Beware the man in the mask. When Sen. Barack Obama lifted up the plastic to reveal his cameo on "Saturday Night Live," the script had him deliver a warning that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had best heed.
"Well, you know, Hillary, I have nothing to hide," Obama said. "I enjoy being myself. I'm not going to change who I am just because it's Halloween."
Obama's nationally televised unmasking came at a time where the nation wants a superhero. And it came at a pivotal moment in the presidential race -- with Clinton trying to lock down her substantial lead, while her rivals mount challenges that encapsulate all the complications of the Clinton years.
The context here is broad and deep. A year before the next president is chosen, voters are fed up -- angry at President Bush, yes, but expressing widespread discontent with leaders of both parties. Bush's approval ratings still hover near his all-time low, and the new ABC News/Washington Post poll also has approval rates for Democratic leaders in Congress at their lowest level since 1995.
"Decade-high discontent marks the political landscape a year before the 2008 election, with economic worries compounding the public's war weariness, deep dissatisfaction with the sitting president -- and growing disapproval of the Democratic-led Congress," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "A clear demand is for change; 75 percent want to see the next president lead the nation in a direction different from Bush's."
Clinton, D-N.Y., wants to provide that change, and the poll shows continued across-the-board dominance for the Democratic frontrunner (on every attribute save "honesty" -- take that how you will). She's still up 49-26 over Obama, D-Ill., and beats all the major Republicans in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups.
But her edge over Obama is 10 points smaller than it was in the last ABC/Washington Post poll (and other than Clinton and Obama, the field is remarkably stagnant.) As Clinton builds to her institutional support (Walter Mondale is the latest former nominee to join her cause) Obama and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., are just starting to hammer home their message that Clinton is the candidate of the status quo.
"She operates within a corrupt system and defends it," Edwards said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos. "She says she will be the agent for change. Well, I just don't think that's going to happen."
As for Obama, he is "walking a fine line when highlighting the differences with Clinton," ABC's Sunlen Miller reports, but the lines he's delivering are almost interchangeable with Edwards': "She's run what Washington would call a 'textbook' campaign," Obama said Saturday in South Carolina. "But the problem is the textbook itself. It's a textbook that's all about winning elections, but says nothing about how to bring the country together to solve problems."
Obama sharpened that argument in an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning: "People's views are set on her. And [with a Clinton nomination] you're going to basically see a repetition of the 2000 and 2004 elections, in the sense that the country's divided and both parties will be working at the margins to tip the election just barely in their favor."
Edwards is stepping up his anti-Clinton rhetoric with a speech today in Iowa City, with Iran and Iraq as his focus. "Senator Clinton is voting like a hawk in Washington, while talking like a dove in Iowa and New Hampshire," he plans to say today in Iowa City, per excerpts released by his campaign. "We have seen this movie before. And it doesn't end well -- in fact, as we all know too well, in Iraq, it hasn't ended at all."
Time's Jay Newton-Small reports that Edwards has seen an uptick in donations in the wake of last week's debate in Philadelphia, "at which Edwards was by most accounts the clear winner." "With just two months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Edwards has a small but definite window to make a move, but it's one he must play very carefully," Newton-Small writes. "Come across as too angry and he'll turn voters off. Not angry enough and he remains in Obama's shadow."
If Edwards has the more forceful message, Obama has the more compelling biography. "In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting," Andrew Sullivan writes in The Atlantic Monthly. "Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America -- finally -- past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us."
"So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future," Sullivan continues. "But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly -- and uncomfortably -- at you."
Front and center for the Obama-Edwards argument is the trove of still-sealed Clinton library documents. "She can release these papers," Obama tells Newsweek. "I think she was being disingenuous. . . . What she can't do is have it both ways. She can't embrace every success of Bill Clinton's presidency and distance herself from every failure of Bill Clinton's presidency."
(Good fodder for Sen. Clinton's pushback in the Chicago Sun-Times today: Lynn Sweet reports that the Obama campaign isn't saying whether or where his records from the state senate are located. Sweet writes: "The records from Obama's office -- if he kept them -- would potentially show appointments with lobbyists, policy memos, meetings, etc.")
Sen. Clinton said at the debate that "all of the records" from her healthcare task force have been released. She was only off by 3 million or so, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff writes. As of last year, "archivists had identified 3,022,030 still-unreleased health-care documents, along with 2,884 e-mails and 1,021 photos covered by [a Freedom of Information Act] request. Archives officials at the Clinton library have yet to process the Judicial Watch request or release the several million pages of task-force documents, including many key internal memos written by Mrs. Clinton and her advisers about how to restructure the health-care industry." http://www.newsweek.com/id/67939
Does anyone think the documents couldn't be seen sooner if Clintons said the word? Watch for Obama and Edwards to complain that the current timeline makes the documents available only after the nomination is likely to be settled. "The Clinton library is readying a trove of detail about Hillary Rodham Clinton's eight years as first lady in the White House for release in late January," Politico's Ben Smith reports. "The documents appear likely to become public within a month of their release by the archives, as the general election heats up in February."
As for the "politics of pile-on," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy have Mondale's former running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, labeling Clinton's chief antagonists "sexist." "John Edwards, specifically, as well as the press, would never attack Barack Obama for two hours the way they attacked her," Ferraro said. "It's O.K. in this country to be sexist. . . . It's certainly not O.K. to be racist." And she's predicting a backlash, in the form of sympathy for Clinton from women: "I have been bombarded by e-mail."
But Clinton isn't getting much other sympathy out of her play of the gender card. "If she wants to run on her record as first lady while keeping the lid on her first lady record, that's only fair for the fairer sex. And if she wants to have it both ways on illegal immigrants getting driver's licenses, then she should, especially if those illegal immigrants are men," Maureen Dowd writes in her Sunday New York Times column. "She should certainly be allowed to play the gender card two ways, or even triangulate it."
Don't miss this blog posting from Edwards supporter Kate Michelman: "When unchallenged, in a comfortable, controlled situation, Senator Clinton embraces her political elevation into the 'boys club.' She is quick to assure listeners she is plenty tough enough, that she's battled tested, ready to play be the same rules as the boys," Michelman writes at OpenLeft.com. "But when she's challenged, when legitimate questions are asked, questions she should be prepared to answer and discuss, she is just as quick to raise the white flag and look for a change in the rules. She then calls questioning, 'attacking;' she calls debate among her peers, 'piling on.' "
Can we call a moratorium on Camp Clinton folks using any combination of the words "officially," "abandoning," and "the politics of hope"? Clinton strategist Mark Penn, in a spinning blog entry: "The bottom line is that the data in the wake of the last debate reveals that Hillary remains strong in the face of these attacks while the other candidates are being viewed in an increasingly negative light. We may be seeing the beginnings of a boomerang effect on Obama and Edwards."
The Democrats have been sucking up the oxygen in recent days, but that may be about to change. Keying off of the ABC/Washington Post poll, the Post's Jon Cohen and Dan Balz write, "For the first time in nearly 30 years, there is no breakaway front-runner for the Republican nomination as the first votes of Campaign 2008 loom. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., is up by 14 points nationally, but his support is soft, "and he has yet to gain momentum among key primary voting groups or to distinguish himself as the best candidate for the party."
As part of his campaign's efforts to reintroduce him, Giuliani is up with a new Web ad to introduce the pre-9/11 Rudy. "Aides to Mr. Giuliani, a Republican, said he would begin a major push this week to introduce the pre-Sept. 11 'Rudy' to voters who might not know his history well, highlighting his time not only as New York City's mayor but also as a federal prosecutor and a Justice Department official," Jim Rutenberg writes in The New York Times. (Minding the Biden critique -- are we sure there really was a pre-9/11 Rudy?)
Still no TV ads from the GOP money leader, but Giuliani has spent $5 million in Iowa and New Hamsphire "quietly trying to sell himself to Iowa and New Hampshire voters as a conservative on fiscal and security matters with an under-the-radar campaign of direct mail and radio ads," the AP's Liz Sidoti reports. "Giuliani has chosen quieter, relatively cheaper avenues to target voters more precisely in both states conservatives who make up a large part of the GOP primary electorate and others his campaign has identified as likely to be persuaded to vote for him."
He's also got a letter out to police and firefighters, where he declares first responders to "have been my heroes since I was a little boy," the New York Post's Carl Campanile reports. Campanile writes: "The letter seeks to counter criticism Giuliani has faced from New York firefighters-union leaders and 9/11 family advocates who accuse the former mayor of doing a poor job of planning for such a disaster.
And former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., could be making more trouble for himself among social conservatives. On "Meet the Press" yesterday, he said that he believes "life begins at conception," but said he wouldn't support a constitutional amendment banning abortion -- which puts him in company with the "pro-choice" Giuliani. "I think people ought to be free at state and local levels to make decisions that even Fred Thompson disagrees with," Thompson said.
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., was quick to pounce: "Sen. Thompson's philosophy seems to be more 'cut and run' when it comes to these issues, rather than stand and lead." Jennifer Rubin blogs on Thompson for the American Spectator: "I'm hard pressed to see how this differs substantially from what Rudy has been saying recently."
There's a principle here that the small-government set can respect in the abstract: Federalism above social conservatism. But this seems emblematic of his troubles in locking down the religious conservative vote. "Is this too much federalism to the point of alienating social conservatives?" writes the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. "The way things are going all he needs now is to buy the gun that shoots him in the foot."
And Thompson is also on the defensive about his close ties to a businessman with a heretofore undisclosed criminal past. Philip Martin, who has been providing Thompson with use of his jet at a discounted rate, has a series of drug convictions from the late 1970s and early 1980s, Matthew Mosk reported in yesterday's Washington Post.
Per ABC's Brian Ross, Asa Eslocker, and Justin Rood, "Police files show Martin was convicted of or pleaded guilty to multiple felonies in the 1970s and 80s and started and folded dozens of businesses in the 1990s. More recently, former investors have been chasing millions they say they are owed by Martin's former companies."
Thompson said he will reassess his relationship with Martin in light of the new information. He also said his recent weight loss is unrelated to his lymphoma diagnosis. "It's not health-related. We've got a diet around our house that was imposed a while back, and basically, you know, if it tastes real good, don't eat it."
Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., grabs Newsweek's cover, as the "billion-dollar wild card." In a long Jon Meacham profile, Kevin Sheekey sees Bloomberg making a decision on a presidential run March 5, a day after the Texas primary is almost certain to settle the nominations. "You have to have opponents the country is basically unhappy with, at a time when the country is basically unhappy," Sheekey says. And this from Sheekey: "This is a billion-dollar campaign." Then, catching himself: "If it happens, it's a billion-dollar campaign."
Also in the news:
With the support of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Michael Mukasey is back on his glide path toward confirmation as attorney general. That marks another frustration for the Democrats' liberal base, as Democratic congressional leaders "struggle to make headway on its national-security agenda, despite President Bush's unpopularity," Evan Perez and Jackie Calmes report in The Wall Street Journal.
"On questions such as Mr. Mukasey's stance on waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the war in Iraq, Democrats have been stymied by Republicans in Congress and the White House," Perez and Calmes write. "That has sparked frustration among supporters, especially those on the left, who anticipated that last year's congressional takeover would force some policy changes."
And even when Democrats want to work with the president, that's not working out either: The partnership between President Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to reauthorize No Child Left Behind has broken down, The Washington Post's Peter Baker reports. "This was supposed to be the one area where the embattled White House and the assertive new Democratic Congress would find common ground, thanks to the unlikely partnership between a Texas conservative and a Massachusetts liberal," Baker writes. "But like the rest of Bush's legislative agenda, No Child Left Behind has fallen victim to political deadlock, leaving a weakened president struggling to salvage perhaps his most important domestic achievement with the help of one of his toughest critics.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is supporting Mukasey, but he is making his opposition to torture an issue in the GOP race. Asked about waterboarding by ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg, McCain said: "I notice that Mayor Giuliani in particular, and others who are seeking the nomination of the Republican party, speak favorably of this horrible technique, which is a violation of Geneva conventions and law, and that's what lack of experience in war is all about."
The New Republic's Noam Scheiber profiles Joe Trippi, who is quickly becoming as associated with the Edwards campaign as he was with Howard Dean's (read those consequences however you like). "Trippi's way of framing campaigns is almost a perfect extension of his personality," Scheiber writes. "The Dean campaign delighted in attacking the Democratic establishment. Trippi quickly honed Edwards's message along the same lines, which meant turning fire on Hillary Clinton."
Edwards loves picking up those labor endorsements, but his backing by the SEIU in New Hampshire may not last. "Edwards was caught in a crossfire last week between SEA leaders and dissidents who argued that Barack Obama was the executive board's real choice," the Union Leader's Tom Fahey reports. "It will take some slick parliamentary maneuvering for SEA President Gary Smith to block a discussion of this mess when the union's convention resumes Nov. 17."
As for the issue that got Clinton into so much trouble at last week's debate, it looks like the rare area where Edwards has moved rightward since 2004. On "This Week," he acknowledged supporting driver's licenses for illegal immigrants in 2004, and said he remains concerned about "the dangers on the road" posed by unlicensed drivers. "But that fits in the bigger context of, what are we going to do about the big issue about immigration, legal immigration, immigration reform," he said. So he opposes Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan. (That clear?)
The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish looks at the changing face of New Hampshire, and its consequences. "In the last seven years, a significant immigrant influx has occurred in neighborhoods of Manchester, Nashua, and a few other places, making key pockets of the state much more diverse," Kranish writes. "The change is particularly noteworthy in a campaign year when one candidate, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, has highlighted the story of his African father, and another, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, has highlighted his Hispanic background."
Bloomberg News' Jonathan Salant looks at the explosion of campaign cash, and its consequences. "The U.S. presidential-campaign financing system spawned by the Watergate scandal is on the verge of collapse, with the death blow delivered by Democrats who long championed controls on political giving," Salant writes. "Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have joined Republicans including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in declining federal subsidies. Instead, they are raising millions from corporate executives and wealthy supporters, threatening to make 2008 the first election since Richard Nixon won his second term in 1972 in which both parties' nominees will have been completely financed by private sources."
Tomorrow is Election Day 2007, and while Republicans picked up the first governorship on the line this year -- with Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., blowing past his opponents last month -- a Democratic pick-up is highly likely in Kentucky, ABC's Tahman Bradley reports Democrat Steve Beshear is favored over incumbent Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher. "If Democrats do end up winning Kentucky's governor's mansion, they may be emboldened to step up their effort against Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2008," Bradley writes.
"That bird could be yours." -- President Bush, to Mayor Bloomberg, referring to Marine One, quoted in Newsweek.
"When I was growing up in Mexico City, the Red Sox didn't exist. The Yankees were the universal team. Mickey Mantle was the hero of kids around the world. It was as if the Yankees were America's team. But when I went to New England, to Middlesex and then to Tufts, I became an ardent Red Sox fan." -- Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., in a Playboy interview, still working on his baseball allegiances.
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