THE NOTE: Fred's Fumbles

To: Fred Dalton Thompson, US Senator, Tennessee (retired)

From: Arthur Branch, District Attorney, New York County (retired)

Buck up, son. So you weren't sure what you'd have done in the Terri Schiavo case -- they're not gonna unplug you for that. So you want "due process" for Osama -- we know that's code for letting Jack Bauer have at him. So now you're concerned about the threat posed by the Soviet Union -- so was Ronald Reagan, and that worked out pretty well for that old boy, now didn't it?

It's like I always told McCoy -- smile for the cameras, let the flies buzz, and elections are a breeze. And he's a liberal! You're a conservative, which means you're for solid, righteous, good things, like American values, common sense, and cookies. Plus you've got Jeri to protect you from the snakes -- particularly in that jungle of a campaign you've got. (And might I say, she is looking . . . po-li-ti-cal these days.)


One month into the campaign that never seemed to start, Thompson looks like he spent all summer testing the waters but somehow never learned how to swim. His campaign may be right that voters aren't paying attention to his daily hiccups, that he can talk his way out of any gaps in his knowledge. He's still a solid second in national polls.

But something dangerous is happening to Thompson: A perception is sinking in that he's in over his head, or at least that he's not showing much interest in this whole running-for-president thing. This magnifies every mistake -- and once this narrative is written, good luck trying to act your way out of it.

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney sums up his campaign as one of "broad generalities" -- "Let's continue doing what works and quit doing what doesn't work" -- and little energy. "As Mr. Thompson campaigned in Iowa this week, he was something other than the dynamic presence that some in his party have been yearning for," Nagourney writes. "Iowans saw a subdued, laconic candidate who spoke in a soft monotone, threw few elbows and displayed little drive to distinguish himself from his opponents."

Add these to the catalog of miscues: Aside from expressing concerns about those pesky Soviets in an interview with Radio Iowa yesterday, he talked about how proud he was to guide Chief Justice John Roberts' nomination through the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee. (The Republicans were in charge until this year.) He also switched his position on ethanol subsidies, which he voted against while in Congress, Rick Pearson reports in the Chicago Tribune.

That follows a similar switch on No Child Left Behind, which he voted for and now rails against. And David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network has video of Thompson offering this reaction to the hypothetical situation of a governor signing a bill allowing gay marriage: "So be it." (There's a campaign slogan for you.)

The Des Moines Register's Linda Lantor Fandel found him "awkward at making small talk, or not interested" during Thompson's editorial board meeting. "But as the interview got under way, Thompson demonstrated that he knows how to frame big problems -- national and international," she writes. Yet "Thompson gave long, meandering answers, but offered few solutions or detailed plans." If he doesn't become president? "The worst thing that can happen to me in this process is that I get sent back to being the happiest man that you ever met," Thompson said.

Isn't this all just prelude to the clash of the New York titans anyway? Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., may be itching for a battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., but Clinton's got to feel good about the matchup, according to the new ABC News/Washington Post poll. Clinton tops Giuliani 51-43 in the hypothetical head-to-head.

"Belying Clinton's polarizing image, as many say they would not even consider Giuliani for president (44 percent) as definitely rule out Clinton (41 percent)," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. And -- surprise -- Bill Clinton is as popular as ever: 66 percent approval rating. "Bill Clinton's legacy does at least as much for his wife's presidential ambitions as Rudy Giuliani's 9/11 performance bolsters his," Langer writes.

But hold on, Rudy -- who's this with the $5 million haul? Dr. No himself -- Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, whose has tapped libertarian and anti-war sentiments inside the GOP with more success than most observers could have imagined.

"Long treated at debates as the cantankerous old uncle you don't want to get started talking about the Gold Standard, Paul had big news," write ABC's Jake Tapper and Z. Byron Wolf. " 'It's really fascinating,' Paul said, seeming as surprised with the news as was much of the rest of the political world. 'I think the time is right. People are really frustrated -- frustrated with both parties, frustrated with the war.' "

This means Paul cannot be ignored any longer -- and will provide endless fodder for the online army who've been boosting his candidacy for months. "Whether Paul will be a major factor in the GOP nominating contests remains to be seen, but his money totals -- it is likely he will have outraised several second-tier Republicans and Democrats combined -- mean he will be in for the long haul," writes Reid Wilson of Real Clear Politics.

For some perspective, Paul appears to have raised about as much last quarter as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., and only $2 million less than former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. He raised considerably more than the combined quarterly tallies of senators Joe Biden, D-Del., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

Paul brought in FIVE TIMES what former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., raised, despite Huckabee's second-place finish in Ames and the surge of attention that brought to his campaign. "We don't need to raise as much funds because we are frugal," Huckabee said in a statement, per ABC's Kevin Chupka. That's fortunate, but last quarter was a huge missed opportunity for him to cash in -- one he apparently couldn't take advantage of.

On the Democratic side, Clinton in pressing her advantage -- and taking on President Bush in the wake of his veto of the children's health insurance bill. "Hillary stood up for universal health care when almost no one else would, and kept standing 'til six million kids had coverage," her new ad states. "So now that almost every candidate's standing up for healthcare for all, which one do you think will never back down?"

Per the AP's Jim Kuhnhenn, the ad also offers "an implicit contrast with Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani," who has come under fire from firefighters and other 9/11 groups. The voice-over says, "She stood by ground zero workers who sacrificed their health after so many sacrificed their lives, and kept standing 'til this administration took action."

Fresh off her endorsement by the American Federation of Teachers (doesn't everyone want to be with a winner?), Clinton this morning is giving a speech calling for additional stem-cell research, and attacking the Bush administration's political manipulation of scientific data. "For six and half years under this president, it's been open season on open inquiry," she plans to say, per her campaign. "And by ignoring or manipulating science, the Bush administration is putting our future at risk and letting our economic competitors get an edge in the global economy."

A new AP-Ipsos poll shows Clinton ahead of Obama 35-18 -- nowhere near the 33 point advantage shown in the ABC/Post poll. The Obama camp offers up some triumphant sarcasm. "A shockwave was sent through Washington late today as the AP released a poll showing that Obama halved Clinton's lead in national polling in just one day," the Obama camp says in a deadly serious press release (we swear this is as real as the Thompson memo above is fake) obtained exclusively by The Note.

" 'We were confident that once the American people saw that Obama did in fact out-raise Senator Clinton by more than $12 million dollars over the course of this year, that we would indeed come roaring back in the incredibly meaningful national polls,' said Obama strategist David Axelrod. 'As we continue to fine-tune our attempts to get on the front page of Roll Call and out of the Des Moines Register, we are pleased to see that our efforts have already begun coming to fruition.' Besides leading in primary dollars raised, Axelrod later mentioned as an aside that Obama also was leading in Iowa, has the largest grassroots operation in the history of presidential politics and, by the way, national polls are still meaningless."

And just how important is Iowa? Here are Obama's words, per ABC's Sunlen Miller: "I keep trying to explain to [people] the only poll I am concerned about right now is Iowa, because Iowans make that first decision. . . . If we end up winning Iowa we will win the rest of the sates and I'll be the nominee, and I think the next Democratic nominee is going to be the next president."

But the latest wave of good news for Clinton has been very good. It's a "restoration," if not a "coronation," Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post. Some Clinton snippets: "Back in the 1990s." "Start working with the world again." "We're all in this together again." "Get back to working together." Milbank writes, "These phrases -- each of them uttered yesterday by Clinton -- might seem rather backward-looking for a candidate billing herself as an agent of 'change.' But it must be working for her."

As if Democrats weren't quite getting enough good news . . . forget the majority -- how about 60 votes? Another GOP Senate graybeard calls it quits today, with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., set to announce his retirement this afternoon in Albuquerque, citing health issues. "I am not willing to take a chance that the people who have so honored me with their trust for 40 years might not be served as well as they deserve," Domenici plans to say, per the AP's Andrew Taylor.

Domenici joins Republican senators John Warner (Va.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Wayne Allard (Col.), and (maybe) Larry Craig (Idaho) in retirement -- and no formal word yet from scandal-plagued Ted Stevens (Alaska). Toss in close races that are expected over GOP-held seats in New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon, and Minnesota, and suddenly a Democratic caucus that counted 45 members just a year ago can almost see a day of a filibuster-proof majority. Pity poor Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., the man left with the mess at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

You don't see this every day: Political Wire's Taegan Goddard notices that 2008 could have three first cousins running for the Senate on the same day: Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., Rep. Mark Udall, D-Col. (running for Allard's seat), and Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who "is considered the early favorite for the Democratic nomination" in Domenici's seat.

Also in the news:

The front page of The New York Times offers up a bombshell that will have political reverberations. While the Justice Department was publicly declaring torture to be "abhorrent," Alberto Gonzales issued a secret legal opinion that was "an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used" by the CIA, the Times' Scott Shane, David Johnston, and James Risen report. The opinion "for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures."

Don't miss this line (and you know the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee won't went hearings begin for the president's choice to succeed Gonzales): "The 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums."

Giuliani is facing a fresh challenge from social conservatives. The archbishop of St. Louis "is threatening to deny Holy Communion to Rudy Giuliani over his support for abortion rights, spotlighting the ex-mayor's break from his church -- and his political party -- on an issue of critical importance to both," Newsday's Craig Gordon reports. The comments by Archbishop Raymond Burke -- who issued a similar threat against Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2004 -- "come as Giuliani tries to forestall a defection by religious conservative leaders to a possible third-party candidate."

With Giuliani running a new radio ad in New Hampshire, the former mayor yesterday advised his New York Yankees not to look past the Cleveland Indians in their pursuit of a title (and that series starts tonight). "But when it comes to Giuliani's strategy for winning the presidency, he's already skipped the playoffs for the big show," Joelle Farrell writes in the Concord Monitor. "Instead of drawing distinctions between himself and his Republican rivals, Giuliani tells voters that he's the best Republican to go toe-to-toe with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who leads in the Democratic primary polls."

"It's my intention not to attack any other Republicans, absolutely," Giuliani tells Politico's Mike Allen and Jonathan Marin.  "The whole focus of my campaign is I'm going to run against a Democrat."

Columnist Robert Novak writes that former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., needs to publicly answer questions about his religion -- and hints that something could be coming soon. Novak says that Romney's oft-repeated assertion that only reporters ask him about his religious beliefs is "simply is untrue." "Romney is asked about Mormonism wherever he goes," Novak writes. "The consensus is that he must address the Mormon question with a speech deploring bias. According to campaign sources, a speech has been written, though much of it could still be changed. It hasn't been determined when he will deliver a speech that could determine the 2008 political outcome."

After thinking better of attacking Clinton yesterday, McCain ultimately did decide to chastise her for voting against war funding, per ABC's Bret Hovell. "I don't see how you support the troops if you're not willing to fund the mission that they are on," McCain said. He also had this to say yesterday, a day after saying he didn't know if Mormons are Christians: "I'm not an expert on the Mormon religion. I don't know enough about it to make a judgment. Except I respect the Mormon religion and I don't think that the fact that someone is a Mormon, that that should be held against them in any way."

With McCain building his campaign around the war, he's emphasizing the "I told you so" fact that he's "been one of its biggest critics," Wes Allison writes for "But his backing of the overall U.S. mission in Iraq has made it difficult for McCain to differentiate himself from the president. . . . Few senators have done more than McCain to protect the administration's right to maintain the current course in Iraq and to wage war as the president sees fit."

Bloomberg's Edwin Chen sees "signs of a [McCain] rebound in New Hampshire." "At the heart of McCain's strategy is a massive campaign of town-hall meetings and house parties, where he mixes blunt answers and wisecracks -- a blend of gravitas and Groucho Marx," Chen writes. Says McCain: "We're gaining some traction, and we're having a lot of fun."

Here's one way Clinton is staying on top: She's avoiding specifics, which makes it hard to offend anyone, Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Clinton has built an image among Democratic voters as a skilled and experienced leader, propelling her to the top of the opinion polls. But her policy positions are sometimes unclear. In some cases, Clinton has made statements on the campaign trail or cast votes as a senator that put her on different sides of the same issue. At times she has avoided specifics, leaving her options open."

Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix picks apart Clinton's "electability" argument. "There's only one problem with this faith in Clinton's electability: it's wrong. On paper, John Edwards is the party's best chance for a victory, even though his latest fundraising difficulties have made it increasingly unlikely that he will ever be the nominee," Stark writes. "The goal for Edwards, then, is to persuade enough Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire to vote with their heads and not their hearts when the nomination process begins in January."

Edwards may see himself as RFK, but for Obama, it's all the way with JFK. "Until now, those references have been subtle and oblique," writes the Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning. "But this week, the Obama campaign explicitly laid claim to the Kennedy legacy, bringing in the man who provided much of the poetry for Camelot, Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, to vouch for Obama as a worthy heir."

ABC's Charles Gibson kicks off his "Who Is" series with the presidential candidates today with an interview with Bill Richardson. "When I was growing up, I didn't know whether I was an American or a Mexican," Richardson tells Gibson. "I was darker than most kids. They called me 'Poncho.' I was kind of typecast." The interviews will air weekly through December on the "World News" broadcast and Webcast.

The Richardson interview airs the same day that the New Mexico governor delivers a major speech at Georgetown University criticizing his top Democratic rivals for not pledging to remove all US troops out of Iraq. Richardson "will detail a plan today to rebuild American diplomacy while reshaping the U.S. military with 50,000 additional troops and slashing $57 billion annually from Pentagon weapons programs," William Petroski reports in the Des Moines Register.

Biden is set to talk education today in Des Moines, with a proposal to expand guaranteed public education to 16 years -- by tacking on two years of preschool and two years of higher education for all children. "We are losing too many children in this country, wasting too much talent, leaving so much potential untapped," Biden plans to say, per his campaign. (No cost estimate yet, in case you were wondering.)

The battle over the Electoral College in California could be a proxy fight for a pair of titans, per The New York Times' Jennifer Steinhauer and Raymond Hernandez. "Rudy versus Hillary, the West Coast edition -- it's on," they write. "The fight could be a telling prelude to the 2008 presidential contest, with the political instincts and strategies long employed by Mr. Giuliani, a Republican, and Mrs. Clinton, a Democrat, cast in sharp relief."

If you're wondering how Democrats are viewing the veto of the S-CHIP expansion, all you need to know is that they're not going to try to override the veto for two (ad-filled) weeks. "For Democrats, President George W. Bush's veto yesterday of a measure expanding children's health care is a legislative setback -- and a political opportunity," Bloomberg's Laura Litvan and Christopher Stern report. "Even if the ads don't persuade a sufficient number of Republicans to switch their vote, they will continue a drumbeat of criticism on party lawmakers targeted for defeat in the 2008 elections."

The president "sounded a bit uneasy" in explaining his veto, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Carl Hulse write in The New York Times. "My job is a decision-making job, and as a result, I make a lot of decisions," the president said. Stolberg and Hulse: "The veto has the potential to become a hot-button political issue, especially for Republicans in tight re-election races. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already begun radio advertisements and automatic phone calls against eight Republicans in swing districts."

ABC's Jennifer Parker looks at the (sort of) controversy over Rush Limbaugh's comments. "Democrats have pounced on the controversy -- amplified by bloggers, interest groups and news media outlets -- calling on Republicans to condemn Limbaugh's comments," Parker writes. "Democrats are stepping up their public relations game to portray perceived slights against the troops as proof that the GOP and other war-supporters do not care as much as they do about military veterans."

Helen Thomas takes the Democrats to task over their reticence to confront the president over Iraq. "President Bush has no better friends than the spineless Democratic congressional leadership and the party's leading presidential candidates when it comes to his failing Iraq policy," Thomas writes in her Hearst Newspapers column. "These Democrats seem to have forgotten that the American people want U.S. troops out of Iraq, especially since Bush still cannot give a credible reason for attacking Iraq after nearly five years of war."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., today are filing their promised lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee, alleging infringement of voting rights by the DNC's threat to strip Florida of its convention delegates if the Sunshine State holds an early primary.

In the meantime, the "pledge" to avoid Florida actually means something, Beth Reinhard reports in the Miami Herald. "Barack Obama pulled his Florida political director out of the state," Reinhard reports. "Hillary Clinton nixed her brother's appearance at the Weston Democratic Club. John Edwards rebuffed a Fort Lauderdale banquet honoring gay Democratic activists."

And the calendar maneuverings aren't close to over. Here comes South Carolina: "S.C. Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Khare Fowler will ask the Democratic National Committee for permission to move the 2008 presidential primary up 10 days to Jan. 19 to coincide with the S.C. GOP primary," reports The State's Aaron Gould Sheinin. Says Fowler, "This is a South Carolina thing, not a Florida thing." Perhaps, but whatever it is, it's Howard Dean's headache.

The kicker:

"Democrats would raise taxes on people here in Massachusetts anywhere between $3,000 to $4,000 per person." -- Giuliani, campaigning yesterday in Salem, N.H., about four miles from the Massachusetts border.

"Can't get any more Hispanic than that." -- Former senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, boasting of the Central American origins of two of his aides. We know -- he has two aides?

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