It hasn't been fun to be a frontrunner in this year's spate of presidential debates. (Three GOP forums in six days? And we thought "CSI" could use some new plotlines.)
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., looking strong in South Carolina, was enjoying himself Thursday night in Myrtle Beach -- and the reason for his smile is one big factor that suggests he could (unlike all of those around him) keep that title for good.
The crosscurrents and mini-battles in this jam-packed period in the cycle left McCain largely unscathed. Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., shrugged off any signs of slumber and went on the attack -- against former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., his biggest threat in South Carolina. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., apparently knows that he needs to take down McCain (if not in Florida, then before then) but delivered only glancing blows.
The only candidate who sought to engage McCain was former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., who needs Michigan to stay in the race. But Romney suffered the worst fate of all on stage: No longer soaring above the GOP field, he got the Ron Paul treatment -- he was ignored. Even when the topic turned to immigration -- McCain's softest spot -- the Arizona senator seemed in control of his message; he'd heard all of Romney's lines before.
"Largely untouched after 90 minutes, John McCain left the stage here Thursday night with the same designation he had upon arrival: frontrunner," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "No candidate not named 'Mitt Romney' aggressively went after the ascendant McCain, who leads now in polls taken in both Michigan and South Carolina. And with Romney apparently not airing negative ads in Michigan, it appears that McCain, whose vulnerabilities in a GOP primary are well documented, now could go into the next two pivotal primary states largely untouched by his intra-party rivals." http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0108/7838.html
Maybe it was weariness -- the candidates did look debated out. Maybe it was friendliness -- three of his rival candidates would almost certainly be supporting McCain if they weren't running themselves. More likely, it was the candidates being realistic -- taking down McCain won't get them anywhere, not with the jumble of primaries leaving each of them with different (and increasingly difficult) paths to the nomination.
"Two things worked in McCain's favor: the content of the questions asked by the Fox News Channel moderators and the unwillingness of anyone other than former governor Mitt Romney (Mass.) to take a shot at McCain," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes. "Even the five minutes (or so) spent discussing illegal immigration -- a weak spot for McCain -- ended as well as possible for the Arizona senator."
And this intriguing line, from Jim Carlton of The Wall Street Journal: "[Arnold] Schwarzenegger could come out soon in support of Mr. McCain, says a person familiar with the governor's thinking."
On the Democratic side, the post-New Hampshire hangover was interrupted by an endorsement coup: Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was the surprise guest at a rally for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in Charleston, S.C.
And a bigger South Carolina endorsement could be on deck for Obama: Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., perhaps the biggest powerbroker in his state's Democratic Party, and certainly the state's most politically influential African-American voice.
Clyburn is considering jumping off the fence and into Obama's camp, in the wake of "recent remarks by the Clintons that he saw as distorting civil rights history," Carl Hulse reports in The New York Times. "We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics," Clyburn said of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent comments on Martin Luther King, Jr.
And this, regarding former President Clinton's New Hampshire-eve comments: "To call that dream a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us."
As for Kerry, keeping in mind the peculiarly Democratic desire to eat the party's former nominees, this was an endorsement that Obama's chief rivals wanted. Kerry brings Obama "his fat fund-raising Rolodex and foreign policy gravitas," Marcella Bombardieri writes in The Boston Globe.
Said Kerry: "When we choose a president, we are electing judgment and character, not years on this earth."
Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., never had a shot at the endorsement (if he even wanted it). And ABC's Jake Tapper reports that Edwards found out about the decision through the media, not from Kerry himself, in a replay of Al Gore's decision to neglect to tell Joe Lieberman he was going with Howard Dean four years ago. "A source close to Kerry says he had tried to reach Edwards this morning before boarding a flight from Washington, DC, to South Carolina, but 'they didn't connect,' " Tapper writes.
Neither Kerry nor Obama mentioned Clinton in Charleston on Thursday, but Kerry gladly went there in a phone interview with Nevada political guru Jon Ralston. Why not support Clinton? "The times demand different things," Kerry said. "He has been a legislator longer than Hillary Clinton. . . . Health care didn't pass in 1994 if I recall." (He recalls correctly.)
The establishment endorsements may not be done yet: Obama on Thursday also announced the support of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and "aides said about a half-dozen Democrats were likely to lend support to the Obama campaign," Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times. "Governors, members of Congress and other senators also are being heavily courted by Mr. Obama." Said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.: "There have been some conversations, I can say that."
Obama also gets the backing of Ned Lamont, the Senate candidate who beat Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary but lost in the general election. "I am convinced that his forward-looking, progressive vision provides the best chance to enact meaningful reforms in the way Washington works," Lamont writes on his Web site.
And Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., could be next, reports Daniel Scarpinato of the Arizona Star.
ABC's Kate Snow and Jennifer Parker write up the tale of Roy Spence, the quirky ad guru who's now been enlisted to help the Clinton campaign with its messaging. "In the fall, Spence began an intermittent seven-year spiritual/patriotic trek to 'reach out and celebrate the goodness of America,' blogging along the way about the people he meets and places he visits. "My plan is to walk for one month per year, for seven years, or until I've crossed this great country," Spence wrote in a September e-mail to his employees.
Spence spokeswoman Melanie Mahaffey drops this intriguing nugget: "Roy has said Bill or Hillary said they are going to walk with him along the way." But this is just one detail that may delay that stroll: Spence's company in October laid off nearly 120 people, coinciding with "Spence's first installment of his spiritual trek across America," Snow and Parker write.
This is a Clinton campaign that's feeling heady: "A day after the 60,000-member Culinary Union endorsed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president, Clinton walked a northeast Las Vegas neighborhood heavy with Culinary workers and won the support of several," J. Patrick Coolican writes in the Las Vegas Sun.
"Her campaign's message: The endorsement means nothing and Culinary members should follow their conscience and not the order of union Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor. It was a political kick in the shins to Obama and the union, all delivered with the New York senator's trademark wide grin."
It was an "all-new, listening and accessible" Clinton knocking on doors, Jennifer Steinhauer writes in The New York Times. Her events, "clearly intended to tap into Clark County's large Hispanic population, stood in stark contrast to Mrs. Clinton's last visit to Nevada, when she gave a stump speech from a stage far from supporters in a nature preserve and then departed majestically whence she came."
Still, Clinton on Thursday lowered expectations for Nevada -- and critiqued the state's caucus process as she did it. "You have a limited period of time on one day to have your voices heard," she said. "That is troubling to me. You know in a situation of a caucus, people who work during that time -- they're disenfranchised. People who can't be in the state or who are in the military, like the son of the woman who was here who is serving in the Air Force, they cannot be present."
After a stunning victory in New Hampshire, find out why Hillary Clinton is ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.
The Obama campaign is still looking to South Carolina to deliver, Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post. "The defeat in New Hampshire had not appeared to cancel out the subsequent movement toward him in the state, [Obama aides] said, perhaps because Clinton's margin of victory was relatively narrow," they write. "If anything, supporters said, the New Hampshire result had energized some in South Carolina more, because it reminded them that he would not be able to coast to the nomination and would need their help."
At the Republican debate, the site was in South Carolina, but some of the topics -- and the responses -- were straight out of Michigan, which is next up in the nominating process. "The fast approaching January 15 Michigan primary was in the foreground at times," ABC's David Chalian writes in his post-debate wrap. "Gov. Romney sought to paint a rosier picture about the future of Michigan's economy than his chief rival in the Wolverine State, Sen. John McCain."
Romney: "I know that there are some people who think, as Senator McCain did, he said, you know, some jobs have left Michigan that are never coming back. I disagree."
McCain: "One of the reasons why I won in New Hampshire is because I went there and told them the truth."
That exchange is getting big play in Michigan: "By latching onto McCain's proclamation that some of Michigan's lost automotive jobs are gone forever, Romney's camp believes it may have a wedge issue he can use against McCain in Michigan," Charlie Cain writes in the Detroit News. "Or McCain's partisans believe the Arizona senator may have hit on another issue on which he can accuse Romney of stretching the truth."
Todd Spangler of the Detroit Free Press gives McCain credit for honesty: "McCain refused to back down, living up to his reputation for straight talk and saying it's time to think about how to retrain Michigan's workers, and use Detroit's strength in research to solve energy problems of the future."
Thompson tweaked McCain, but his newly aggressive posture probably helped his old friend and colleague more than it hurt him. "Thompson gave himself an opening in South Carolina and gave conservatives a place to jump from the Romney leaking ship," Jennifer Rubin writes on her American Spectator blog. "He may have scuffed up Huckabee sufficiently to allow either himself or McCain to win SC. If the latter he ironically would have done his old friend the greatest of favors."
Thompson unloaded on Huckabee (who seems just slightly less funny on stage as a serious contender). "On the one hand," Thompson said, "you have the Reagan revolution, you have the Reagan coalition of limited government and strong national security. And the other hand, you have the direction that Governor Huckabee would take us in. He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies."
"That's right, Fred Thompson is still running for president, and last night he even acted like he wanted to win," ABC's Jake Tapper said Friday on "Good Morning America."
As for that former frontrunner . . . "It was an odd night for Romney to go invisible and say hardly anything original or inspiring," Dean Barnett writes for The Weekly Standard. "This was Romney's most lackluster debate performance of the entire campaign, and it came at a time when he could least afford it. If the guy who showed up in New Hampshire on Sunday showed up tonight, maybe Romney could have rallied. He still might, but this debate won't be the reason."
The race remains is frustratingly difficult to forecast. "The debate spotlighted the still uncertain state of the race," The Wall Street Journal's Alex Frangos writes. "Mr. Huckabee is under pressure in South Carolina to prove he can rally the same Christian conservative troops who delivered his Iowa win. For Mr. McCain, it is a return to the state that stymied him in 2000, when he lost to George W. Bush."
It's South Carolina and Michigan Friday for the Republican candidates. For the Democrats, Obama is in Nevada, and Clinton talks up her economic plan in City of Commerce, Calif. Get more on the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
More Bloomberg buzz: "The founders of Unity08 -- a bipartisan push to reform presidential elections -- are quitting to launch a national effort to draft Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg for the job," Kirsten Danis writes for the New York Daily News. "Doug Bailey and Gerald Rafshoon plan to announce next week that they're poised to recruit Bloomberg for a White House run if the major parties pander to their extreme wings."
But how long can he play footsie? (See Thompson, Fred.)
"Even before actually entering the contest, Mr. Bloomberg may have already risked losing something: people's patience," Diane Cardwell and Ray Rivera write in The New York Times. Said Maurice Carroll, director of the polling institute at Quinnipiac. "Maybe people are thinking, 'Look, it's such a long shot; why don't you think about what to do about traffic congestion in Bay Ridge?' "
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., exits with class -- and with a promise to stay out of the Democratic primaries. "In a field full of senators, Richardson had hoped his standing as the only governor, and an extensive resume in politics would lead him to the Democratic nomination," ABC's Sarah Amos writes. "Instead, the Richardson campaign was never able to gain the momentum or the financial backing needed to compete with Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards."
A new anti-Huckabee 527 group has popped up in South Carolina, with the Wayne Dumond case its main focus. The self-described "crime victims group said it planned to air a television ad Thursday night throughout South Carolina that blames GOP presidential contender and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for the 1997 prison release of a rapist who then killed and sexually assaulted a Missouri woman," Tim Smith writes for the Greenville News.
It could be South Carolina that offers Huckabee his best chance, powered by an "evangelical flock that is outrunning its leadership in this election," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla and Lorraine Woellert report. "This grassroots movement helped Huckabee win the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, ignoring [Pat] Robertson's support for Giuliani or Bob Jones III's endorsement of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon."
Romney backer Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., lays out the stakes for his candidate: ""If he doesn't win Michigan, it's going to be hard for him to have a chance in South Carolina," DeMint said Thursday. "And if he doesn't win South Carolina, I don't think he's going to win [the GOP nomination]."
McCain is pushing back against an old push poll. "Republican presidential candidate John McCain is using an image of his adopted daughter in a new campaign mailing in the state where push polling involving the girl helped derail his White House bid eight years ago," AP's Jim Davenport reports. "The mailing arrived in homes the same week McCain's campaign announced it was forming a 'Truth Squad' to head off the kind of negative campaigning that dashed his 2000 run against George W. Bush."
Thompson picks up the endorsement of Human Events, the influential conservative Website. "We conclude that Thompson is a solid conservative whose judgment is grounded in our principles," the endorsement reads. "On the issues that matter most to conservatives, Sen. Thompson's positions benefit from their clarity."
Clinton gets some more unsolicited advice from a former Bush aide. "Clinton's biggest message problem is not merely the fact that she finds herself on the wrong side of the change-versus-experience divide," Karen Hughes writes in Time. "Her biggest problem is that the experience she's touting is exactly the experience that many voters want to change. The authoress of the 'vast right-wing conspiracy' charge is not the candidate to bring left and right together and bridge the hyper-partisan divides of Washington. Yet that's the Hillary Clinton that her campaign has been evoking." (Authoress?)
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is picking up on the Internet buzz about voting irregularities in New Hampshire -- and he's calling for a recount. Kucinich cited "serious and credible reports, allegations and rumors" about the integrity of Tuesday results, AP's Stephen Frothingham reports. "Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said Kucinich is entitled to a statewide recount. But, under New Hampshire law, Kucinich will have to pay for it. Scanlan said he had 'every confidence' the results are accurate."
After this wacky 10-day span, McCain is the clear GOP choice in the National Journal "Political Insiders" poll, while Clinton is the overwhelming favorite on the Democratic side.
We're sorry to report, particularly after Thursday night's tremendous entertainment, that NPR has canceled its GOP forum for next Wednesday. Ron Paul can use the evening off to buy a new battery for his hearing aide.
"Be prepared that the next things you see will be the gates of hell." -- Mike Huckabee, in a warning to US adversaries at Thursday's debate.
"I will follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell and I will shoot him with your products." -- John McCain, in October, in the title-holding remark as best gates-of-hell line in the GOP primary.
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