Five observations for this first week of fall:
1. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the establishment Democrat, but isn't being blamed for it (and endorsements like today's by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., drive David Axelrod and Joe Trippi batty).
2. Former governor Mitt Romney is running against the Republican establishment, but isn't being blamed for it (and his rivals aren't batting an eye -- but how many wins like this weekend's will he rack up before they start worrying?).
3. Judith Giuliani succeeding in making her husband's NRA speech memorable for something other than guns (but next time his phone will be on vibrate -- and his record means he better have a few dozen similar speeches in the offing).
4. President Bush doesn't play political prognosticator by accident (and especially not when Karl Rove beat him to making the call) -- and this is one prediction Clinton can live without.
Now that Clinton, D-N.Y., has closed out her healthcare week (with a round on all five Sunday shows -- who else could even score five invitations, much less succeed in not looking foolish at least once?) here comes a question that all (yes, ALL) of her Democratic rivals are asking -- and that she's only begun to answer. Can she win?
"She's already winning," Clinton's supporters like to say -- and they have the polls (and now Bayh, joining Tom Vilsack) to back them up. But the issue of perceived electability remains the one issue that presents Clinton's most significant obstacle to the presidency (and will as long as her last name is "Clinton" -- or until she can drop her negative poll ratings below 45 percent).
Among the stubborn facts for camp Clinton: the Clinton presidency wasn't all sweetness and light (and neither was the first lady); Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has an insane amount of money to drop (and he's not saving up for a big vacation or something); Democrats (to paraphrase the previous pundit-in-chief) still would rather fall in love than fall in line; and there's always a race, no matter what national polls show.
What's dangerous for Clinton is that Obama and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. -- as well as the second tier -- are beginning to advance the same anti-Clinton argument. And they realize that time is running short.
With The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny reporting yesterday that Clinton has "consolidated her lead," Axelrod (of the Obama campaign) says: "The question is ultimately, Is she credible -- whether people buy her as an agent of change in Washington." And don't miss the significance of this admission, from Trippi, a top Edwards adviser: "It's pretty clear that she has sort of pulled away." (Think they may want to do something about that?)
Even President Bush thinks Clinton is going to win (did anyone think he'd toss away Karl Rove's playbook?). As the president tells Bill Sammon in his new book, "She's got a national presence, and this is becoming a national primary." But he's optimistic that a Republican will end up winning: "I think our candidate can beat her, but it's going to be a tough race."
The tidbit from the weekend that Clinton's rivals had the most fun distributing speaks to her potential impact on down-ballot races. Citing a survey by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza And Shailagh Murray report that Clinton and Obama are "trailing former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) in the 31 Democratic-held House districts regarded as most imperiled in 2008, and even potentially serving as a drag on those lawmakers' reelection chances." (Lake, it should be noted, polls for Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and asking about "liberal policies" may be a bit pushy for our liking.)
This is the backdrop for Bayh -- a former 2008 candidate (like Vilsack, briefly) himself -- to endorse Clinton at 1 pm ET in Washington today (taking away attention, oh-so coincidentally, from Obama's trip to the Big Apple). "Bayh, who had already been oft-discussed as a promising potential vice presidential pick for Clinton, had held back on endorsing her in part because of doubts about her popularity in Indiana, Democratic sources said," write Politico's Mike Allen and Avi Zenilman. "His endorsement could help undermine the argument of her rivals for the Democratic nomination that she would not be electable in a national contest."
With third-quarter fund-raising ending this weekend -- and Obama headed to Clinton's New York turf today (where he'll pick up the endorsement of the New York City correction officers' union) -- this is a critical phase for Obama.
It's enough to prompt a David Plouffe memo, which refers to Clinton as the "quasi-incumbent" who must win Iowa -- and discusses Obama's "hidden vote" that isn't registering in polls. Per the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet, "Those hidden souls in the Obama army Plouffe writes about are younger voters who escape pollsters because they have cell phones, not land lines. Plouffe is depending heavily on this demographic to win the Iowa caucus -- if the campaign team for Obama can deliver them."
The Chicago Tribune's John McCormick writes up Obama's difficulties in nailing down working-class voters. "Obama has done well attracting the Chardonnay crowd, but he has had less success winning over Joe Sixpack," McCormick writes. Axelrod's explanation: "name recognition." (They better hope they have a better plan being executed as we speak -- one that exludes the word "arugula.")
The Obama camp is boasting of some 75,000 new donors this quarter -- with the total number of donors at 333,319 so far in the campaign, ABC's Jonathan Greenberger reports. But unlike the end of the second quarter, where Obama's eye-popping fundraising figures were the story by themselves, no one will be surprised if he dominates the money race in the quarter that ends this weekend. And money alone doesn't make a contender (unless you're Mike Bloomberg).
"Even before the totals are announced . . . some of the donors who have helped raise millions for Obama are beginning to ask when the gap in polls between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will finally begin to narrow," write The Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr. and Matthew Mosk. "Some Obama supporters are pushing him to make a change in strategy: a full, no-holds-barred attack on Clinton and aspects of her husband's legacy."
[From that same story, pay attention to the expectations-setting among the Republicans. Romney spokesman Kevin Madden: "Look, the whole country was on vacation. It's a tough quarter." And Bill Lacy, former senator Fred Thompson's campaign manager: "We are running what I would call an insurgency-style campaign." (Even insurgents would rather have money, no?)]
Clinton turned in a masterful Sunday, somehow answering questions on all five shows without giving her opponents any significant new ammunition. Among the few news tidbits: Her health plan won't cover illegal immigrants, she told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week." Of the lessons of 1993-94, she said, "I think that what is so uniquely American about the American experience is that, you know, you get knocked down, you get back."
Clinton also fleshed out her position war funding (nothing too controversial here in a Democratic primary): "I will not vote for any funding that does not move us toward beginning to withdraw our troops," she said on Fox News Sunday. Per the Los Angeles Times' Jim Puzzanghera, Clinton's appearances "reinforced her position as the Democratic presidential front-runner" -- and she laughed out loud when asked whether she and her husband have too partisan a view of politics. "If you had walked even a day in our shoes over the last 15 years, I'm sure you'd understand," she said.
The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut saw Clinton turning in a "filibuster." She took 225 words to tell Stephanopoulos that she wasn't sure whether she'd remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of her first term. "Above all, though, in a morning of appearances that yielded virtually no news, Clinton illustrated her ability to talk. And talk. And talk," Kornblut writes.
Clinton can still afford to be nice to Obama, it appears. Asked last night whether he's qualified to be vice president, ABC's Eloise Harper reports that Clinton said, "Assuming I can win the nomination, I will give serious thought to him and to others who I think will bring a great deal not only to the ticket -- which is the political side of the equation -- but much more importantly to governing our country."
On the Republican side, Romney picked up another straw-poll win over the weekend. "Romney used his Michigan connections to good advantage over the weekend in easily winning a presidential straw poll of registrants to the Michigan Republican Party's biennial island conference," per Dawson Bell of the Detroit Free Press. Giuliani came in fourth, behind (!) Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
As he racks up victories, Romney, R-Mass., is engaged in a tidy bit of political positioning. "Even as he tries to distance himself from his moderate record, Mr. Romney also embraces it to reach voters in the middle -- both Republicans uncomfortable with the direction of the party and independent voters he would need in a general election," writes The Wall Street Journal's Mary Jacoby. "Mr. Romney's stump speech can sound at times part Rush Limbaugh, part Bill Clinton, braiding red-meat conservative lines with feel-your-pain prescriptions for health care and retirement security."
While he takes aim at his own party in a new ad, the Concord Monitor's Lauren R. Dorgan notices that Romney "is sometimes less precise in articulating his own positions, which may be a deliberate effort to leave room to carve out new positions on the issues that will likely shape the general election." That includes, most significantly, the war in Iraq, which he refuses to say if he thinks was a mistake based on what he knows now, Dorgan writes.
This just in from Sen. John McCain's "resurgence": His longtime pollster, Bill McInturff, left his campaign last week, in part because the campaign only conducted one (yes, one) poll in all of 2007.
This just in from the latest installment of Fred Thompson bashing: Adam Smith uses his St. Petersburg Times column to call out the Thompson doubters. "These guys need get out of the Beltway for a few days and see what's happening on the ground in places like Florida. They're underestimating hunger among Republicans for an alternative to the current field," Smith writes. Even when Thompson was making mistakes, "people gushed with passion and constantly compared him to Ronald Reagan."
Thompson wants to remind us of 1994, The New York Times' Michael Cooper and Michael Luo write in their snapshot of the GOP race. "You're going to start to see us posing the question: what were you fighting for in 1994 when the Republicans took control of Washington?" said Todd Harris, Thompson's communications director. That would be the year Thompson won his Senate seat, Romney lost his run (running as a moderate), and Giuliani was still boasting of endorsements like Mario Cuomo's.
So Giuliani has answered the critics on guns (sort of) -- but he hasn't delivered his last tough speech before his last hostile crowd. More scrutiny of the former mayor's record is emerging.
The Los Angeles Times' Janet Hook writes up Hizzoner's shifting posture on illegal immigration -- including a lawsuit he filed to block the 1996 welfare bill because of what he called "inhumane" treatment of illegal immigrants. "As mayor, Giuliani was the rare Republican who rolled out the welcome mat for legal and illegal immigrants," Hook writes.
And cutting closer to his campaign persona, The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis finds Giuliani only waking up to threats posed by terrorists after 9/11: He blasts Democrats for being in "denial" during the 1990s, but such claims are "undercut by Giuliani's record as mayor and by his public statements about terrorism since the 1990s, which document an evolution in thinking that began with a mind-set similar to the one he criticizes today," MacGillis writes. "Giuliani's rhetoric changed as time went on."
Don't forget this crowd, either: "A coalition of 9/11 families and rescue workers plans to continue efforts to derail former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's bid for President at a midtown fund-raiser today," Jordan Lite reports in the New York Daily News. Said Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches, the group's leader (and perhaps the single most quoted Giuliani critic): "We intend to Swift-boat Rudy the way they Swift-boated [John] Kerry."
Also in the news:
Now we know: Bill Clinton is better off playing Bill Clinton than John Kerry. The New York Daily News' Michael Saul followed up with some of the world leaders the president claims are rooting for Hillary to win -- and comes up empty. An aide to Jacques Chirac says the former French president "believes he should not publicly express himself on the American presidential campaign." Ditto the former prime minister of Singapore, and several African leaders. Clinton spokesman Jay Carson responds that the former presidnet "never cited specific countries" whose leaders support his wife. (So that makes it OK to say?)
Obama hates lobbyists on the campaign trail, but he worked with them back in the Illinois state senate, The Boston Globe's Scott Helman reports. Describing a 2004 health-care bill, Helman writes, "Obama had written three successful amendments, at least one of which made key changes favorable to insurers. Most significant, universal healthcare became merely a policy goal instead of state policy. . . Lobbyists praised Obama for taking the insurance industry's concerns into consideration."
Get ready for the South Carolina showdown -- and this is where the battle for black voters will matter. "Of the Democratic candidates, Obama seems best suited to challenge Clinton," The State's Lee Bandy writes in his Sunday column. "In South Carolina, Obama has put together a high-tech and grass-roots get-out-the-vote campaign unmatched by anything seen in the state before. Obama is organized in all 46 counties. Much goes on outside of the public eye or, as campaign organizers are fond of saying, below the radar."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., will get a Senate vote on his plan for an Iraq partition tomorrow. Per The Washington Post's Shailagh Murray, "It's a non-binding resolution, so even if it does pass, it won't force President Bush to do anything. But sources close to Biden describe the senator as positively giddy about the exposure."
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is using his candidacy as "the most public chapter in his career-long quest for his father's redemption," writes Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times. Dodd's brother, Thomas Jr., on why Chris Dodd is running for president in such a crowded field: "I don't know what the thinking is on this thing, but he sure is enjoying it."
Edwards today unveils his plan to combat HIV/AIDS, with particular attention to be paid to the African-American and Latino communities. "This is a fight for people's lives. We have a moral imperative to do much more, and do it much better," Edwards plans to say today, per his campaign.
Ready for the congressional budget battles? President Bush is -- but some moderates in his party aren't. Veto threats have "blocked Congress from forcing troop drawdowns in Iraq and given Bush substantial leverage on children's health policies, federal spending and other issues," the AP's Chuck Babington writes. "But some say it carries a political risk. By thwarting congressional efforts to wind down the war and redirect spending to popular domestic programs, Bush could help Democrats portray Republicans as out of step with voters in the 2008 elections."
Florida Democrats are not budging off their promise to hold their primary Jan. 29. " 'Make it count' is the new rallying cry for the 2008 primary, carrying deliberate echoes of the contested 2000 election," The Miami Herald's Beth Reinhard writes. Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman: "To settle this, we will be voting on Jan. 29 with our candidates on the ballot." Care to respond, Dr. Dean?
More Newt noodling: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., is giving himself three weeks to secure $30 million for a presidential run. (Wasn't this the plot of a 1980s Richard Pryor movie?) "As people have grown more worried about the Clinton machine and the prospect of a second Clinton presidency, more and more people have been approaching me about running," Gingrich tells the Washington Times' Ralph Z. Hallow. (Guess we know where he stands on the Fred Thompson question now.)
Newsweek's Jonathan Darman sees the makings of a candidacy in all the glum talk from Gingrich about Democrats being on track to win. "Foreseeing gloom, Gingrich may be positioning himself as a kind of latter-day Barry Goldwater, a candidate conservatives can be proud to vote for in a year when they face near-certain defeat," Darman writes. "Now, as before, Gingrich's only hope is that his party concludes it has none."
Does Kanye West still think that George Bush hates black people? He tells ABC's Terry Moran that the answer is yes. "I mean, I have a hard time believing that George Bush cares about anyone. So -- sidebar -- black people also," the rapper says in an interview to be broadcast tonight on "Nightline." West also says that the post-Katrina comment "changed my life for the better. I think people understood me a little bit more."
"Just one." -- Romney, smiling, when asked at a campaign event "how many first ladies could we expect" if he's elected president.
"It's sort of like, 'That's all I need to get by.' . . . And a laziness, an intellectual laziness." -- A "senior White House official" (someone whose boss is George W. Bush) describing Obama, in Bill Sammon's new book.
"Send my best to the president." -- Chris Wallace, to Sen. Clinton, on Fox News Sunday. "I'm sure he'll be happy to hear that, Chris." -- Sen. Clinton, with what Politico's Ben Smith calls her "signature cackle."