With tonight likely to be the last time the Republican presidential field gathers without Fred Thompson's imposing presence, look for a memorable smack-down in New Hampshire. Members of the proud second tier know that their chances for a breakthrough are disappearing faster than DA Arthur Branch can bark, "Get me a conviction." And it's not as if the top GOP contenders have even needed a debate stage to mix it up of late.
Immigration is likely to dominate, and that's just what Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants. McCain's speech yesterday in Florida, where he suggested that critics of the immigration bill "would intentionally make our country's problems worse," has already elicited a rebuke from former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., who wants this fight every bit as much as McCain does. And that doesn't even account for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who is launching his campaign to oust Republicans who support the bill today in Manchester, just hours before the debate.
Throw into that tinder box Sen. Sam Brownback's, R-Kan., latest attack on Romney for not labeling abortion "murder," new questions over former mayor Rudolph Giuliani's, R-N.Y., abortion position, and the always entertaining 9/11-themed sideshow matching Giuliani against Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas., and it should be an entertaining evening.
Yet it could be "testing-the-waters" Thompson who provides the highlights: As soon as the 10 men on stage wrap up their two shared hours CNN, Thompson will have 20 minutes to himself on Fox News. "He'll get to review (pan?) their performances and offer a preview of his own campaign, without so much as a divergent peep out of them and no pesky red light telling him to wrap it up," The New York Times' Katharine Q. Seelye writes.
Remember the good old days, when it was Republican members of Congress getting indicted, and polls showed the GOP congressional leadership in freefall? Seems like a long time ago for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The cold, hard cash in Rep. William Jefferson's, R-La., freezer finally resulted in an indictment yesterday, ABC's Jake Tapper reports, with "charges right out of 'The Sopranos,' including money laundering, racketeering, and obstruction of justice, with allegations of corruption spanning years and two continents."
Jefferson is proclaiming his innocence and promising to see his name cleared, but the $90,000 in cash found in takeout containers in Jefferson's freezer provides a more memorable image than anything the Abramoff affair has produced. How long can Democratic leaders protect Jefferson from being expelled and still lay claim to running -- in Pelosi's words -- "the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history?"
Handling Jefferson's situation is delicate for Pelosi, given the testy relationship she's had with the Congressional Black Caucus. The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman reports that Jefferson's indictment "could rekindle a smoldering dispute between the speaker and black lawmakers who were once pillars of her power." Said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.: "A person in America is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty." Remember that Jefferson's district reelected him last year despite knowing that he was all but certain to be indicted.
Another troublesome sign for Pelosi: Public support for Democrats' leadership has frittered away along with their hopes of ending the Iraq war, per the new ABC News/Washington Post poll. "Six weeks ago the Democrats held a 24-point lead over Bush as the stronger leadership force in Washington; today that's collapsed to a dead heat," ABC polling director Gary Langer reports. A lack of progress in Iraq is driving the declining public confidence in Congress, but Democrats can take solace in one fact: "President Bush and the Republicans aren't doing any better."
Senator Craig Thomas: 1933-2007
Thomas' death last night draws fond reminiscences from all quarters for the low-key senior senator from Wyoming, who passed after a battle with leukemia. The three-term senator -- who replaced Dick Cheney in the House when Cheney joined the George H. W. Bush Cabinet -- "stayed clear of the Washington limelight and political catfights," per the Associated Press' Mary Clare Jalonick.
No Senate balance-of-power implications here -- at least not yet. Wyoming has a Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal, but his spokeswoman has already said that he intends to follow state law and choose a replacement from a list of three finalists provided by the state Republican Party. The term for Thomas' replacement, however, will expire at the end of 2008, leaving both of Wyoming's Senate seats up for grabs next year, with Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., also up for reelection. This could be a prime red-state pick-up opportunity for the Democrats; last year, Wyoming's state-wide House race was one of the closest in the country. Cheney for Senate, anyone?
Also in the news today:
A USA Today/Gallup Poll has the Democratic race virtually tied, with either Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., leading by a single point, depending on whether Al Gore is included in the field. Big news for the Obama camp, but this is so at odds with other recent polling that it will take another similar poll or two to change perceptions of Clinton as clear front-runner.
The top three Democratic '08ers got their faith going at last night's Sojourners forum in Washington, and it was Clinton who gave the most revealing answer of the evening. "I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith," Clinton said when asked about how she overcame her husband's infidelities. Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., said he prays every day and said he couldn't name his single biggest sin, while Obama's appearance "focused more on policy than the personal," per the round-up by the AP's Nedra Pickler.
The Obama camp jumped on Clinton's debate assertion that the US is safer under the Bush administration's leadership, distributing a memo citing reports that detail ways the country is less safe now than it was before 9/11. Though it didn't mention Clinton by name, the memo was "a direct shot at Clinton," The New York Post's Ian Bishop reports.
Gov. Bill Richardson's, D-N.M., suggestion of an Olympic boycott drew him a rebuke from the US Olympic Committee -- and a warning that such talk could hurt American chances of winning future Olympic bids. "Even the discussion is harmful," Steve Bull, the USOC's chief lobbyist, told The Hill's Ian Swanson.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., continues to get the best debate reviews among the second tier. Raves Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne: "Maybe because he doesn't have much to lose, Biden was the most passionate, straight-talking figure on the stage here at Saint Anselm College."
More scrutiny for Clinton pollster Mark Penn, this time with two labor-union heads complaining about Penn's work on behalf of a company that fought a unionization effort. "If Hillary is pro-worker and pro-union, she will certainly take steps to rein in Mr. Penn," Teamsters President James P. Hoffa told The New York Times' Steven Greenhouse.
With the immigration debate restarting in the Senate, more troubles are emerging on the left. Obama said yesterday that he won't support the bill unless his concerns about the temporary-worker program are addressed. "If I don't think it's quite there, it'll have to wait until I'm president," Obama said, according to the Daily Herald's Eric Krol.
Thompson's not-yet-official candidacy is drawing a "stream of former Bush-Cheney aides," and has the support of presidential nephew George P. Bush, who sent an e-mail asking friends and associates to support the former Tennessee senator, Politico's Mike Allen reports.
Giuliani is facing new criticism over his abortion stance, just in time for tonight's debate. Providence's Catholic bishop, Thomas J. Tobin, is calling Giuliani's position "pathetic," "confusing," "preposterous," and "hypocritical" -- and is comparing Giuliani to Pontius Pilate. "I can just hear Pilate saying, 'You know, I'm personally opposed to crucifixion but I don't want to impose my belief on others,' " Tobin wrote in the diocesan newspaper, the Rhode Island Catholic.
"I finally asked him to please let me finish a sentence, at which point I was arrested," liberal commentator Eric Alterman, explaining the circumstances of his detention at Sunday night's Democratic debate.
"In recent times even the top leaders of our government have used variants of these expletives in a manner that no reasonable person would believe referenced sexual or excretory organs or activities," New York federal appeals court panel, explaining how Bush and Cheney's propensity for curse words means the FCC can't fine stations for airing "fleeting expletives."
I'll be blogging live from Manchester during Tuesday's Republican debate. Be part of the conversation.