. No, those candidates did not participate in the poll, but he still did far better than they did. His performance suggests he is reasonably viable. A smaller field of candidates will better allow him to get his libertarian message out. I am intrigued by how he will fare in the New Hampshire primaries in January, seeing that the voters there have a libertarian streak. (The state's motto is "live free or die.") Could he be a spoiler candidate? Or could voters tire of Rudy McRomney and just take a chance with Paul?

Tommy Thompson is one of the clear losers in this poll. He said he would drop out if he did not place in the top three. Well, he didn't even place in the top half. I expect him to drop out of the race shortly. He just didn't seem to impress many voters in the debates and had one too many stupid excuses for his gaffes to be taken seriously, in my opinion. Thompson is like the new Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor who dropped out of the race a few weeks ago. When Tommy Thompson drops out, people will be shocked and lament Fred Thompson's premature demise. Nobody knows who this guy is. Enough said.

Duncan Hunter must be heartbroken by these results. He's handsome, authoritative, and a perfect fit for conservatives on defense, immigration, abortion, spending, cultural issues, and terrorism. But he fared worse than two candidates who weren't even participating in the straw poll. The writing's on the wall. It's time for him to exit, stage left.

Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain are all mired in the 1% range. These candidates were all penalized for not participating in the straw poll. Fred Thompson in particular should be careful about this because of the rumors that he's a lazy candidate. In politics, just like dating, you have to swing to hit. That means hitting the campaign trail, pressing the flesh, giving speeches, and fielding questions from anxious voters until the wee hours of the morning at town hall meetings and private parties.

Even Rudy Giuliani should not take his support for granted. I think more than 1.3% of Iowa's Republicans support his campaign. But they won't if he doesn't work for it. If Giuliani allows Romney to win Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be under incredible pressure to win one of the other early states before Super Tuesday, where he is more likely to fare better. Giuliani is the lone moderate in the race, so he doesn't have to worry about another candidate stepping on his turf. But if he's not careful, he risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Simply put, McCain's showing is an embarrassment. Of all the declared candidates, he fared the worst in the poll. That's not good for the morale of his struggling campaign, but I expect him to write this off as a byproduct of the tumultuous period he was having this summer. Having said that, it would have been a huge psychological boost for him if he had placed higher than at least one of the other top-tier candidates who did not participate. Losing to Duncan Hunter is not a good way to go about energizing your supporters.

John Cox is irrelevant.

To summarize:

Huckabee and Tancredo are the big winners.

Romney and Paul did okay.

Brownback, Hunter, Tommy Thompson, and McCain are the big losers.

Giuliani and Fred Thompson got out what they put in.

Look for Brownback, Hunter, and Tommy Thompson to drop out in the coming days.


Narrowing the GOP Field

The Republican field is oversubscribed right now. Even with the departure of Jim Gilmore, the invisible candidacy of John Cox, and the rumors about Newt Gingrich, there are still 10 candidates remaining. There's obviously not enough room for all of them, and conventional wisdom says that the ones with the money will be the ones who survive the longest. I don't view it that way. I think the Republican field will be winnowed down by the candidates' identities and positioning, rather than their campaign warchests. The reason why I say this is because I think there is a lot of redundancy among the Republican candidates. This weekend's Ames Straw Poll should eliminate several of the pretenders and otherwise unviable candidates. Here's my take on how Ames is creating a sort of playoff dynamic among the GOP candidates.

The Christian Conservative Battle: Sam Brownback vs. Mike Huckabee

There's just not enough room in the race for both of them, as they occupy much of the same turf. Both are strongly opposed to abortion and are reliable cultural conservatives hailing from the same part of the country. Both candidates have really been duking it out as of late. Ames will eliminate one of these candidates, and the winner's next opponent will be Mitt Romney, who is trying to occupy the role of the family values conservative. (I would use the term "Christian conservative," but that evokes conversations about his Mormonism, so "family values conservative" is probably a politically safer term for him to use.) My thinking is that Huckabee will defeat Brownback because even though voters genuinely like Brownback and should be pleased with his voting record, Huckabee's stronger debate performances and his executive experience as Arkansas' governor should make him the more appealing candidate to carry the Christian conservative mantle.

The Illegal Immigration Battle: Duncan Hunter vs. Tom Tancredo

Even though both candidates are considered to be in the third tier, their main issue (illegal immigration) is most definitely a top tier one. None of the top four candidates (Rudy McRomney + Fred Thompson) have really made illegal immigration and border security the center of their campaign. Thus, I think there's an opening for Hunter or Tancredo, but not both of them. I expect voters to reward one of these candidates so they can continue to give a voice to this contentious issue. Hunter has more experience than Tancredo, but Tancredo seems to be a more passionate speaker and debater. Despite Hunter's experience and solidly conservative voting record, I get the sense that he's more congressional material than presidential material. I expect Tancredo to win this battle and become a real thorn in the side of the top tier candidates. I also can't help but wonder if Tom Tancredo is the Republicans' version of Joe Biden for the Democrats in that he has the passion, voters' admiration, and the right voting record, but people don't view him as a credible (read: electable) candidate. Because conservative voters keep poking holes in the "conservative" armor of the top four candidates, look for either Hunter or Thompson to challenge their conservative credentials more strongly. Either one will likely push all the other candidates to the right on illegal immigration. I believe the winner of the Hunter-Tancredo battle will fight Fred Thompson in the next round. Voters think Fred Thompson is the only true conservative in the race, but they probably really mean he's the only viable conservative. If Tancredo or Hunter can pull off a top 5 finish, Fred Thompson had better sleep with one eye open because he may have someone else encroaching on his conservative turf.

The Veteran Statesman Battle: McCain vs. F. Thompson

Neither of these candidates is participating in the straw poll, but the results will be highly revealing for both campaigns. McCain is likely skipping Ames because he doesn't have the financial resources to compete in Iowa right now. Thompson is skipping Ames because he's not even an official candidate and is therefore under no obligation to participate in the poll. However, if McCain does better than Thompson in the poll, look for McCain to get a lot of favorable media coverage and a stay of execution for his campaign. And in addition to this, the media will also begin to pile on Thompson with "all sizzle and no steak" stories and question his true strength. I believe Thompson would have been better off formally declaring his candidacy, participating in Ames, and setting extremely low expectations. That way, if he didn't do so well in the straw poll, he could always attribute that to a lack of preparation time. But because he has delayed formally entering the race (perhaps too much), the halo above him is starting to lose its glimmer. But if Thompson finishes much more strongly than McCain, McCain will be in serious trouble. He might not even make it to the caucuses this winter. The loser of the McCain-Thompson battle will not be dead, but I think he will be seriously wounded. The winner of this battle will likely become the establishment candidate and the direct challenger to Rudy Giuliani.

The People vs. The Pocketbook Battle: Paul vs. Romney

People generally expect Mitt Romney to win the straw poll, so the real battles are for second place. Ron Paul barely registers in the polls and has spent far less money advertising than Romney has. So why do I include them together? Because this pits two major forces in politics against each other: the power of money (Romney and his barrage of campaign ads) vs. the power of people (Paul's legion of supporters online). If Romney does not win the straw poll in a rout despite all his fundraising and advertising, it will be considered an embarrassing loss. If Paul does not place in the top half of the finishers, people will conclude that his support in the blogosphere doesn't mean anything. If Paul beats expectations and Romney disappoints, the race will be in even more chaos than it is now. If Paul does a better job of beating expectations than Romney, all the second-tier candidates will win, such as Huckabee and Tancredo, because it will show that fundraising is not as important as ideas and positions. If Romney does a better job of beating expectations than Paul, I think that will benefit the top-tier candidates instead because it will show that money and campaign organization matter. Because Paul is such an unusual candidate, I can't really predict how well he will do. But I will say this: Nobody has more riding on this poll than Mitt Romney.

The Traditionalists vs. The Pragmatists Battle: Iowa Republicans vs. Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani consistently sits at the top of the polls and has the GOP moderates all to himself. However, moderates are a dying breed, it seems. Giuliani has raised a good amount of money and has broad electoral appeal. However, he's not participating in Ames, perhaps because he doesn't think he can beat Romney (and wants to spare himself the embarrassment) and because McCain won't participate either. Skipping Ames presents Giuliani with the risk of total rejection by Iowa Republicans who feel he's blowing their state off. Giuliani will not win the straw poll, but if he performs worse than expected, his opponents will spin the results as Giuliani being out of touch with conservatives (I am still waiting for that shoe to drop on that one) and he may run the risk of not winning the caucuses next winter. The Iowa voters will remind the media that name and cash alone cannot generate support; old-fashioned campaigning and pressing the flesh are what it takes to be successful. Giuliani needs to be careful. Despite his broad electoral appeal, he is not leading in Iowa or New Hampshire and Fred Thompson is giving him a run for his money in South Carolina. Giuliani would have been better off participating in Ames and spinning his poor results as a function of being a moderate candidate in a conservative state. That would have been less damaging. Now he's at the mercy of voters who may want to penalize him for dissing their popular presidential tradition.

Two days to go. Let the games begin!


The Republican Rorschach Test

I haven't written much recently about the Republican field because the race is so difficult to figure out.

Unlike Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, there is no generally agreed upon Republican frontrunner. There are several reasons why, however. Here's what I know, based on my own understanding of Republican politics and recent news:

1. John McCain should be the frontrunner, but he's not because he has aligned himself too closely with the unpopular Bush and the increasingly unpopular Iraq War, irked conservatives with his stance on immigration and campaign finance reform, and is trusted neither by conservatives nor independents. Even the media have turned on him. McCain seems to have no base.

2. Rudy Giuliani does not fit the traditional mold of a Republican in that his socially moderate to liberal positions on abortion, gun control, and homosexuals stand in direct contrast to social conservatives who form the Republican base whose support he needs in order to secure the nomination. He is probably the strongest Republican in the general election, but would the Republican base be demoralized by his candidacy? Giuliani is leading in the national polls, but is trailing in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Could Giuliani be knocked out in those two small states before the bigger states that are more likely to support him, such as California and New Jersey, get their say?

3. Mitt Romney is trying to run as the true conservative, but there is so much evidence to the contrary (based on recent conversions and the power of You Tube) that he has to fight off allegations that he changes his political views depending on the office he's running for. Romney may be positioning himself as a conservative, but he's not a credible one in many voters' eyes. Also, the Mormon issue should not be an issue in this campaign, but it is. And it's not going away. To further complicate matters, Romney is leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are early voting states, while his national polling numbers place him further back in the pack.

4. Fred Thompson is the Barack Obama of the GOP field. After a relatively obscure tenure in the Senate, voters are now looking to him as the conservative savior who has the right demeanor, the right drawl, the right geography, and the right politics. However, he remains an undeclared candidate, is drawing mixed reviews on the stump, and doesn't have the organization in place to challenge the more established candidates.

5. Mike Huckabee seems to be a good fit for Republicans on almost all issues, despite the anti-tax wing of the party's consternation for his record as Arkansas' governor. He is a strong debater with a good life story, but he has no money and no real organization in the early primary states.

6. Newt Gingrich is the sentimental favorite who evokes memories of the historic Republican takeover in 1994. He is an intellectual heavyweight and is undeniably a credible conservative. But there are fears that he is too polarizing to win the general election. And he's not even a declared candidate.

7. Ron Paul is saying things that many voters have never heard a politician say before. He's not performing well in traditional polls, but he is on fire in the online blogosphere. Paul unites Barry Goldwater conservatives, anti-tax conservatives, anti-war liberals, and civil libertarians. How do you pigeonhole that? Thus, nobody really knows how well this enthusiasm will translate into actual votes come caucustime next year.

8. Tom Tancredo's main campaign issue is illegal immigration, which conservatives are absolutely livid about. Will GOP voters vote the issue or will they vote the candidate? If they vote the issue, Tancredo could surprise everyone. If they vote the candidate, would that mean conservatives are not as passionate about illegal immigration as people think? What if they nominate a candidate who is not as conservative on this issue as they would like? Would they be demoralized in November?

(9. Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, and Tommy Thompson are running on borrowed time. I don't expect any of these three candidates to still be campaigning two weeks from now. Brownback is really hitting Romney and Huckabee hard, but I just don't think he is taken seriously enough as a presidential candidate.)

Are Republicans looking at 2008 with optimism or dread? There are many polls suggesting a GOP wipeout next year. Is it because of Bush fatigue (which translates into Republican fatigue)? Is it because of Iraq? Is it a hangover from the ethical lapses of the previous congress? Is it the natural cycle of politics? After all, in the last 50 years or so, only George H.W. Bush was able to pull off a third consecutive GOP term in 1988.

None of the old rules about Republican politics seem to apply to the 2008 contest. Socially conservative voters are supporting candidates that are anything but social conservatives while the socially conservative candidates are struggling to gain traction. The party that prides itself on nominating the next candidate in its hierarchy has no heir apparent this time around. Republicans are trapped between supporting Bush and abandoning the leader of their party, so they are not sure how to deal with him. The party that has historically had a cash advantage over the Democrats is now playing catchup.

It doesn't make any sense. Until the Ames results come in this weekend and some of the candidates drop out, this race is almost impossible to analyze in any meaningful way.


Debate Analysis (D)

Yet another Democratic debate took place tonight in Chicago. All the candidates except for Mike Gravel participated in the forum. This forum was the most contentious one by far in my estimation, as the kid gloves came off and blood was drawn. Much will be written about this forum in the coming days, but here's my analysis.

Hillary Clinton: She made no major gaffes, although she may have made a small mistake when she got fired up and said "I'm your girl." The crowd loved it, but if she's the Democratic nominee, that little remark will inevitably be used for Republican fundraising. The main thing about Clinton and these debates is that she automatically wins by not losing. Because of the crowded field and her frontrunner status, she has little need to engage any of her opponents, thus allowing her to stay above the fray and look presidential. Having said that, she will eventually have to answer questions about contributions from lobbyists. It's a legitimate issue that feeds directly into Obama and Edwards' criticism of her as a "Washington insider."

Barack Obama: I watched the MSNBC post-debate coverage and they generally viewed Obama as one of the winners of the debate. However, I think he merely did okay. His delivery seemed unconfident at times and he seemed a bit distracted. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were clearly irritated about his lack of Washington experience and took the fight to him tonight. While he acquitted himself reasonably well (especially when he pivoted from Pakistan to Iraq by turning Dodd's Iraq vote against him), he runs the risk of winning over the larger public while turning the Washington crowd away from his campaign. Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen, but I get the sense that people are now viewing Obama just like they view Clinton: either they like him or they don't. The Barry Bonds question was surprisingly revealing, as his answer to it was anything but courageous.

John Edwards: Edwards was supposed to own this debate, seeing that he's trying to position himself as labor's candidate. However, I don't believe he connected with voters tonight. Edwards seemed to have a lot slogans, but not a lot of solutions. It also seems like he has gotten much angrier in recent weeks, perhaps out of frustration over his gradual slide in the polls. If going after Clinton for accepting lobbying money is the best he can do, he very well might not even make it to Iowa next January. The Edwards camp should be very worried.

Bill Richardson: Richardson showed his humorous side a few times tonight, especially when he joked that he was looking forward to labor's continued financial support. Unfortunately for Richardson, he didn't get many chances to get his message out tonight, so he seemed a bit lost in the shuffle. He did remind voters of his vast experience, but other than that, Richardson was fairly invisible tonight.

Joe Biden: Again, Biden sounded presidential--perhaps moreso than any other candidate on stage. He subtly corrected Obama by reminding voters that Canada has a prime minister (rather than a president) and went for the jugular against Obama and Edwards by talking about how "what they did in the last two years or in their six year Senate term" pales in comparison to his lengthy Senate record. Richardson, Biden, and Dodd are competing directly with each other for the veteran alternative to Clinton. Richardson is better positioned in terms of cash and polling, but Biden seems to be a better speaker and more explosive. He didn't do any favors by essentially ignoring the average voter's question towards the end of the forum, however, about mine safety.

Chris Dodd: Has Dodd finally arrived? This was the first forum in which Dodd actually made news. I thought he dressed Obama down on the Pakistan issue and clearly showed that experience matters. However, Black voters may have been turned off by Dodd because of this exchange. They don't like the idea of an old White senator lecturing a younger, intelligent Black one. Dodd still comes across more senatorial than presidential, but to his credit, at least he did something to make voters remember him tonight.

Dennis Kucinich: In my opinion, Kucinich won this debate in a rout. He even upstaged John Edwards when he spoke bluntly about China, health care, and eliminating NAFTA. It seemed like only Kucinich and Biden answered the debate questions with minimal fluff, so Kucinich gets props for that. His line about digging a hole to China was probably the funniest one of the night and he told the other candidates what Democratic voters wish they had been saying all along--to do the job they were elected to do last November. At this stage, Kucinich is still not going to win the nomination, but I think he gained the respect of a lot of voters tonight.

In a nutshell:

Clinton is still running out the clock. Soon she will get so far ahead in the polls that nobody will be able to catch her. Aside from obviously benefiting Clinton, I think this also benefits Dodd, Biden, and Richardson because the gap between them and Obama and Edwards is not as large as the gap between Obama/Edwards and Clinton. There will be a Hillary alternative, but now it seems more plausible that this alternative will not be restricted to Obama or Edwards.

Edwards is in serious trouble. His performances seem angry and erratic as of late. He was outshone by Kucinich as far as satisfying labor.

Obama is a force to be reckoned with, but is no longer feared. People are challenging him openly now. He better get used to it.

Richardson is running in place. He's well positioned, but didn't do himself any favors at the debate.

Biden did very well again. He should be feeling good about his chances, but it really depends on his fundraising.

Dodd finally showed up, but it might be too little too late for him. He has to hope that all the other candidates somehow become unacceptable to voters, thus leaving him as the unbloodied alternative. Think generic Democrat.

Kucinich encroached on Edwards' turf and stole a lot of his thunder. Earlier voters looked at Kucinich and said "Why?" I can't help but wonder if more people are now asking "Why not?"

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.