In the grand tradition of choose your own adventure, it's create-your-own-reality time on the trail (and not just when candidates find ways to ask themselves friendly questions):
Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., is trying to make a lobbying group's word worth 10,000 handshakes.
Former president Bill Clinton wants boys to be boys (as long as they don't beat the girls).
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wants to dictate his own turning-point moments.
Former mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y., wants new math where losing Iowa and New Hampshire won't matter (not that he'd mind winning one or the other).
Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., wants the campaign to follow the rules of the corporate boardroom.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., wants us scared out of our wits (or just scared enough to vote for him).
Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., wants to avoid a Question All Candidates Must Answer (and the countdown is on to see how long he holds out).
Surely Edwards knows the drill: You hem and haw and say you expect to win yourself, but yes, of course you will support the Democratic nominee for president. But Edwards wouldn't go there when asked whether he'd support Clinton if she wins the nomination: "I'm not willing to talk about that at this point," Edwards told The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny.
So Edwards (and the other Democrats) will be talking about that on Tuesday, while the Republicans will be talking about a rare piece of welcome news for Thompson. Lagging in the polls and disappointing on the trail, Thompson will be able to boast of a stamp of approval from the National Right to Life Committee.
Thompson came into the race expecting social conservatives to fall into line and has instead seen that happen -- for other campaigns. The new endorsement is "a boost in his efforts to court conservative voters," The New York Times' Marc Santora reports. "The group spurned Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who had sought its support by promoting their anti-abortion stances. The endorsement reflects the allowances many prominent conservative groups are making for candidates who do not fully embrace conservative orthodoxy."
Doesn't he sound elated? "I just think that it would mean that those who look at these matters the most and consider them the most carefully know my record and know me and would be supportive of me," Thompson tells Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson.
Doesn't he sound engaged? "I don't think the poll numbers are low. I think that we're doing fine," he said, per the Des Moines Register's Jonathan Roos.
Doesn't he sound humble? "Not to brag, but I'm the only so-called front tier runner nationwide here that's never lost an election and I don't intend to lose this one either!" he said, per ABC's Christine Byun.
Doesn't he sound like he really, really wants the job? "If the answer is no, so be it," he said, USA Today's Jill Lawrence reports.
Tuesday's endorsements seems to come perhaps 100 days late and $10 million short for Thompson. His campaign remains in desperate search of order, and The Washington Post's Michael Shear profiles the man in charge of making that happen (mostly unsuccessfully): Ken Rietz. "Eight months later, the team that Rietz helped assemble is largely gone. Thompson has had to reinvent his campaign repeatedly, and even his allies have questioned the way it has been run," Shear writes (in a piece that may go down as the first full-scale campaign obit of the cycle).
"What began as a lean, bold, insurgent-style political effort -- conceived by Rietz and the handful of people in what the campaign calls 'The House' -- has morphed into a traditional, big-budget campaign that has so far failed to live up to the hype Rietz helped create last spring," Shear continues. Rietz himself provides a comment that speaks to the campaign's many, many problems: "We talked about the announcement for 30, 40 days." (And don't miss Jeri Thompson micromanaging the ordering of campaign hats.)
Among the Democrats, count another instance of Bill Clinton getting his wife's campaign off message. His remark Monday that Sen. Clinton can handle the criticism from her presidential rivals even though "those boys have been getting tough on her lately" revived talk of the gender card, just as the Clinton campaign realized the strategy was getting them nowhere.
"Clinton advisers said it was simply Southern vernacular from an Arkansas native," The New York Times' Patrick Healy writes. (So you can take the boy of Little Rock -- but eight years in the White House and 15 years in national politics don't teach you that folksy phrases are dissected for subtexts?)
What did the Clinton camp do to prompt an "Official Petition Against Hillary Clinton" on Facebook.com? Only insult Facebook membership writ large.
This passage from Roger Simon's weekend Politico column from the Jefferson Jackson Dinner provides the context: "At least two of Hillary Clinton's upper-echelon advisers, Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn, were decidedly unimpressed [with Obama's showing]. 'Our people look like caucus-goers,' Grunwald said, 'and his people look like they are 18. Penn said they look like Facebook.' Penn added, 'Only a few of their people look like they could vote in any state.' "
We get the point -- caucus-goers are substantially more likely to have AARP cards than zombie applications -- but why disparage a cohort your campaign is trying to attract? "Good strategy: A week after finally setting up your campaign's organization to attract young people, tell them they won't vote anyway so their presence is irrelevant," Peter Erickson writes at TechPresident.com. "You can either dispute the idea that Obama has broad support among young people, or you can reinforce and disparage it, but either way you might want to make up your mind first before opening your mouth."
Obama's campaign on Monday tried to create a post-J-J bump with a David Plouffe memo, saying that the campaign "sparked new momentum on the ground in Iowa." And now his wife is offering some additional commentary: "Black America will wake up and get it," Michelle Obama says in a TV interview set to air today, per Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Why does Clinton come off as cautious and calculating? It's "passion," she tells the AP's Mike Glover (sounding like a job interviewer explaining how her biggest fault is actually a not-so-secret asset). "I see it as harnessing my passion to actually get results and make a difference in people's lives," Clinton said. On her campaign's coaching of questioners: "I think in campaigns things happen and you just go on."
Also on Monday, Clinton called for a "timeout" on new trade agreements if she's elected president -- but her rivals are pointing out that she's letting the clock run down (by supporting the Peru free-trade deal) while in the Senate. Don't miss this sharp retort from the Dodd campaign: "On Saturday, at the Iowa Jefferson Jackson Dinner, Senator Clinton said she stands now where she's always stood. Today she confirmed it: on both sides of every issue."
Back in Republican land, the Giuliani camp chose an early moment to start playing the delegate-math game in public. With Romney leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, Giuliani advisers on Monday detailed a strategy that they said would leave with a "triple-digit" delegate lead in the wake of the Feb. 5 primaries, per ABC's Teddy Davis and Jacqueline Klingebiel. "We are the only candidate on Feb. 5th who has, right now, a large number of delegates that we essentially can count on," said Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager."
They're right about his strength in the big winner-take-all states, but Rudy hasn't yet been subjected to the inevitable attacks, Gerald F. Seib writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "Though the Giuliani and Clinton leads in national polls appear similar, Mr. Giuliani's grip on his party's nominating process is, in fact, less solid, and the tests he is likely to face are more severe," Seib writes. "The base of the party remains Southerners and social conservatives, the same constituencies with which Mr. Giuliani has the most trouble. . . . In addition, Mr. Giuliani hasn't faced real attacks from within his party yet, but they are coming."
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden: "Mayor Giuliani's "momentum-proof" national polling lead, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all walk into a bar… You're right. None of them exist."
Poor John McCain. How's this for a statement on his luck: Someone is spending millions on his behalf -- making him look like an American hero -- and he has to politely (actually, forcefully) decline. "Anyone who believes they could assist my campaign by exploiting a loophole in campaign finance laws is doing me and our country a disservice," McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement Monday, per ABC's Bret Hovell.
McCain is up with a new ad in New Hampshire, taking aim at pork-barrel spending (and bringing back the Woodstock museum, as well as old stock footage with a young McCain walking with Ronald Reagan).
But Tancredo takes the prize for scariest ad of the cycle (and it's going to hard to match him, at least as long as "24" is waylaid by the writers' strike). In the ad, a featureless actor in a hooded sweatshirt leaves a backpack bomb in a shopping mall, ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports. "The price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill," intones the narrator. Then there is an explosion, and the screen cuts to black-and-white lettering: "Tancredo. Before it's too late." Yowsers.
Also in the news:
Politico's pooh-bahs have counted up the votes, and it's 0-for-40 for the Democrats in their attempts to force an end to the Iraq war. "Indeed, the only war legislation passed during this Congress has been to give the president exactly what he wants, and exactly what he has had for the past five years: more money, with no limitations," Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris write.
Any wonder this is going on? "Democrats now worry that their inability to make good on campaign promises to end or slow the war in Iraq will have consequences," Bloomberg's Nicholas Johnston reports. "The disaffection has already fueled at least four anti-war primary challenges to party incumbents, raising fears among some lawmakers of an intra-party fight that could drain momentum before next year's elections."
Sensing opportunity, Freedom's Watch is back with a new print ad on Tuesday, capitalizing on encouraging news out of Iraq. The ad urges members of Congress -- and seven potentially vulnerable Democrats in particular -- to "stop playing politics" and "fund the troops."
The New Republic's Noam Scheiber sorts out the new John Edwards (the one who may or may not support the Democratic nominee), and finds him more like the real John Edwards than last cycle's John Edwards. "In many respects, the conflict-averse moderate of 2003 is more at odds with Edwards's biography than the conflict-seeking populist of late 2007," Schieber writes. "If the candidate's tone these days is heavily inflected with moral outrage, it's a tone he spent 20 years refining as a trial lawyer."
At the very least, Edwards is in a rush, The New York Times' Christine Hauser reports. "Lagging in national polls less than two months before the Iowa caucus, Mr. Edwards is a man racing against the clock, hammering out miles over long stretches of countryside," Hauser writes. "The campaign is banking on Mr. Edwards to win over voters and caucusgoers in person, giving the campaign a focus that has sharpened in recent weeks as he tries to convince them he is the best choice for the Democratic presidential nomination."
Edwards is launching a new ad on Tuesday in Iowa, where he promises to submit a bill that would end healthcare for members of Congress and top executive branch officials if universal health coverage isn't passed within six months of his taking office. (We look forward to that subcommittee mark-up).
The Washington Post's Peter Slevin writes up Obama's early political career -- and finds little that would prepare him for the fight against the Clinton machine. "One of the singular aspects of Obama's rapid political rise is that he accomplished it without becoming controversial, without being bloodied -- indeed, with hardly a scratch, even in rough-and-tumble Chicago," Slevin writes. "He cut a path largely independent of the Democratic machine, its ward bosses and its Byzantine rules of succession."
The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos wonders if Democrats are wondering if Obama is up to the task ahead of him. "No candidate in recent memory has embodied the deepest hopes of so many Democrats. Yet it's hard for some to watch the Illinois senator without also thinking of their fears -- the fear, frankly, that Obama is too vulnerable to Republican attacks to be a safe choice for his party's nomination."
Obama is making the promise: No planted questions at his events. "You'll have to ask her to defend the practices they've engaged in," he said Monday, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. And there's this: "Despite the egging on of the national press -- I'm not interested kneecapping Hillary Clinton."
The Boston Globe's Michael Levenson looks at the business-like approach Romney is bringing to his campaign -- and he's playing by the rulebook. "Romney's disciplined approach stands as one of the biggest contrasts with his main rivals for the Republican nomination, all of whom are campaigning more as charismatic figures than as methodical politicians seeking to lock up various constituencies," he writes. This from Paul Weyrich: "I think he's thought through where he thinks he can win, how he thinks he can win, and what he's going to do about it. . . . Most of the other candidates don't really have a clue."
The Los Angeles Times' James Rainey looks at Romney's complicated relationship with what was once his proudest legislative accomplishment: Massachusetts' universal healthcare law. "Romney finds his most renowned legislative accomplishment to be, at best, a mixed blessing," Rainey writes. "Nonpartisan analysts continue to celebrate the state's healthcare reform, but liberals and even some business allies from Massachusetts criticize Romney for not embracing it more wholeheartedly. Conservatives, meanwhile, attack him for too readily adopting what they call the sort of big-government solution typical in this famously Democratic state."
ABC's Marcus Baram looks at the possibility of Clinton vs. Giuliani -- the battle that never quite was back in 2000. "Just like in the movies, this time the combatants are bigger and stronger," he writes. "Compared to their iconic status today, the 2000-era Clinton and Giuliani had significant weaknesses. At the time, Clinton was an untested quantity, pitied by many for her role as the dutiful wife forced to endure her husband's infidelity, and reviled by many conservatives. Giuliani was a lame duck mayor whose greatest achievements -- slashing the crime rate and taming New York -- were behind him, and New Yorkers had grown tired of his ornery nature and were ready for a change."
The task is getting tougher for the "Draft Gore" crowd. The former veep "will become a leading Bay Area venture capitalist," per the San Francisco Chronicle's Zachary Coile. "Gore announced today he would join Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, one of Silicon Valley's oldest and most prestigious venture capital firms, as partner heading up their climate change solutions group."
"It's the height of irony that the founder, excuse me, the father of McCain-Feingold, would now have supporters -- now he's saying he has nothing do with that, he doesn't want them to do it -- but nonetheless his supporters have put together this [ad]." -- Romney, showing the love to McCain.
"That's interesting coming from an individual who once supported public financing for political campaigns and of course like every other issue switched his position. I find it amusing." -- McCain, returning the affection.