Having just watched the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, I can confidently say that the Democratic horserace just became considerably more competitive. The major news story of the night is that Hillary Clinton proved what John Edwards has been attacking her on all along: her obfuscations, evasiveness, and "doubletalk."
Hillary Clinton's poll numbers should come crashing back down to earth. Expect her to spend a lot of time doing damage control in the near future because a huge hole was exposed in her armor and the other candidates and the media are going to drive a bus through it. She had better hope the word "doubletalk" doesn't stick. In the meantime, she better find a better answer to the illegal immigration question, and quick.
Barack Obama did not score any knockout punches tonight, but he did well enough to stave off being written off by the media. He started off weak, but gained steam as the debate progressed. He was better able to find an effective balance between drawing contrasts with Hillary Clinton without drawing the ire of voters for engaging in slash-and-burn politics. He did not turn in the strongest performance, but he at least showed that he knows how to fight while being a bit genteel in the process.
John Edwards turned in a considerably strong performance and is more of a threat to Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton simply because he is more direct and more forceful in his contrasts. He damaged Clinton while hurting Obama at the same time because he demonstrated the scrappiness that Obama's supporters wish he had.
Joe Biden could legitimately become the Clinton alternative for voters seeking experience. His views on Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan demonstrated a level of depth and seriousness that has not been shown by any other candidate of either party thus far. There shouldn't be anymore talk about him becoming her Secretary of State.
Bill Richardson has gone from the most attractive second tier candidate to the least attractive over the course of these debates. Expect him to have to bat down stories about shooting for a cabinet position in a Clinton White House from here on out. His already slim chances of winning the nomination took a major hit tonight.
Chris Dodd has arrived, and I think Democrats like what they see.
Dennis Kucinich offers more in these debates than Mike Gravel, but look for him to be the next candidate to be dropped from the list of participants despite the fact that he has a clear campaign platform. Unfortunately, it's never a good sign when your most memorable line is that you saw a UFO. Obviously, that question from the moderators was not really fair, but most voters will only remember what Kucinich said.
This race just got a whole lot more interesting.
A more detailed analysis will follow shortly.
Having just watched the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, I can confidently say that the Democratic horserace just became considerably more competitive. The major news story of the night is that Hillary Clinton proved what John Edwards has been attacking her on all along: her obfuscations, evasiveness, and "doubletalk."
All the Democratic candidates (sans Mike Gravel) will participate in their next debate tomorrow evening at 9:00 in Philadelphia. The debate will be broadcast on MSNBC and will be co-moderated by Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Brian Williams moderated the very first debate held in Orangeburg, South Carolina, so this debate serves as a bit of a homecoming of sorts.
The link I just provided was to the debate preview I had written in April in which I assessed each candidate's positioning, rivals, weaknesses, and ways they could make their path to the nomination a bit less bumpy. That was six months ago, and it is now the end of October. We are no longer in the preseason, as the Iowa caucuses are set for January 3, which is in just a little over two months. The race has taken on numerous storylines since this spring and several facts have been learned. Here's where things stand now:
1. Iraq's importance to Democratic voters is not as important as the media and pundits are making it out to be. This is not to say that Iraq is not a big deal because it obviously is. But think about this. Barack Obama has stated numerous times how "he was against this war from the very beginning." Voters also know that John Edwards has apologized for his war vote and said he was "wrong." And Democratic voters know that Hillary Clinton refuses to apologize for the war she voted to authorize. She also won't make any guarantees about withdrawing troops by a certain date even though timetables for withdrawal are considerably more popular among Democrats than Republicans. So in some regards, Clinton's Iraq policy sounds like a continuation of Bush's Iraq policy. And yet, Hillary Clinton's support in the polls among Democratic voters continues to rise. But if Iraq were such a dealbreaker among Democrats, then shouldn't Obama be performing better than he is now? Or should we expect a surprisingly strong showing of support for Dennis Kucinich come caucustime?
2. Barack Obama has tapped into something very real, but his reluctance to firmly engage Hillary Clinton is blunting the potential strength of the movement he is trying to represent. Until the third quarter, Obama was leading the money chase and had the most donors. After the third quarter fundraising totals showed that Clinton had raised the most money, Obama appealed to his donors for them to help him "close the gap" with Clinton. His success in this endeavor shows that his support is deep and that his supporters are collectively powerful. But the fact that Obama is not able to "close the gap" in terms of polling against Clinton has to be discouraging for even his most ardent supporters. It's no longer enough for him to say "it's still early" because it's not. Obama continues to talk about how he'll be more aggressive, but it never comes. And when it does, it's often in the form of veiled attacks on Clinton that might be a bit too cerebral for the average voter to pick up on. He's running out of opportunities to draw blood and risks having his supporters quietly defect to other campaigns. Right now, Obama is not coming across like a fighter. How can voters fight for their candidate at the caucuses when that candidate is barely willing to fight for himself?
3. Talk about lobbyists and corruption seem to make good talking points, but they are a bit less successful at moving the needle. Or is it the messenger? Consider John Edwards, who is running an unabashedly populist campaign. Edwards' numbers are slowly declining in Iowa and South Carolina, both of which are states where he should reasonably be expected to do well. He has been the most aggressive candidate in the debates and is not hesitating to attack Clinton and her corporate ties. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs knows that corruption, lobbying, and broken government are galvanizing issues. And Edwards is railing against these very issues. So what gives? He is an attractive Southern politician who connects with rural voters. His electability argument has some resonance as well, as his geography could potentially put some red states in play to counter Rudy Giuliani's assertion that he could put some blue states in play. And yet, he is falling off the pace. Do the haircut and hedge fund stories make him a hypocrite who has no credibility? Or is he regarded as a has-been because of his failed candidacy in 2004?
4. None of the second-tier candidates has emerged as the primary challenger to the comparatively less experienced Barack Clintedwards. Bill Richardson has the better fundraising and polling, while Joe Biden has the more credible Iraq message and more endorsements. Richardson and Biden are mired in the 5-10% range in most polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just like Obama and Edwards, these two candidates cannot coexist because they both appeal to voters who desire an experienced candidate not named Hillary Clinton. If one of these candidates drops out, the other would clearly benefit and have a much easier road to gaining visibility. The newly open Senate seat in New Mexico is a tempting destination for Richardson, but he has expressed no interest in it (yet). And Biden's poor fundraising is not putting an end to doubts about his viability. Who will outlive who? Will it not be a Senate seat or fundraising prowess, but rather Iraq that delivers the knockout punch to one of these candidates? What do defections like this portend?
5. Nobody still knows who Chris Dodd is. His politics put him squarely in the Democratic mainstream. He has an impressive resume and a likable personality, but his polling is as anemic as Mike Gravel's. He has failed to distinguish himself in the debates and is not a particularly compelling speaker. This could work to Dodd's advantage in that voters may tire of all the warts of Barack Clintedwards and be leery of Richardson's and Biden's tendency to have their mouths get away from them. This would leave Dodd as the untainted statesman. But it would certainly help his case if Dodd had at least some favorable buzz about his campaign because how comfortable will Democratic voters be with entrusting their hopes to Mr. Invisible?
Stay tuned for my post-debate analysis.
While California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has generally been lauded for his leadership during the California fire disaster, the federal government is making headlines again for all the wrong reasons. According to CNN, the Federal Emergency Management Agency staged a phony news conference in which FEMA staffers posed as journalists and asked softball questions that lent themselves to gratuitous and self-aggrandizing responses:
Q: "Are you happy with FEMA's response, so far?"Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who apparently had no knowledge of this staged event, was outraged:
A: "I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far. This is a FEMA and a federal government that's leaning forward, not waiting to react. And you have to be pretty pleased to see that."
"I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government. I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment."Chertoff's anger certainly is justified, but this gets at the very reason why so many Americans have written off President Bush and his administration.
Why should the FEMA staffers who set up this bogus news conference even be given a second chance at all? And why hasn't Chertoff's boss, President Bush come out hard against the perpetrators? Bush most definitely did not want to experience a repeat of the Katrina debacle, so he surely wanted the federal government to work seamlessly throughout this tragedy. But now FEMA has embarrassed itself yet again. And nobody is being held accountable.
Yes, it's "only" a phony press conference. But shouldn't we expect more from our federal government? And whatever happened to personal accountability? What kind of banana republic are we living in when incompetent people can continue to underperform so brazenly and without consequence? If this had happened at a private company, the company's boss would have swiftly fired any and all people involved with committing something so stupid. Why isn't that happening at the highest levels of our government? Consider this lame response from White House Press Secretary Dana Perino:
"It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House. We certainly don't condone it. FEMA has apologized for the error in judgment."(That's it?)
Partisan defenders of the current administration may tell others to lighten up or attempt to trivialize this somehow as much ado about nothing. But they are missing the point. Governance is serious business. The federal government should not be in the business of making people laugh, nor should they be in the business of entertaining. They should be in the business of competently doing their jobs and providing for their nation's citizens because there are very real consequences for them failing to do so. Wasting taxpayer dollars, precious time, and media resources over some stupid staged news conference should be a firing offense. It's not something "we don't condone." It's not something "inappropriate." People's lives hang in the balance here. Chertoff is right to be angry, but if these people maintain their jobs, it only further makes President Bush and his administration look like a joke. This entire episode is both embarrassing and contemptible. And the saddest thing about all this is that it's not the first time something like this has happened. And nothing will change.
Where is the outrage? Does government not mean anything anymore?
The California fires have been the big story in the news this week. As tragic as they may be, the media love such stories because of the wealth of story ideas they generate. Human interest stories about rebuilding, the criminality angle stemming from arson investigations, health stories about breathing in soot, political stories comparing Bush's response now with Bush's response during Hurricane Katrina, and stories of heroism on behalf of firefighters and emergency rescue personnel ensure that there won't be any slow news days for awhile. Unfortunately, some of what's being reported also illustrates what's wrong with America these days. I've been watching this media coverage over the past few days and have made a few observations.
Partisanship: Black vs. White
Blacks, especially those in Louisiana displaced by Hurricane Katrina, are listening to the media coverage of this disaster carefully. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there was a chorus of politicians and pundits who said they should not rebuild the communities in and around New Orleans because the city was below sea level and at high risk of experiencing a similar disaster in the future. One of the common criticisms from Blacks during this time was that if Katrina had happened in a majority White area (such as Southern California), these politicians and the government would take the disaster more seriously and questions about the wisdom of rebuilding would never enter the equation. Obviously, the California fires and Hurricane Katrina are catastrophes of two entirely different scales. California and Louisiana have two different governors with two different skill sets and two different styles of leadership. They have two different state legislatures, two different economies, and two different demographic composites. However, the California hills are in the middle of wildfire country just as New Orleans is in the middle of hurricane country. Fairly or unfairly, a lot of Black voters are listening to the way the media and politicians talk about rebuilding the communities in San Diego County and wonder why it's okay for those (mostly White) residents to rebuild, but not okay for the (mostly Black) residents of New Orleans to rebuild. Underneath all the fear and sadness associated with this tragedy, there is a sense of resentment among many Blacks who feel there is a level of disparity regarding the way they were treated during Katrina and the way the Southern Californians are being treated now. And that is unfortunate.
Partisanship: Unpresidential leadership
George Bush's remark that "it makes a significant difference when you have a person in the statehouse willing to take the lead" was both inappropriate and unpresidential. Bush is well aware that the California fire disaster gave him a second chance when it comes to responding to natural disasters at home, so he obviously remembers Katrina and all the players involved there. While he didn't name names, it was obvious that he was talking about Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. For all of Gov. Blanco's shortcomings during Katrina, there was no reason for him to disparage her when talking about the California disaster. When you talk about staying positive, healing, and the need for everyone to come together, what's the point of making cheapshots at the expense of state leaders who are unrelated to the situation at hand? At what point do we all become Californians? And shouldn't we expect a bit more maturity from our national leader? Comments such as this remind voters of one thing they particularly dislike about President Bush--his inappropriate remarks during times of crisis. (You can read more about Bush's "do over" here.)
Partisanship: A lack of respect
California's lieutenant governor, Democrat John Garamendi, angrily said that while they would be cordial to Bush during his visit, it was largely a "public relations" stunt of questionable value. Unfortunately for Garamendi, while it may be okay for private citizens to express such views, elected officials, especially high level ones like the lieutenant governor, should afford the president a certain level of respect, whether you support Bush or not. It is unbecoming for a lieutenant governor to bash the nation's chief executive prior to his visit to the disaster area. And of course, if Bush decided not to go to California, would the lieutenant governor criticize him for being too detached?
Partisanship: Left vs. Right
Lt. Gov. Garamendi then suggested the disaster response would have been far better had the California National Guard not been in Iraq:
"How about sending our National Guard back from Iraq, so that we have those people available here to help us?"In response to this, California congressman and Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter said:
"...[Y]ou can put the entire U.S. Army in front of [the fires] and you are not going to stop it and the proof of that is this. ... You simply don't throw a wall of bodies up against an incoming wall of flame that is coming with high winds behind it."So in short, he was suggesting that it didn't make any difference at all whether the National Guard was in California or in Iraq. End of story.
Of course, conservatives and Republicans pounced on Garamendi's remarks and said that the California fires had been "politicized" by Democrats. Of course, these are the same Republicans who couldn't stress enough during Katrina how the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana were both Democrats. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour also made the "connection" between the chaos in Louisiana compared to Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, all of which happened to have Republican governors. So Republicans' outrage over Garamendi's remarks is a bit insincere.
Had enough yet? Ruben Navarrette certainly thinks so.
All of these remarks illustrate the partisan bimodal thinking about serious issues that does such a great disservice to the nation. It would be nice if we could have a serious discussion about troop levels and resources in Iraq without making it sound like taking all the troops out would solve all the states' problems or that no benefit could be obtained whatsoever by keeping all the National Guard troops over there. National Guard troops in Iraq could certainly be used to help deal with situations that arise domestically. After all, the firefighters and emergency response teams could use all the help they can get. But to blame Iraq for an inadequate emergency response that has generally received good reviews is overly pessimistic. And it is unseemly to use calamities such as these fires as an opportunity to score political points.
Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson captures the essense of this nonsense perfectly. At what point does partisanship become an unfunny joke? While it may be fun to crow about winning an election, a debate, or a news cycle, there are still real issues to deal with that affect real lives. It would be nice if people on all sides took these issues more seriously.
While the race for the Republican presidential nomination is wide open, as there are five plausible winners (Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney, and Thompson), the Democratic contest is a bit less competitive. Hillary Clinton has combined strong fundraising with strong national and state polling to become the "inevitable" nominee. Of course, Clinton is doing her best to downplay such talk, but most people aren't buying it, especially if her main rival, Barack Obama, is referring to himself as an underdog. (So if Obama is an underdog and Clinton is not a frontrunner, then who in the world is leading the Democratic pack? Chris Dodd?)
Anyway, Republicans, who are acutely aware of Clinton's strength, have all but annointed her as their general election opponent. Several of the candidates have used Clinton as a punchline in their stump speeches and as easy applause lines in the debates, as was evidenced by the recent Republican debate in Florida. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove also weighed in recently, describing Clinton as a fatally flawed candidate.
Clinton, being a skilled politician, has a clever retort to these attacks. She deftly invokes one of her greatest strengths and assets, the gender card, by opining "when you get to be our age, it's kind of nice to have all these men obsess over you." This remark is quite clever because not only does it resonate with women, it's also a humorous remark that softens her image.
So what is the psychology involved here? Why are the Republicans focusing so much on Clinton instead of the other Democratic candidates? Are they taunting Clinton because she is an extension of the Republicans' most reviled boogeyman, William Jefferson Clinton? Or they fear her? Or they trying to goad the Democrats into nominating her? And if so, to what end?
I believe the Republicans' constant railing against Hillary Clinton is akin to the reverse psychology that plays out in our lives daily. Telling children how bad smoking is, for example, often leads children to experiment with smoking. Of course, other children take these warnings at face value and stay away from tobacco altogether. So which one is it? Here are some of the scenarios as I see them:
1. There's a sense that Clinton is the most beatable Democrat in the general election. Most of the polling I've seen shows her outperforming Obama and Edwards against most of the Republican candidates in general election matchups. However, Republicans believe she is the easiest candidate to run against because she has such a long record through which Republicans can comb and turn into attack ads. If Obama were the nominee, for example, they'd have to start over with a brand new playbook, thus losing a bit of precious time as they try and find the best way to attack him. Clinton also has the highest negatives among all the Democratic candidates, so her chances of scoring an electoral blowout are plausibly much smaller. Basically, a Clinton nomination spots the GOP nominee a few points automatically, thus meaning she has less margin for error. And as sour as the climate is for Republicans right now, the possibility of being almost even money against Clinton should provide them some bit of solace. There is also the gender issue, which nobody knows how to accurately assess. Are there legions of closet skeptics and sexists who claim to support Clinton in the polls only to refuse to punch her name at the ballot box? Or is there a large segment of Republican women who will place gender above party?
2. Clinton will galvanize the Republican base so much that even if she wins the presidency, Republican losses down the ballot will be minimized. There are a lot more Democrats running for reelection in red districts than there are Republicans running in blue districts. Independents, moderates and even a few conservatives might like for the Democrats to control Congress, but don't want Hillary Clinton in the White House. Because of her high negatives and polarization, there will likely be a high level of ticket-splitting in which voters may vote for the Republican at the top of the ballot and the Democrats further down the ballot. It is far easier for voters to vote for a straight party ticket. But if Hillary Clinton is at the top of that ticket, straight party voting for Democrats might be a bit less prevalent in some of these red states and red districts. Democrats running in red and purple districts, such as Rep. Nancy Boyda of Kansas, have to be a bit nervous about this.
3. Clinton will be good for Republican fundraising. This is self-explanatory. The Republican Party may be fragmented right now over illegal immigration, how hawkish the United States should be towards Iran, deficit spending, and the Christian conservative agenda. The closeness of the race for the Republican nomination serves as a testament to this. However, these various camps all share the same enemy--Hillary Clinton. So even if disenchanted Republicans are conflicted about donating to support their party, they may be more inclined to donate just to keep "Shrillary" or "the Hildebeast" out of the White House. These campaign contributions should help keep endangered incumbents afloat, such as Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut.
4. A Clinton victory in 2008 will hasten the return of Republican congressional majorities in 2010 similar to 1994 that they can further build upon in 2012. Democrats have been in the political wilderness for the better part of the last 15 years. Now because of Bush's unpopular presidency and the electoral map, there is increasing chatter of the Democrats gaining a 60-seat majority in the Senate. Once considered farfetched, this is now looking increasingly possible. It's still unlikely, but at least it's possible. The Senate map in 2008 and 2010 favors Democrats, as they have fewer seats to defend than Republicans. Many of the Republicans up for reelection in 2008 and 2010 were elected on the coattails of Bush during the heyday of his popularity, especially in 2002. With 60 votes in the Senate, it is much easier to pass legislation over the objections of the minority party, as the majority will be able to easily stop filibusters. As for the House of Representatives, until congressional districts are redrawn after the 2010 census, if the status quo prevails, there will be more Democrats representing red districts than Republicans representing blue ones. How many of these Senate challengers and House incumbents will want Clinton to campaign in their states and in their districts? Will she be a drag on their electoral chances? Republicans argue that their stint in the wilderness will be brief if Clinton becomes the president because voters will want a Republican Congress to put the brakes on her perceived liberalism. However, if another Democrat were to win, especially one of the "second-tier" candidates, all of whom are equally qualified as (if not more than) Clinton without being nearly as polarizing, the GOP could be locked out of the White House and Congress for much longer.
5. Jeb Bush could run as Clinton's successor. While he claims to have no interest in running for president, it is well known that Jeb was the son who was being groomed for the White House, not George W. However, the two brothers' political paths switched when George W. won his election bid in Texas while Jeb lost his in Florida. Even though he doesn't say it, I doubt Jeb Bush's political ambitions died with his electoral defeat. I'm sure he would have loved to run in 2008, but he couldn't because of Bush fatigue. If George W. Bush were more popular, then surely Jeb Bush would be seen as the natural successor to him, especially in light of all the dissatisfaction Republicans have about the conservative credentials of Rudy McRompson. Clinton has successfully allayed many Democrats' concerns about the Bush-Clinton political dynasty. Could she be offering a playbook that Jeb Bush could use should he run in 2012?
6. If the Democrats nominate someone other than Hillary Clinton, the Republicans would be scrambling to find a new political villain. The so-called second tier candidates (Richardson, Biden, and Dodd) have much more experience than Obama, Edwards, and most of the Republican frontrunners (except John McCain). As a result, a lot of Republicans' favorite weapons would be taken away from them, such as "Hillarycare" and her "cackle." Republicans would essentially have to start over from square one if they had to run against Bill Richardson, for example. And even if the nominee were John Edwards or Barack Obama, there is far less dirt on them than there is on Clinton. And because they are considerably less tarnished than she is, words like "scandal" and "questionable ethics" do not stick to them as easily as they stick to Clinton.
Politics never occurs in a vacuum. Almost everything a politician or politico says is calculated or done for some sort of advantage, even if it's not immediate or apparent. Are Republicans trying to talk Clinton up so that the Democrats think she is "a true Democrat" and thus nominate her? (After all, if they're attacking her so much, she must be good for the Democrats, right?) Or are they trying to build Clinton up because they are actually scared to death of having to run against someone else? (This is why political science is a stable profession.)
Whatever their rationale, talk about the Clinton calculus is not going away. The columns and stories doubting her are still being pumped out, like this one from Salon. Regardless of what ultimately happens, for all of Clinton's strengths, there is a very large segment of the American populace that just doesn't like her for some reason or another. Clinton is to Republicans what Bush is to Democrats. And yet, she is blowing everyone away.
And that's what keeps this race so interesting.
I have written quite favorably about former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the past, as I have long viewed him as potentially the strongest Republican presidential nominee because of his unimpeachable conservative credentials, executive experience, superior debating skills, and affable demeanor. Huckabee comes across like a Christian conservative with a smile. As a result, he seems much more palatable to moderates and even liberals because even though his political views are undoubtedly in line with the religious right, he does not come across as threatening as a Jerry Falwell or a James Dobson. After flying under the radar for months and long being ignored, the media are finally beginning to pay attention to him, as David Brooks of the New York Times has done.
However, now that more of the media spotlight is on him, his statements and positions will receive greater scrutiny than in the past. This is not to say that Huckabee should be cautious and scripted. However, it does mean that he should choose his words a bit more carefully, especially in this age of YouTube when anything you say can and will be used against you while being immortalized for all time. Just ask George Allen.
At this weekend's Values Voters Summit, Huckabee made his first poor choice. I'm not going to call it a gaffe because it's not personally embarrassing, it's not an out-of-bounds attack on any particular group of people, and it's not going to hurt him with his base. However, it does attack one of his greatest strengths: his ability to connect with voters outside of the religious right.
At this weekend's gathering, Huckabee told the crowd:
"Sometimes we talk about why we're importing so many people in our workforce. It might be for the last 35 years, we have aborted more than a million people who would have been in our workforce had we not had the holocaust of liberalized abortion under a flawed Supreme Court ruling in 1973."Surely the evangelicals in the audience loved what they were hearing, especially since the other leading Republican candidates were either disappointing them (e.g., Fred Thompson not going to church regularly) or avoiding them altogether (e.g., Rudy Giuliani's moderate stances on abortion and gay rights).
However, while the conservatives in the audience undoubtedly ate Huckabee's words up, independents and moderates likely recoiled in discomfort. To them, Huckabee had originally seemed like a Christian conservative that did not intimidate them. But suggesting that abortion has created a holocaust and that this is why businesses have imported so many people essentially rips the friendly mask off of him and potentially exposes him to these voters as yet another abrasive Bible-thumper in the mold of Tony Perkins or Gary Bauer. Huckabee certainly won't be penalized for this during the primaries. If anything, it could actually boost him since he's obviously willing to court this base a bit more vigorously than the other Republican candidates are. Should Huckabee actually win the GOP nomination, however, these kinds of remarks could damage his crossover appeal in the general election.
This is one of the main pitfalls of the primary process. Candidates either run far to the left or to the right in order to secure their party's nomination before attempting to tack to the center for the general election. However, because their previous remarks that placated their bases are well documented, it makes their moderate overtures a bit less credible.
Anyway, Romney won the straw poll that took place at the end of the summit while Huckabee finished a close second. According to CNN, judging from the amount of applause the candidates received, the audience seemed to support Huckabee a bit more than Romney. Interestingly, the libertarian Ron Paul finished third and Fred Thompson finished fourth. Fred Thompson's fourth place finish burnishes my idea that Huckabee is a more serious threat to him than Romney and Giuliani are.
Whether moderates will view Huckabee as a threat to them, however, remains to be seen.
Republican candidate Sam Brownback is expected to drop out of the presidential race today. Given the way things have been going for his campaign since August, it is easy to understand why.
When his campaign was over:
I remember writing about the battle between Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee shortly before the Ames straw poll back in August. I argued that there just wasn't enough room for both of them and that whoever won this battle would advance while the loser would be running on borrowed time. Huckabee ended up placing second while Brownback placed third despite his perceived superior campaign organization and all the time he had invested campaigning in the state. Immediately after the straw poll, I speculated that Brownback would drop out soon.
But he decided to stick it out. And the longer he remained in the race, the more obvious it became that he should leave. And to top it off, his prolonged departure ironically only further elevated his chief rival Huckabee because it reminded voters and pundits of the fact that Huckabee was more viable than Brownback was.
When his campaign was really over:
Brownback raised less than $1 million in the third quarter, which was far less than his rivals. Even worse, he had less than $100,000 on hand. You simply can't run a campaign on such a pittance. His disappointing Ames showing undoubtedly dried up his campaign contributions. $100,000 is not nearly enough money to dig yourself out of such a deep hole at this stage of the game. A Porsche 911 is worth more money than his campaign bank account.
When his campaign was really, really over:
At the economic debate that took place earlier this month, Brownback was asked what the main economic threat to the United States was. Brownback cited the decaying family structure as the nation's biggest economic boogeyman. When he started talking about "families having one mom and one dad," the moderator tried to get him to answer the actual question by reminding him that she asked him to identify an economic issue. Brownback continued to make the argument that the family was an economic issue. He may have a point, but the business wing of the Republican Party that was watching this debate likely was not amused. This disconnect exposed Brownback as a one-dimensional candidate who had no depth on any issues aside from those that are dear to evangelicals.
Just end it already!
After that debate, Brownback said that he would drop out of the race if he placed lower than fourth in the Iowa caucuses. While it may be useful for politicians to lower expectations, there comes a point where it can become ridiculous. There are generally only three tickets out of Iowa. And there are four superstars and one rising star in the Republican field. You have Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee in the race. Simply put, Sam Brownback was not going to beat any one of these candidates, let alone two.
How this affects the rest of the field:
Mike Huckabee is obviously the main beneficiary of Brownback's demise. Seeing that they were virtually carbon copies of each other as far as most of the issues were concerned, Huckabee would be a logical choice for a Brownback endorsement if he were able to get over his obviously bruised ego.
For evangelicals and general conservatives who do not trust Mitt Romney (either because of his religion or because of his recent transition to the conservative right) and/or are not impressed by Fred Thompson, Huckabee provides a credible alternataive. I've been hearing rumors of a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, but I really think Huckabee has the legs to make a real run for the top of the ticket. His numbers in Iowa are moving way up, and he is getting traction in South Carolina as well. Mitt Romney should be very, very worried about this. If Huckabee were to place second in Iowa despite Romney saturating the Iowa airwaves with ads, Romney could conceivably become the new Brownback because of how much of his own money he has spent on this campaign. Also, if Huckabee places higher than Thompson in Iowa, Thompson will be finished. How could Thompson, once considered the conservatives' savior, explain losing to Huckabee in Iowa? His donors would flee.
Rudy Giuliani also does not benefit from Brownback's departure. As the field of candidates decreases, the ease with which candidates can distinguish themselves increases. Candidates receive more talk time in the debates when there are fewer candidates to go around. Social conservative voters are still a big deal, and Giuliani has not yet firmed up this support. As long as there is a gaggle of candidates on stage, nobody can clearly emerge as the alternative to Giuliani. Brownback's departure makes this task just a little bit easier. It also temporarily refocuses the media's attention on social conservative issues, which Giuliani still treats gingerly.
Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo are going to be the next two candidates to be pressured to drop their presidential bids. They just don't have the money, the buzz, or the gravitas to warrant their campaigns at this stage. Hunter sounds more congressional than presidential and hasn't really expressed his vision for leadership. And Tancredo seems to have little depth beyond illegal immigration. Aside from the hardcore anti-illegal immigration voters, they do not represent any particular wing of the GOP that is not better represented by another more viable candidate.
Although I am a news and political junkie, I am not an avid reader of traditional news magazines, such as Time or Newsweek. I do, however, subscribe to National Journal and am quite pleased. One of my favorite features of National Journal is their "Political Insiders Poll" which checks the pulse of Washington's top power players, such as consultants, campaign staffers, party officials, and even politicians themselves. This poll provides an excellent opportunity to contrast the mentality of the "Washington in-crowd" with the mentality of regular people.
This week's poll asked if Mitt Romney needed to address the issue of his religious faith the way that JFK did back in 1960. Here are the findings:
Among Republicans (83 respondents)
59% said do it soon
16% said do it only if he becomes the Republican nominee
23% said it's not necessary
Among Democrats (79 respondents)
44% said do it soon
42% said do it only if he becomes the Republican nominee
11% said it's not necessary
You have to subscribe to National Journal to read the comments associated with some of these responses, some of which were quite entertaining ("Faith voters will be so desperate to elect a Republican they can stomach [that] they will stick with him no matter what."). However, even without that added bit of color, these data reveal an unpleasant reality about our current state of politics and our nation's collective tolerance.
What a sad commentary.
Now consider this piece by the Politico's Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin. This piece addresses a widespread e-mail whisper campaign spreading disinformation about Barack Obama's religion. One of the e-mails is entitled "Who is Barack Obama?" and goes on to say that "Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background." The e-mail goes on to make further insinuations playing on our fear of Muslims by suggesting that Obama would not be loyal to the United States.
How utterly contemptible.
The United States has made great striedes in the name of equality over the past few decades. However, this progress has been a bit more rapid for some groups than it has been for others, as is evidenced by this USA Today/Gallup poll measuring voters' comfort with electing "certain types" of candidates.
Globalization, immigration, the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and the civil rights and women's suffrage movements have made sexism and racism far less acceptable to the general public compared to 30 years ago. However, in this age of terrorism, religious bigotry is still considerably more acceptable among a lot more people.
September 11, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the gruesome beheading videos have undeniably caused Muslims to be viewed with great suspicion. Radical Islamists, such as the Taliban and the Al Qaeda leadership, have come to be seen as the face of the Islamic faith. Their advocacy of sharia law, which is based on a strict interpretation of the Koran, seems to be the polar opposite of the freedoms we enjoy in the West. In addition to this, their record of violence and human rights abuses lead many others to believe that "most" Muslims are dangerous.
Opportunistic politicians are preying on this fear with Barack Obama. I believe Obama should be proud of his name because "Barack Obama" is who he is, however unusual his name may sound. His middle name happens to be "Hussein," which obviously lends more ammunition to his political enemies. I've heard many people, particularly (though not exclusively) conservative and Republican talk show hosts (i.e., Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom have audiences of tens of millions) commonly refer to Barack Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" even though including his middle name is obviously unnecessary. However, while including Obama's middle name may be unnecessary regarding identifying who Obama is, it is quite effective at conveying what Obama may be. And it is contemptible.
Obama is obviously not a Muslim. And even if he were, it shouldn't matter at all. Who cares?
Needless to say, if so many Americans are willing to turn on one of their own as he aspires for holding the highest office in the land, it is easy to understand why there is such a gulf between the United States and the Islamic world. Simply put, "we" are scared of "them." And because we are scared of them, we cannot begin to understand them or lend credence to their views. This sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they confirm their irrationality to us on a daily basis simply because we do not attempt to meet them halfway and only judge them on our terms. That's why the Iranian president's recent trip to New York was such a public relations disaster for the United States. (You can read more of my take on that here.)
So in short, we will continue to view Muslims and the Muslim world hostily as long as we remain willfully ignorant of who they really are. And analyzing them through our own Western Judeo-Christian lens serves only to further disappoint us while confirming our own convenient suspicions of them. Why should we expect Muslims abroad to be friendly towards us if we are trying so hard to turn them into enemies we should fear, as some are doing with our own Barack "LOOK AT ME!/MY NAME IS HUSSEIN!/I AM AN ISLAMIC TERRORIST!" Obama?
Such nonsense is not restricted to bigotry of the overt variety. It comes in more subtle forms as well, as Mitt Romney is finding out. Much has been written about the fact that Romney is a Mormon. Fairly or not, a lot of people view Mormonism with suspicion because of its previous positions on polygamy, prophets, and the inability of Blacks to serve as priests. Evangelical Christians in particular view Mormonism as a cult. This is a unique problem for Romney because these evangelical Christians make up a sizeable portion of the Republican base. It will be quite difficult for any Republican to win their party's nomination without the support of this constituency.
I can only imagine how many times Romney has been told on the campaign trail that he is going to hell or that he is not a "true Christian." The hypocrisy of these supposed "Christians" who would hold Romney's religious views against him is astounding. "Do unto others" and "Judge not, lest ye be judged" apparently don't mean anything.
There has been a long-running joke about the Republican frontrunners: The only candidate who hasn't had a bunch of wives is the Mormon. I don't find that particularly funny, but one would think that this alone would endear him to the "Christian family values" wing of the Republican Party. Yet the "Mormon cult" thing remains as a huge stumbling block.
So Romney is stuck.
However, if Romney were to play down his Mormonism or avoid talking about it at length, he would be blasted for trying to hide from who he really is (a cultist!). And of course, if he were to address the issue directly, it would likely be a brutal experience for him that would dominate a few news cycles. However, I believe this to be the best course of action for him to take. If he puts himself and his Mormonism out there, takes his lumps, and successfully allays the concerns of his skeptics, I believe he would become an even more formidable candidate than he is now. "Even though" he's a Mormon, he would be seen as "more normal" than many voters thought. And since neither Fred Thompson nor Rudy Giuliani is talking much about their faith, this could potentially allow Romney to become the preferred choice among evangelical Christians. Mike Huckabee's momentum would likely stall if evangelicals' support for Romney became firm.
So I would look for Romney to voluntarily become more open about his faith in the future. And look for Obama to make a few more visits to Christian churches as well. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with talking about your faith or visiting churches and worshipping together. But the fact that some politicians have to do this primarily to quiet disinformation campaigns from bigots is clearly disappointing.
Much has been written about the perceived inevitability of Hillary Clinton based on her superior fundraising and strength in national and state polls. Clinton raised the most money during the third quarter and sits atop all national polls and almost all state polls, although her lead in Iowa is a bit more tenuous. Given this enviable positioning, Clinton could conceivably score a knockout punch by winning the first contest in Iowa and then running the table after that. The political calculus for all the other candidates is simple: Any other Democratic candidate who wants to be the nominee must stop Clinton in Iowa. It doesn't matter if Clinton places second or third; she just can't win Iowa if they want to have a chance of slowing her down.
Here's how things stand in Iowa right now:
Mike Gravel is registering no support at all in most Iowa polls. Chris Dodd is not beating the margin of error. Dennis Kucinich is performing a bit more strongly than Chris Dodd, but he doesn't have a credible campaign apparatus. Joe Biden has been getting some good publicity because of his Iraq policy, but he is barely outside of the margin of error at about 5%. Bill Richardson is in the low double digits, but his weak debate performances have stalled his momentum. And John Edwards, who has practically been Iowa's third senator since the 2004 election, has seen his lead over Clinton turn into a deficit over the past few weeks.
This leaves only one candidate who is positioned well enough to defeat Clinton in Iowa and make the race for the nomination competitive again: Barack Obama. Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review touched on this issue here. However, unlike Zito, I don't believe Obama is the only person who could benefit from an Obama victory in Iowa.
Even though the other Democrats might be tempted to pile onto Obama, I think they would be wise to lay off of him for now because he is the only candidate capable of stopping Clinton. If she wins Iowa, her inevitability will be confirmed and it will simply be too late to try and defeat her in New Hampshire or South Carolina. Without question, she will be the nominee. However, if Obama were to win Iowa, that would mean that Clinton and one other candidate would live to fight another day. And if that were to happen, the dynamics of the race would change considerably. This is how dark horses can win.
Should Obama win Iowa, John Edwards would be forced out of the race because he simply cannot afford to place second or third there. He placed all his chips on an Iowa victory and he doesn't have the money to go the distance after that without a huge media boost stemming from a strong showing there. There's also not enough room for Obama and Edwards to coexist anyway. Thus, one of these three "tickets" out of Iowa would not belong to him if Obama won. This leaves Richardson, Biden, and Dodd as the potential beneficiaries of the final ticket to New Hampshire.
Obama is also the only candidate who has the financial resources to match Clinton step for step in a national campaign. Should Richardson, Biden, or Dodd be the third candidate left in the race after Iowa, they likely would not be the target of negative advertising from either Clinton or Obama because they would train their sights on each other. Meanwhile, while Clinton and Obama go back and forth, the final candidate would be able to take the high road and focus more on actual policy details than on petty attacks and counterattacks. Staying above the fray and acting like a competent statesman could potentially be quite attractive, as it would contrast nicely with the Clinton-Obama slugfest.
The media love a good storyline, so if this scenario were to take place, the media could build up Richardson, Biden, or Dodd as the experienced observer who is above politics and who had to claw his way out of the political wilderness. Think of it as another "Comeback Kid" narrative. When there are only three candidates in the race, it is much easier to compare and contrast them with each other, especially in the context of a debate. Voters who are leery of Clinton's polarization and Obama's inexperience would then have a third option in Richardson, Biden, or Dodd who combines experience, leadership, and a lack of polarization.
So in short, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd would be wise to avoid tearing down Barack Obama because they need his polling strength and his campaign cash in order to survive. John Edwards, the weakest "top tier" candidate who also has the most to lose, is the candidate they would be wise to attack. There's no way Bill Richardson can triple his support and overtake Clinton at present, for example. However, if John Edwards' numbers keep trending downward while Richardson and Biden's numbers slowly move up, they might eke out a third place showing in the Iowa caucuses. But this won't mean anything if Obama can't get it done against Clinton. That's why attacking Obama will only make their own political survival that much more difficult.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, there has been a lot of speculation about presidential bids by people who have expressed limited interest in joining the race. Such figures include Condoleeza Rice and Newt Gingrich on the right and Wesley Clark and John Kerry on the left. However, nobody has been more heavily scrutinized than former vice president Al Gore. Since coming out on the losing end of what was essentially a perfect tie in the 2000 election, much has been written about a potential Gore rematch with Bush in 2004 and/or avenging his controversial defeat in 2008. People have been looking for clues about his intentions everywhere, including watching his weight and travel schedule.
One of the biggest "ifs" of this speculation centered around the Nobel Peace Prize. Gore has long been considered a potential winner of this award because of his work on climate change. Pundits have speculated that winning this prestigious award would provide a perfect opportunity to for him to springboard into the presidential race armed with a reservoir of goodwill and international acclaim.
Today that speculation became reality, as Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee lauded Gore as "one of the leading environmentalist politicians." Gore himself said he was "deeply honored." The award ceremony will take place in December.
The media are in a frenzy. (Check out these pieces from Time, the Washington Post, and the Politico, for example.)
Gore himself continues to say he has "no plans" or "no intention" to be a "candidate" again, but after Idaho Senator Larry Craig's declaration of his "intent" to resign from the Senate at the end of September in light of Tapgate, there's no telling what Gore really means.
However, smart money is on him not entering the race. Why should he? He's making a lot of money and engaging a lot of minds talking about his passion--the environment. He seems to be in his element, as he can be as wonky as he wants without fear of political consequences. Why would he want to give all that up so he could subject himself to unflattering stories about "the NEW New Gore?" And on top of that, if he entered the race, there would be a deluge of stories pondering whether he could avenge his electoral defeat in 2000. That would create intense pressure on him that might take him out of his natural element and make him less appealing as a candidate. Plus, the bar of expectations would be sky high, as he would constantly be compared to "the 2000 Al Gore."
Psychology is another factor that makes a third Gore candidacy less attractive. For one, Democrats are desperate to win in 2008. There are a lot of voters who still remember "Sore Loserman." While those people are almost certainly Republicans who would never vote for him anyway, they do remind Democrats of their failures in the last two presidential elections. Why should Democrats take yet another chance on a mediocre candidate that couldn't quite get it done last time? Thus, it is understandable why Democrats may be a little gun shy about Gore.
But is there even room in the Democratic field for Gore to begin with? Seeing that Hillary Clinton is running away from the pack, I think there is. The reason why is because conventional thinking said that the race for the Democratic nomination would come down to Hillary Clinton and the ABH (Anybody But Hillary) candidate (or the "Clinton alternative," to put it nicely). Dodd, Biden, and Richardson are trailing Clinton badly. Edwards seems to be deflating. None of these candidates has gained enough strength and momentum to change the storyline of the Democratic race from "Hillary's inevitability" to "Hillary vs. Candidate X."
This leaves Barack Obama. Because of his impressive fundraising and his consistent second place showing in most polls, he is generally seen as the strongest non-Hillary candidate. However, he has not really made the case why voters should abandon Clinton and support him instead. And the inexperience questions are not going away. He does remind voters that he was against the Iraq War from the very beginning, but that doesn't address what should be done about Iraq now. Obama may have captured the imagination of many Democratic voters, but he hasn't captured their loyalty at the ballot box. So Clinton continues to widen her lead.
Enter Al Gore.
I like to think of Al Gore as Barack Obama 2.0. Like Obama, Gore was against the Iraq War from the very beginning, and he was very public in his opposition to it. He also has a much longer and much more impressive resume than Obama, so the "inexperience" charges won't fly. But despite this experience, because he has been out of politics since Bush's inauguration, he cannot easily be branded as "another Washington insider." Thus, he could legitimately lay claim to the "outsider" mantle. Gore also has no recent votes to atone for, such as voting for the surge, voting to cut off funding immediately, voting to label the Iranian military as a terrorist organization, and voting to confirm John Roberts and/or Samuel Alito. This freedom would help allow him to stay on message on the campaign trail.
Hailing from Tennessee, Gore comes from a decidedly less liberal part of America than body Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. He would also be from the same state as Fred Thompson, so he would neutralize the geography weapon ("another Northeastern liberal") in a general election. And for voters who yearn for a return to the Clinton years without "the Clintons," Gore offers the best vehicle through which they can do so.
And finally, because of Gore's extensive resume, he would drive a stake through the hearts of Biden, Richardson, and Dodd while likely consolidating their support. Supporters of Biden, Richardson, and Dodd often cite their experience as one of the reasons why they like them. Gore, however, would be able to match this experience and couple it with name recognition and deep pockets, which they lack.
And yet, Gore continues to throw cold water on the speculation that he'll jump in the race. Until he unequivocally says "I will not run," the door will remain ever so slightly ajar and the buzz will continue. However, there is one undeniable fact that speaks far louder about his plans than any of his repeated semi-denials, however: the campaign calendar. Simply put, Gore is running out of time. We're no longer in February or March. It's getting late in the nomination race. (Consider these pieces I wrote about Gore in February, March, March again, and May.) The other candidates have spent months putting together skilled campaign teams and opening up and staffing field offices. They've crisscrossed the early primary states dozens of times, knocked on a lot of doors, and pressed a lot of flesh. Will the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire reward Gore even though he would not have put in the weeks and weeks of campaigning in their states that the other candidates did? You may remember how Rudy Giuliani and John McCain were penalized at the Ames straw poll back in August for not participating.
But on the flip side, Fred Thompson provides an intriguing case study in how much this matters. Thompson, another late entrant, is only a half step behind his chief Republican rivals, as he is consistently placing a strong second or near third in Iowa despite formally entering the race last month. Reviews have been mixed about Thompson so far, but the point is that despite his late start and lukewarm reception, he is still polling quite well.
This sets up an intriguing possibility. Despite Clinton's surge in the polls, there is still a large segment of Democratic voters who is simply uncomfortable with her candidacy. Even if Gore ultimately decides not to throw his hat in the ring, could he still become the nominee by virtue of discontent with the current frontrunner? What if caucusgoers' support for Clinton continues to be tepid? Keep in mind that even if 40% of Democratic voters are in Clinton's camp, that means 60% of the voters are not.
Of course, if Gore opts not to run and is not essentially drafted, this would lead to speculation about who he will endorse. It's unlikely that he would endorse Clinton because of the much publicized rift between them. And besides, why would he run back to the people he tried to distance himself from during the 2000 campaign? If Gore wants to throw his support behind someone whose Iraq position is similar to his own, then Obama stands to benefit moreso than Edwards by virtue of Edwards' initial vote to authorize the war. If Gore wants to throw his support behind someone who is a bit more cerebral (remember his book "The Assault on Reason"), then he might endorse Richardson, Biden, or Dodd instead. After all, those three candidates tend to go into more detail (such as Richardson's "three-point plans" and Biden's Iraq plan) and perhaps are penalized for their wonkiness.
The value of a Gore endorsement may not be in winning over new votes (just ask Howard Dean), but rather in freeing up some of the talent loyal to Gore. A lot of operatives have remained on the sideliness thus far because their preferred candidate has not jumped in the race. But knowing that a different candidate had Gore's blessing would be enough for most of these supporters to finally get off the sidelines and join the fray.
And finally, it should be interesting to see how Republicans react to the news of Gore's achievement. Will they congratulate him? Will they downplay the news?
So far, the only story I could find about this is this piece by Jonathan Martin of the Politico that talks about conservative talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham mocking Gore for receiving an award that was given to Yasser Arafat. (Of course, these people would be criticizing Democrats for not supporting Bush if he had won this award, but I digress.)
I have yet to find any press releases from any Republican presidential candidates expressing support or disdain for Gore. Surely they can't remain silent on this. But how will they respond? How can they respond? If they show support for his achievement, will they be criticized by the Republican base for being "Gore fans?" If they downplay its significance, will they be criticized by Democrats and independents for being "jealous partisans?"
My hunch is that any politician that downplays Gore's Nobel Prize is probably jealous, as they most certainly would love to have that award on their resumes. Being a statesman, setting politics aside, and congratulating him would probably be the best course of action, even if it seems politically awkward.
The Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate that focused primarily on economic issues this afternoon in Dearborn, Michigan. The debate was co-moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Matthews has found himself at the center of a controversy because of remarks he recently made at the Hardball 10th anniversary celebration. (You can read more about the remarks here.) In short, Matthews made some comments about the Bush Administration that suggested he was biased against Republicans and conservatives. Although attacking Matthews over this provided low hanging fruit for the Republican candidates, none of them took the bait and Matthews emerged unscathed.
This debate was long anticipated and scrutinized closely because it was the first time Fred Thompson was on the same stage as all the other candidates. One of the chief criticisms of his campaign is the sense that he has been evasive because of his long "testing the waters" period and his refusal to accept Mike Huckabee's invitation to one-on-one debates despite Thompson's earlier claim that he wanted to participate in smaller forums.
Another reason why this debate was unlike the others is because for the first time, the ghost of Newt Gingrich was no longer a presence. Since Gingrich had formally ruled out a presidential run, the already declared candidates didn't have to look over their shoulders anymore and fear a galvanizing figure with strong conservative credentials throwing his hat in the ring. The Democratic candidates can't quite yet say that about Al Gore, however, even though he is running out of time to jump in.
Here are my thoughts:
There are too many candidates in the race for these debates to be as useful as they possibly could be at this stage in the game. There were nine candidates on stage competing for talk time. People have often complained about the Democratic debates and how the no-shot candidates continue to be included. Future debate organizers should consider implementing a threshold for participation. This threshold could be based on polling, fundraising, campaign organization, or some other factor that reasonably assesses a candidate's credibility and/or viability. Until the number of participants in these debates is reduced, it will be much more difficult for the credible candidates to engage each other in a meaningful exchange of ideas. As a result, this will serve to the advantage of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney because it will be harder for the middle-of-the-pack candidates to distinguish themselves.
Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, and maybe Tom Tancredo should seriously reconsider their campaigns. Sam Brownback was one of the clear losers in the Ames straw poll back in August. Even worse, the candidate he lost to was Mike Huckabee, who occupies the same political niche that Brownback is trying to fill. After that straw poll (and his consistently strong debate performances), Huckabee has eclipsed Brownback in opinion polls while Brownback has remained stagnant. There's not enough room in the race for two consistent social and religious conservatives. Huckabee has earned that mantle. As for Duncan Hunter, he has the same problem with Tom Tancredo that Brownback has with Huckabee. Tancredo is polling somewhat better than Hunter and is the more compelling speaker. Both candidates are vying for the role of the anti-illegal immigration, tough on national security hardliner. To this date, Tancredo has gained a fair bit of traction while Hunter has not.
Fred Thompson performed adequately, but he did not perform well enough to squash the budding caricature of him as a bumbler who is not quite ready for prime time. Thompson's delivery was halting and uneven at times as he had a tendency to meander. The substance of what he was saying should generally placate conservatives, but at times he seemed not to know when he should finish his answers and stop talking. This led to instances of Thompson talking a lot, but saying a little. This is something he should work on before his mouth gets away from him and he says something he regrets. For example, consider his meandering response to the question about the threat of a weak dollar.
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani may want to focus on Hillary Clinton, but they do so at their own peril. Both of these candidates are the co-leaders of the Republican presidential pack. Giuliani is the national frontrunner while Romney is the early primary state frontrunner (thanks to his strong support in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada). Are they both focusing on Hillary Clinton to gin up the base while drawing the spotlight away from their own warts? Is Giuliani still worried about his moderate to liberal stances on social issues? Is Romney still concerned that conservatives aren't buying his "conversion" to conservatism? Will ranting about "Hillary," "Hillarycare," and "the Clintons" be enough to make conservatives hold their noses while they vote in the primaries for the obviously not conservative Giuliani or the suspicious Romney?
Rudy Giuliani would be wise to evoke September 11 a bit more prudently. Giuliani has been criticized a lot recently for tying so many of his behaviors and policies to these terrorist attacks. He even went so far as to attribute his taking a call on his cell phone from his wife in the middle of a speech to the NRA to September 11. Ron Paul was making a firm point about the war in Iraq and the potential war with Iran and said that there has never been an imminent attack on the United States in 220 years. Giuliani then reminded him of September 11. Paul defended himself by saying the terrorists were "19 thugs instead of a country," but Giuliani asserted that "there were operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that "we could have launched a strike that would have disrupted their operations." (These are not direct quotations.) Anyway, Giuliani's responses seem okay on the surface and would likely appeal to voters who generally do not dig a bit deeper. However, in this exchange with Ron Paul, how could a terrorist strike in Pakistan have stopped the September 11 attacks if the hijackers were all in the United States by the time these attacks became "imminent?" Will a candidate begin to poke holes in Giuliani's 9-11 mantra in the future and diminish his executive/national security image? The openings are definitely there.
Ron Paul must be taken seriously as a spoiler candidate. Paul's fundraising for the third quarter has been particularly impressive. However, because he continues to languish in the polls, it is difficult to gauge exactly where his support is coming from. Barry Goldwater conservatives who have a more libertarian view of social issues may find some resonance with Paul. The same could be said for Grover Norquist anti-tax conservatives. Ditto for anti-war liberals who like his clarity on the unconstitutionality of the war in Iraq. Younger voters who are less likely to have the same hangups that older voters have regarding issues like homosexuality and gay marriage may be more intrigued by his libertarian message as well. Paul received several rounds of sustained applause after some of his responses in this debate as well as earlier ones. The candidates most threatened by a Paul ascendancy are John McCain and Barack Obama. Iowan Republicans are a bit too socially conservative as a whole for Paul to crack, but all bets are off in New Hampshire, whose motto is "Live free or die." Because independents can participate in the New Hampshire primaries, Paul could draw independent Republicans from Obama and independent Democrats from the maverick John McCain who has traditionally attracted significant independent support. The purity, thoughtfulness, and consistency of his arguments have helped his rise from political obsolescence to annoying gadfly to a voice of logic and reason that many other candidates seem not to want to hear.
John McCain seems to be more of a national security candidate than an economic issues candidate. McCain's strong performance at the last debate in New Hampshire led to a flurry of stories about "McCain's revival." I highly doubt those stories will continue based on his performance at today's debate. McCain spoke with far less conviction when he was talking about corporate issues than he does when he talks about terrorism and Iraq. Aside from criticizing pork and wasteful government spending, McCain did not seem particularly passionate about discussing corporate profits, free trade, and labor unions.
Mitt Romney's gaffe about seeking attorneys' guidance before attacking Iran will come back to haunt him. Romney already has to deal with the caricature of being just a little too slick. A slick candidate making a gaffe about slick lawyers regarding the decidedly unslick issue of national security is problematic. And worse of all, Republicans want strong executive leadership. If a Democrat had said the president had to consult attorneys before making such critical national security decisions, he would have been absolutely pummeled by the Republicans. How will Giuliani and the other candidates exploit this misstep? It definitely undercuts his image as an executive, that's for sure.
There was a lot of sloganeering and cheerleading at the debate which came at the expense of fleshing out actual policy discussions. When the candidates were asked what the greatest threat was to the United States' economic prosperity was, several of them cited "a lack of optimism." Pep talks about "no more doom and gloom" and "being the greatest nation on Earth" may make voters feel good, but they don't address the actual threats to our nation's economic security that can be addressed by policy, such as the deficit, trade imbalances, energy independence, China, the defense budget, or taxes. It reminds me of religious conservative politicians who believe prayer is the best antidote to many of society's ills while government assistance, educational opportunities, economic development, and community involvement often go unmentioned. There's obviously nothing wrong with prayer, but anybody can pray. However, only politicians and lawmakers have access to the levers of power that control the tangible resources that can actually make a difference.
Mike Huckabee is very, very dangerous. I've written about Huckabee's potential as early as the second Republican debate back in May. I've studied Huckabee's comments in all the debates so far and he seems to be a much more credible, thoughtful conservative than either Romney or Thompson. He is also able to make references to Southern and rural culture that sound natural, rather than forced. For example, Huckabee made a simple analogy about NASCAR and taxes or some other economic policy. ("In NASCAR, when you pull into the pit stop, you get what you need and you get it fast.") This is a perfect example of breaking down political double talk into plain ol' English. He even managed to casually work in a reference to "Goober and Gomer" for good measure! While Giuliani and Romney train their guns on each other and on Hillary Clinton, they had better be careful that Huckabee doesn't snatch the nomination from them. During the post-debate show Huckabee said, "If A takes care of B, then C will be the nominee." This could be prophetic. The problem Huckabee poses for Romney and Giuliani is that they cannot attack his conservative credentials. It's no secret that conservatives are conflicted about Romney, Giuliani, and even Fred Thompson. But Huckabee is a much better ideological fit for them and he can talk about his conservatism much more credibly. He is a better speaker than Thompson and can match Romney and Giuliani in terms of executive experience. Huckabee has been clawing his way through the pack on a shoestring budget and is finally getting some fairly steady press coverage. Consider the recent Des Moines Register Poll showing Huckabee in third in Iowa ahead of Giuliani. Simply put, Mike Huckabee is real. This candidate is a much more serious threat to the Democrats in general than Rudy Giuliani is.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama now finds himself at the center of a new controversy dubbed Pingate. For those who haven't heard the story, Obama, like many other politicians, started wearing a pin of the American flag on his lapel shortly after September 11. But he later stopped wearing it and was asked why by a television station in Iowa. He responded that he did not need to wear that flag pin to show his true patriotism and that he could show his patriotism by expressing his ideas on how to make America better.
Unfortunately for Obama, although he may be absolutely right on the rhetoric, he is dead wrong on the politics. And as a result, he is getting bashed again, even by one of his hometown newspapers.
I have already written about our sorry state of political discourse before. Superficiality from politicians and their operatives is quite dangerous when it is mixed with an unengaged electorate that focuses more on symbolism and emotion than on logic and results. How many times have Democrats heard Republicans say "We must not criticize our president in a time of war because the terrorists will think America is divided!"? How many times have Republicans heard Democrats say "Republicans are racist and sexist because they oppose affirmative action and abortion rights!"? Both of these statements are obviously exaggerations used to strike fear, anger, and condemnation into the electorate by branding large groups of people.
It appears that Barack Obama has not been paying attention to any of this. As a result, he shot himself in the foot, was thrown off message, gave Republicans a new talking point to use against him, maybe even made a few of his supporters (as well as people who were neutral about him to begin with) question his patriotism, and quite possibly even angered voters who equate wearing that flag pin with patriotism!
Obama's comments about there being other ways to show "true patriotism" are definitely true. If wearing a pin were all it took to be patriotic, Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could go from "Axis of Evil" to "Our Brothers in Solidarity" in a heartbeat! It's a lot more difficult and much more indicative of one's true patriotism to actually advocate and pursue legislation that advances our nation. However, such a position is a bit too cerebral for many voters to properly digest. I personally think Obama would have been in the clear had he never worn the flag pin at all. Or he simply could have kept wearing it just to "play the game" and keep everyone happy. Nobody would have said a word about it then. That's not pandering; that's smart politics. And like it or not, in politics and in life in general, symbols matter.
As sad as it may be, there are a lot of people in America who still mistakenly think Obama is a Muslim (and therefore a "radical") or is potentially disloyal to the United States because of his international upbringing. These are the people who keep referring to him as "Barack Hussein Obama." These voters, who would probably never vote for Obama anyway, are just waiting for him to give them more evidence that they can use to bring his loyalty and patriotism into question. These people want to play on the fears and insecurities of others to further their own agendas.
And even worse, this story will cause Obama to lose a few precious news cycles because it throws him off message. Instead of being asked about his Iraq policy and why he is better able to get initiatives X, Y, and Z done, he's going to be asked about this flag pin instead. This is the kind of story that reinforces people's doubts about whether Obama is really up to the job. This is the kind of story that his political opponents can use to bring his "experience" and "judgment" into question. These were already sensitive spots for him that I had written about earlier.
John Kerry's political career was effectively ruined by his "botched joke" last year. Of course, if you actually thought about Kerry's remarks, they made a lot of sense. After all, the military is often the final destination for people who have few skills and no options elsewhere. However, it was far easier to take Kerry's remarks at face value and react angrily because "he insulted our troops' intelligence." Obama had better hope that the same thing doesn't happen to him.
Obama's already having to deal with stories about how Hillary Clinton raised more campaign cash than he did during the third quarter, how he seems stuck in the polls, and how Clinton is pulling away from the field. This flag pin story is exactly what he most certainly does not need right now. But unfortunately, it's a problem that he brought about on himself.
Watching Alan Keyes at the recent Republican debate at Morgan State University was very revealing. If this was the kind of opponent Obama had to run against to get his Senate seat in 2004, he probably could have belched the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner" with a rubber duck on his head and still coasted to victory. Running up the score on such a political lightweight is not good training for a serious campaign. This flag flap is the kind of poor choice that leads me to believe that Obama might not be as politically savvy as the pundits say he is.
I found this interesting piece in the Politico by David Paul Kuhn about the fears of nervous Democrats who wonder how they'll manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2008 presidential race. Kuhn's piece includes a lot of damning quotes and examples of recent Democratic flops (see Dukakis, Michael, for example), but doesn't really address the issue of why Democrats even end up in these situations to begin with. However, looking at the current "top tier" of the Democratic field, it's easy for me to understand why.
Exhibit A: Consider this piece by the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson. In his commentary, Robinson assails the (three leading) Democrats for not showing straight talk or leadership on the Iraq issue. Perhaps the most important quote in his piece is this:
"The Republican candidates' view of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East is dangerously apocalyptic, but at least it's a vision. What's yours?"That just about covers it. I can only imagine how frustrated and dejected the antiwar left felt at the recent debate at Dartmouth in which neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards could guarantee that the troops would be out of Iraq by 2013. Obviously, these three candidates didn't want to say anything that would jeopardize their chances with moderate and swing voters in November, but the problem is that by showing such timidity and political calculation, they risk losing their base and not making it to November at all.
Richardson, Biden, and Dodd have all expressed firm positions on Iraq, but they are starved for media attention because they are generally considered second-tier candidates. And on top of that, instead of giving their Iraq policy differences a bit more airtime, the media choose to focus on garbage, such as Clinton's "cackle". (Yes, the way a candidate laughs is considered more newsworthy than a substantial difference of opinion regarding our Iraq policy.) Anyway, I don't think it's a coincidence that the three best qualified candidates for president on the Democratic side of the ledger happen to be the three who have expressed the clearest positions on Iraq, but I digress...
Barack Obama had the "judgment" to be against the war from the start, but he doesn't seem to have any plans that deal with the fact that we're there now. He identifies "bad" options and "worse" options, but doesn't really say which options he'd like to pursue. And the fact that he couldn't make any guarantees about withdrawing all U.S. troops by 2013 only serves to muddy his Iraq "purity" just a bit.
John Edwards wants to get 50,000 troops out immediately, though it's unclear where they will be sent or how long it will take to accomplish this. He doesn't believe in keeping troops in Iraq to battle Al Qaeda because he considers that a way of "continuing the war in Iraq." But he also won't pledge to take all the troops out by 2013, so it's hard to understand what role the remaining troops would even have there. And what does he plan to do about the foreign terrorists who are obviously in Iraq now if he doesn't want to "continue the war" there?
Good luck to anyone who endeavors to figure out what Hillary Clinton's position is. She voted for the war, "takes responsibility for her war vote," voted against funding for the surge, blames George Bush for mismanaging the war, says we must get out responsibly, and then voted to designate the Iranian military a "terrorist organization." In other words, she's everywhere.
Remember Robinson's words. At least the Republicans have a vision.
Exhibit B: Consider this piece by Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer. Horowitz's piece talks about anxiety in the Obama camp stemming from the fact that he's not closing the gap with Hillary Clinton. His supporters and donors are uneasy while his campaign staffers and aides try to allay their concerns by reminding them that "early polls don't mean anything" and that "Obama is well positioned in the early states--the states that matter." Okay, that's all well and good, but it illustrates a major problem that Gore '00 and Kerry '04 had: When your current strategy is not working, change it! You would think that most Democrats who criticized Bush for not changing his failing strategy in Iraq would be able to pick up on this. But for some reason, Obama is continuing down his path of optimism, limited engagement, and subtlety. And Clinton is only widening her lead.
Al Gore should have easily trounced George Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly the superior candidate. He had a lot more relevant experience and the advantages of incumbency during a period of unprecedented economic growth. However, he pursued a strategy of running away from the politician who was his greatest weapon. Instead of the focus being on the good things about the '90s, the campaign focus switched to "earth tones, multiple Al Gores, and woodenness." After a hugely successful national convention speech, his lead in the polls began to evaporate. But even though the polls tightened up, Gore did not really change his strategy. (The changes he did make were more in his own personal style, which only intensified the "multiple Al Gore" charges.) The point is, he did not do what he obviously should have done and let the commander in chief become the campaigner in chief. As a result, Gore lost.
The 2004 election was even more winnable. John Kerry had a long record of public service and was a decorated war veteran. By this time, a large segment of the public had soured on the war and was growing tired of George Bush's perceived incompetence (which was later validated in his second term after Katrina and Harriet Miers). Kerry should have mopped the floor with Bush when it came to foreign policy and he could have even towed the traditional Democratic line on social programs without penalty. Instead, Kerry tried too hard to be as likable as Bush was. So rather than engage Bush in a discussion about an end game in Iraq (something that would have played to his strengths), we ended up with an obviously out-of-place John Kerry in hunting gear that became emblematic of his campaign. He was an out-of-touch panderer. And worse yet, Kerry did not seem to make any real changes in his political strategy to change the subject! Bush's 2004 reelection campaign could basically be summed up as "You might not like my positions on the issues, but at least you know where I stand. And in these dangerous times, it's important for a leader to be firm and to know where he stands." As a result, Bush earned "political capital."
Now Obama '08 seems to be traveling down the same woeful path of Kerry '04 and Gore '00. Is Obama really a fighter? Can he be counted on to change his approach when things are obviously not working? Is he really that averse to going on political offense, or has he boxed himself into a corner because of his own rhetoric about "the politics of hope?" (And just for the record, the only reason why I'm singling out Obama here is because he is the best positioned to overtake Hillary Clinton.)
As for Clinton, she doesn't really have to change her strategy to overtake a candidate in a superior position simply because she is the dominant candidate right now. However, Clinton's cautiousness (such as her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" or to "put anything on the proverbial table when it comes to Social Security") gets at what Bush was able to win against in 2004. You have to be bold if you want to be president. It seems like Clinton is trying to say as little as possible and win the nomination and the presidency on a lack of specificity.
2008 is a very winnable election for the Democrats, but if they do not stop pursuing strategies that aren't working (Obama's subtlety), don't evoke leadership (Clinton's "hypotheticals"), and have little vision (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards on Iraq), then the Republicans may end up turning 2008 into 1988 and win the White House for a third consecutive time. Should that happen, the Democrats will be absolutely devastated.
However, if that happens, the Democrats will have no one but themselves to blame. In politics, you can never beat something with nothing.
Last week most of the Republican presidential candidates attended a forum moderated by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The Democrats had attended a similar forum earlier this year. This debate was unique in that none of the four leading Republicans attended, with each citing "scheduling conflicts." Four empty podiums stood on stage in their (dis)honor. Much has been written about the absences of Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, so this post won't go into that. Instead, I'd like to focus a bit more on what I observed from the candidates who actually did participate.
Before going any further, I want to commend Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and newcomer Alan Keyes for at least giving the forum a chance and attempting to deliver their message to a potentially hostile crowd. It is no secret that Blacks tend to vote Democratic by about an 8 to 1 ratio. Defenders of the absent candidates often cite this statistic before saying "Blacks would never vote for us anyway, so why bother?"
Yes, that may be the easy way to rationalize blowing off the most politically powerful minority voting bloc in America, but here's why that line of thinking is wrong. Republicans seem to think that they have to "win" the Black vote, as in win a majority of the Black vote. But let's get real. That's not going to happen for many, many years. A Republican doesn't have to "win" the Black vote in order to win more elections; they often only have to "do better" with the Black vote in order to tip more elections in their favor. Winning 25% of the Black vote may be enough to win a close race, while winning only the usual 15% will keep you practicing your concession speeches. And this is what a lot of Republicans seem to overlook. But then again, maybe the candidates and strategists who use this "we'll never 'win' the Black vote" line simply don't want to try and maybe don't even care. Black voters pick up on rhetoric like this just as much as they pick up on the candidates who shun them, as the four leading candidates did.
People talk about Rudy Giuliani's appeal to moderates, Fred Thompson's appeal to Southerners, and Mitt Romney's appeal to evangelicals. However, you don't hear much about a candidate's appeal to Blacks, at least on the Republican side of the field. The Democratic Party does not have a monopoly on Blacks' votes at all, as many Blacks feel the Democrats take their votes for granted. So there's a huge opportunity here for a Republican who is willing to do a bit of work first.
Anyway, as I watched the debate, I made a few observations. Even though I may criticize these candidates, the fact that they at least showed up makes me have far more respect for them than the candidates with the "scheduling conflicts." Anyway, here are my thoughts:
1. Duncan Hunter kept using the word barrio, which is the Spanish equivalent of "the hood" or "the ghetto." I think Hunter was trying to show that he had some knowledge of "the lingo" used in "minority" communities. I'll give him credit for that. But at the same time, it seemed like he was either trying too hard or was genuinely clueless about which word he should use to describe "where minorities live." How would a roomful of Southerners feel if someone like John Kerry said "Howdy!" with a New York accent? Why should it be any different here? I think a smarter choice for Hunter would have simply been "Black communities" or "Black neighborhoods" or even "lower income neighborhoods." There's no need to get all fancy with the terminology. Don't be so afraid of being politically correct. Just talk! Hunter's awkward remarks illustrate the trepidation that exists among many Republicans who sincerely would like to extend an olive branch to Black voters, but really aren't sure how to go about doing so.
2. If the Alan Keyes of 2007 is the same as the Alan Keyes of 2004, then that explains why Barack Obama may not be sufficiently versed in the lore of national politics. Keyes was Obama's opponent in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. I listened to Keyes during the debate last week and tried to maintain an open mind. While he spoke with great force and passion, I could see how he'd register as an asterisk in most polls. In other words, Alan Keyes was and is a very weak candidate. For example, at the start of the debate Keyes said that the absence of the four main Republican candidates was not necessarily an affront to the Black community. I'm sure that went over well with the audience. Anyway, the point is, has Obama truly been tested on the national stage? I'm not talking about voting records, daily news cycles, and fundraising. I'm talking about running a strong campaign against a strong challenger for a federal office. Running up the score against someone like Alan Keyes does not count.
3. Blacks have more in common with religious conservatives than at first glance. Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback won lots of applause from the crowd when they talked about the importance of strong families and traditional values. So many Blacks grew up in one-parent homes or homes where both parents spend so little time at home with their children because of work. Time spent away from the home is time spent away from their children, who then have more time to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Black voters get this.
4. Libertarianism has some degree of palatability among Blacks when it is phrased in a way that shows its relevance to the Black community. Ron Paul consistently received cheers and strong applause after almost every time he took the microphone. His libertarian stance regarding the "War on Drugs" clearly resonated with many of the voters in the audience. The way he was able to tie in government inefficiency, the failure of this endeavor, and how it disproportionately affects Blacks was a masterstroke that demonstrated a high degree of familiarity with this issue beyond the usual "let's build more prisons" or "let's bolster enforcement" cliches.
5. Blacks are just as angry about illegal immigration as White Republicans are. Tom Tancredo illustrated how illegal aliens were driving down wages for everyone, including Blacks with blue collar jobs. Tancredo was not using illegal aliens (read Mexicans) as a convenient scapegoat, but the crux of his argument cannot be denied. Strains on government services and increased crime are not the only issues impacted by illegal aliens; how they take lower paying jobs and decrease wages affects lower income families particularly hard. Are Democrats on the wrong side of illegal immigration?
6. Don't ever judge a book by its cover. I do not have any official statistics regarding the attendance of the forum. However, when the camera panned to the audience, I noticed a lot of Whites in the seats. Even though this forum was primarily about "Black" issues, it seemed that about 25-35% of the people in the audience were White. And because this debate was on PBS (instead of BET), there were surely many more Whites watching the debate from their own homes. Republicans who were weak-kneed about entering the Black lions' den were probably pleasantly surprised that the crowd was not nearly as hostile as they may have anticipated. This just goes to show that political opportunity is everywhere if you're willing to take a chance.
7. There is a wing of the Republican Party that does not believe racism is an issue today. Tom Tancredo refused to go along with the other candidates who partially attributed issues of Black unemployment, Black imprisonment, and Black poverty to racism. Tancredo instead blamed failing schools, failing communities, and failing homes with poor values for the plight of so many Blacks. While his argument has some degree of credence, comments such as these cause Tancredo and his political brethren to represent the wing of the Republican Party that Blacks think of when they say "they don't care about us."
8. Mike Huckabee is probably the single most dangerous Republican candidate in the field. I cannot understand why people continue to talk about him only as vice presidential material. Huckabee is a talented speaker, is right on almost all the issues conservatives hold dear, and could attract increased support from Blacks and moderates because he does not come across as a hardcore partisan even though he is most definitely a part of the conservative religious right. Huckabee was able to deftly strike the right balance between acknowledging racism and showing how poor Blacks had a lot in common with poor Whites. His answer regarding the death penalty was very moving, as his thoughtfulness provided a nice contrast from capital punishment advocates who simply say "those people deserve to die for their heinous crimes." If I were a Democrat, I would be very, very afraid of this candidate because I think he could put more blue states in play than Giuliani could while keeping the red states red. In light of all the frustration among evangelical voters regarding their "top four" candidates, Romney and Thompson in particular should be very worried about Huckabee's potential strength.
To me, these eight lessons and observations provided far more news than the fact that the "leading" candidates were "unable" to attend. It will be interesting to see if any of these candidates try to follow up with Black voters by campaigning in their neighborhoods and churches in the future. Even though it may seem daunting at first, I think they'd be pleasantly surprised.