Five questions worth pondering as we brace ourselves for Fred Thompson's 2012 campaign:
1. What better things could Mitt Romney be doing with his fortune, if he wasn't currently in the business of buying gold medals? (A new vacation home, or three? A bigger lawn? Maybe a joke book with a copyright date later than 1977?)
2. Did Fred Thompson actually succeed in getting out of the race with less noise than he made back when he was in it? (He made it official with 45 words, delivered by e-mail -- and only one of those words was "Jeri.")
3. Can Camp Clinton make Tony Rezko into a household name in time for the South Carolina primary? (Probably not -- but there's always Feb. 5.)
4. If John Edwards stays in the race all way to the convention, will anyone want to hear him speak? (Here's guessing he's one grown-up who will be particularly popular if this thing really comes down to delegates.)
5. Who would you take in a dance off -- Barack Obama or Bill Clinton? (And would grading on a curve really make a difference, Mr. President?)
Obama, D-Ill., has set a time and a place for the dancing competition: "We'll certainly invite him to the inauguration party -- we can see there," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday.
They may or may not be dancing in the run-up to Saturday's South Carolina primary, but Obama facing down the former president in South Carolina makes for intriguing Kabuki this week.
Whether or not you consider Clinton the first black president, Obama really is the first serious candidate who is actually, physically black. Their showdown comes in the first state where a significant number of black voters will vote in a Democratic primary.
And the race will be about race without race ever being explicitly mentioned (unless someone royally and totally screws up.)
There is no longer any hesitancy inside Camp Clinton about deploying Bill Clinton as surrogate-in-chief, as he fills in for his wife in South Carolina. Even when he's bad, he's good. When he's off-message, he's on-message. When he speaks, cameras whirl and people listen.
He is mystical whirlwind of a political force -- you can't control him, but neither would you want to.
"He often sounds as if he's campaigning for a third term," Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post.
"Here in Aiken, he tried mightily to talk about Hillary, but he kept lapsing into the first person: 'My position on that is simple. . . . When I was in law school. . . . When I was president. . . . When I was governor of Arkansas. . . . When I started this schools program. . . . I made the governor of South Carolina secretary of education. . . . I got a Mercury mini-SUV."
"This campaign is not really about the candidates," he told his supporters in Aiken. "It's about you." But Milbank calls that "false modesty. Everybody knows the election is really about him."
Obama is pushing back with a "truth squad" -- lest you think such things could wait until a general election. Members will be following Bill Clinton around, correcting the record. "I know he loves his wife, but we hope he loves his country, too," Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party and an Obama supporter, tells The State's Wayne Washington.
Obama doesn't have an ex-president, but he does have an ex-nominee who appears ready to defend him. "The truth matters, but how you fight the lies matters even more," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., writes in an e-mail message to Obama supporters.
"We must be determined never again to lose any election to a lie."
Per the Washington Times' Christina Bellantoni, "The message does not mention Mrs. Clinton, but notes the anonymous e-mails that are circulating that question Mr. Obama's Christian faith and said, 'We're fighting back.' "
Kerry aides insist that this is about right-wing smears -- not anything that's coming from the Clintons. But what a coincidence . . .
Bill's non-stop presence in the state lets the Clintons have South Carolina both ways. "Not making a real effort here allows her to discount an Obama win as uncontested, and hence less meaningful," Time's Jay Newton-Small reports.
"But by leaving the state to her husband, who won two presidential contests here, she makes it impossible for Obama to relax or focus his energies elsewhere. This week in South Carolina Obama is essentially running against the former President, and he knows it."
Look who's enjoying himself: "I know you think it's crazy, but I kind of like to see Barack and Hillary fight," Bill Clinton said on the trail in South Carolina, Geoff Earle reports in the New York Post.
"They're flesh-and-blood people and they have their differences -- let them have it."
Obama is raising questions of his own, suggesting that Clinton isn't serious about South Carolina -- and that she's too polarizing to get elected. "I think the South Carolina voters will have to make an assessment in terms of how seriously she's taking the state," Obama told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.
"She said last night that Bill Clinton wasn't the one running for President, but this is the next primary and he's the one who's staying behind."
And this: "I have no doubt that once the nomination contest is over, I will get the people who voted for her. Now the question is can she get the people who voted for me?" he tells.
But the most telling exchange of the day may have come on a rope line, when The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny asked what should have been a softball for Obama to answer: "Are you allowing President Clinton to get in your head?" Per ABC's Sunlen Miller, "it took Obama three tries to answer the question, in what turned into a testy exchange."
Obama shot back: "I am trying to make sure that his statements by him are answered. Don't you think that's important?"
On "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, Obama said he hasn't been looking for a fight with either Clinton. "I am sure that there are going to be disagreements on policy. My hope is what we stop is some of the sort of presentations of each others' records that may not be accurate," he said.
"The only thing I want to make sure is that when he goes after me, he goes after me on the basis of facts and policy differences, and stuff isn't just made up."
And he -- again -- addressed his past ties to Tony Rezko: "We have returned any money that we know was associated to Mr. Rezko. . . . Nobody had any indications that he was engaging in wrongdoing," he said. "In terms of appearances . . . I should not have entered into any kind of agreement with him."
At a morning press conference on Tuesday, Sen. Clinton had Obama where she wanted him. She called him "very frustrated," and "looking for a fight," per ABC's Eloise Harper, Sunlen Miller, and Kate Snow.
Clinton added: "What you say matters. What you do matters. And it is clear that this is a difficult subject area for Sen. Obama."
She didn't break any new Rezko ground hersekf -- but she didn't have to. Her mention of "slum landlord" Rezko in Monday's debate guaranteed a fresh round of media scrutiny of Obama and his one-time political patron.
None of these are stories Obamaland wanted out there in the crucial weeks of the nomination fight:
"A plainly embarrassed Obama has been sending the campaign money to charity in an effort to distance himself from the Chicago businessman, including $41,000 over the weekend," the AP's Mike Robinson writes in recapping the case.
"The former state legislator and first-term U.S. senator seemingly missed plentiful warning signs that Rezko was headed for trouble with the law."
"Beyond the heated sound bites is a story of a more complex relationship that long boosted Obama's political fortunes but now could prove a campaign liability," Bob Secter, David Jackson and Ray Gibson write in the Chicago Tribune. "For years after Rezko befriended Obama in the early 1990s, he helped bankroll the politician's campaigns. Then, after Obama's election to the U.S. Senate, Rezko engaged him in private financial deals to improve their adjoining South Side properties."
"A review by the Los Angeles Times shows that Rezko, a businessman long active in Chicago politics, played a deeper role in Obama's political and financial biography than the candidate has acknowledged," Dan Morain and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times.
"For example, Rezko, his employees and business associates -- such as his consultants, lawyers and their families -- have provided Obama more than $200,000 in donations since 1995, helping fuel his rapid ascent in Illinois and U.S. politics."
"There are indications that Clinton and her allies will continue to press Obama on Rezko, especially as the Feb. 5 votes are looming in 22 states and Rezko's trial is near," Lynn Sweet reports in the Chicago Sun-Times.
"Meanwhile, Rezko hovers as an issue for Obama if he gets the nomination."
Back on the trail, Obama gets the backing of The State, South Carolina's most influential newspaper: "The restoration of the Clintons to the White House would trigger a new wave of all-out political warfare," the editorial reads.
"In a time of great partisanship, [Obama] is careful to talk about winning over independents and even Republicans. He is harsh on the failures of the current administration -- and most of that critique well-deserved. But he doesn't use his considerable rhetorical gifts to demonize Republicans."
Part of what makes this road tough for Obama is that Clinton is already working aggressively in Feb. 5 states, complete with a new ad buy.
Anne Kornblut and Shailagh Murray of The Washington Post check out the Clinton operation in Salinas, Calif., where she picked up the endorsements of the United Farm Workers.
"The next Democratic presidential nominating contest will take place in South Carolina on Saturday, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has already turned her full attention to places such as this: delegate-rich pockets of states that will vote in a tidal wave of primaries two weeks from now," Kornblut and Murray write.
"She hopes to sweep the entire state of California, and polls have shown her doing well statewide, but it is just as critical that she pick up the five delegates that come with the Salinas area."
Such tactics matter, since it's nearly impossible for Feb. 5 to deliver any candidate all the delegates he or she would need to sew up the nomination. "If your political GPS tells you we're well beyond the battle for early state momentum, it's dead on," ABC's Karen Travers writes.
"Welcome to the world of delegates. Banish any thought of Super Tuesday resembling a general election battle for states. Unlike November's winner-take-all system of electoral votes, Super Tuesday, the Feb. 5 nationwide battle for delegates, is largely proportional and allows multiple candidates within each party to win large swaths of delegates."
That's the reality that Edwards, D-N.C., hopes will keep him in the mix -- that and the fact that he was the guy who wasn't fighting on stage Monday night. He won't like these first two words, but this is not a terrible sentence for him: "Long-shot Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards sought here Tuesday to portray himself as the voice of reason between what he called the self-absorbed candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama," Dan Hoover writes in the Greenville News.
"John Edwards insisted that he's the only 'grown-up' in the Democratic presidential race," McClatchy's David Lightman and William Douglas report.
And this grown-up doesn't want to go home yet. An Edwards aide tells The Note that the campaign is having a high-level meeting on Wednesday to plot Feb. 5 strategy, with targets including California (by far the most delegate-rich state), Oklahoma, Kansas, North Dakota, Missouri, and Tennessee. It's either pick up enough delegates to play kingmaker, or hope the dynamics change sufficiently for Edwards to get back in the game.
Senior Edwards adviser Joe Trippi sent around an e-mail fundraising appeal on Wednesday, again building up John McCain in making the case for Edwards:
"I just finished talking with John -- and he's committed to going all the way to the Democratic Convention, taking the nomination and then on to the White House," Trippi writes.
"We're going to win delegates in South Carolina -- and we're going to win delegates in other critical states on February 5. And with John McCain emerging as the likely nominee for the Republicans, it's becoming clear there is only one Democratic candidate who can win against him in November -- and that is John Edwards."
We know the nominee won't be Thompson, R-Tenn. The short, strange trip that was the Thompson campaign sputtered to an end on Tuesday, in a brief campaign press release. It will be a campaign that will be remembered for going nowhere, slowly, with its high point almost certainly the (very late) day he got in the race.
Thompson Adviser Rich Galen tells ABC's Christine Byun that it was as early as Saturday midday when Thompson acknowledged that his campaign "might well be drawing to an end," as disappointing reports from polling sites in South Carolina starting trickling in.
"When Fred Thompson said that he wasn't driven to win, that also means that he wasn't going to fall off the Wilson bridge, if he lost," said Galen. "It just didn't work out. I think he probably is fully at ease with this."
Does his exit have any impact at all? If he endorses anyone, the most obvious choice would his longtime friend, John McCain, but that may not come -- and may not matter. "It's not clear what if any value would come from a Thompson endorsement -- should he choose to proffer one," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes.
"The arc of Thompson's campaign has been almost straight downward since he floated the idea of running for president last spring."
With the Republicans taking in some sunshine, nobody has more to lose -- or gain -- than former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y. He tells ABC's Jake Tapper that his current campaign strategy doesn't look far beyond Florida: "The reality is, we need to win in Florida and we're going to work really hard to get one [victory]." Write Tapper and Katie Hinman, "The campaign strategy was a bold call, and if it works, Giuliani will be vaulted to the front of the pack going into Super Duper Tuesday one week later. If it doesn't work, then he may spend the rest of the campaign waking up in the city that doesn't sleep."
Suddenly, Romney's wallet looks like the single biggest advantage that any candidate of either party enjoys. "Rudy Giuliani and John McCain parked their Florida bus tours Tuesday and zipped to New York for quick cash infusions. Mike Huckabee seriously cut back expenses and travel into Florida and said he couldn't compete in the ad wars. Fred Thompson is nowhere. He quit," write Lesley Clark, Tere Figueras Negrete, and Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald.
"And Mitt Romney? The millionaire businessman, who has plowed at least $17 million of his own cash into his campaign, stayed on the ground in Florida," they write. "He went up with yet another television ad. Now, he's pitching his business skills as what's needed to repair a slumping economy."
Romney is pleased with his political positioning in Florida, The Boston Globe's Brian Mooney reports. "The economy is changing the political terrain of the Sunshine State, according to veteran GOP political operatives who believe that could help Mitt Romney in a crowded primary field where each candidate has some claim to the state's diverse constituencies," Mooney writes.
"With its primary open only to registered Republicans, Fred Thompson out of the race, and Mike Huckabee pulling back, Florida may be Romney's best chance to prevent John McCain from breaking away before Feb. 5, a virtual national primary with contests in 21 states," Mooney continues.
Writes John Kennedy of the Orlando Sentinel: "With a week to go before the Jan.29 Florida primary, Romney has a message he hopes is suddenly melding with the moment, as reflected by polls that show him surging -- especially among GOP 'conservatives' -- after months spent toward the back of the Republican field."
Huckabee's facing an acute cash crunch -- one of the few things Chuck Norris can't fix. The press plane is gone, and so too are salaries for staff members. The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick: "Mr. Huckabee's campaign risks ending up the first casualty of two changes in the 2008 political landscape: a compressed primary schedule that forces candidates to be ready to compete across the country right away and the decline of the public financing system that used to limit what a candidate could spend in the primary season."
"We need money for TV and operations," Huckabee adviser Ed Rollins tells ABC's Tapper.
On Wednesday, It's Florida for the Republicans, and South Carolina for the Democrats -- except for Hillary Clinton's campaign stop in New Jersey. Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Reality intrudes on the campaign: "The weakened economy and the turmoil in financial markets have helped to cement a gradual shift in emphasis in the presidential campaign to domestic issues from national security, giving the candidates an opportunity on Tuesday to spotlight economic proposals and try to convince voters that they could handle a crisis," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.
Washington is turning to the economy, but Democrats on the trail aren't hearing the talk of bipartisanship that's emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill. "In Washington, as anxious eyes were fixed on the stock markets, President Bush and Democratic leaders settled into a detente yesterday, cautiously moving toward agreement on an economic stimulus package," Jonathan Weisman and Michael Shear reporting in The Washington Post.
"But presidential campaign seasons are not conducive to bipartisanship, and Democratic candidates laid into Bush. Some even questioned why their congressional leaders were sitting down with the man they have made their common enemy."
The new attention on the economy isn't particularly comfortable for Obama. "The shift in focus presents a particular challenge for Obama, whose campaign has been based more on his appeals to national reconciliation and post-ideological pragmatism than on the traditional, bread-and-butter Democratic platform offered by Clinton," Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post.
Republicans aren't crazy about the president's ideas, either. "Republican candidates, including Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, have been cool to the Bush proposal because they object to immediate rebates to taxpayers rather than long-term tax cuts aimed largely at business and stockholders," Martha T. Moore writes in USA Today.
McCain is set to be endorsed by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf on Wednesday, ABC's Ron Claiborne reports.
ABC's Jennifer Parker chronicles the adult children of the candidates -- including YouTube star Sarah Huckabee, stump speaker Cate Edwards, and bloggers Meghan McCain and the five Romney brothers.
Then there's Chelsea: "Today Chelsea Clinton is visiting college students in Charleston, South Carolina -- the state with the next up Democratic primary on Saturday," Parker writes. "The Clinton campaign has dangled the promise of media access to the mysterious former first daughter, offering to let a television network news 'pool' camera follow her around as she canvasses college students. However, as usual, the Clinton campaign has made the ground rules known: Chelsea Clinton does not take questions from the press."
Now Kevin Sheekey's schedule is being probed for signs of a Bloomberg run. Sheekey, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's deputy mayor and political mastermind, "met with groups pushing for a third-party candidate more than a year ago, his schedule shows," Kirsten Danis and Kathleen Lucadomo report in the New York Daily News.
If you didn't stay up last night, you missed television history: David Letterman messing up John Edwards' hair. Transcript courtesy the Hotline blog: "Dave: 'Has it ever been messed up?' (Edwards laughs; Edwards runs his hands through his own hair) 'No, no.' (Dave runs his hands through Edwards hair, really messing it up, and Edwards, laughing, tries to mess up Dave's hair; audience applauds.)"
Admit it, you fell for it too. The subject line in Gov. Bill Richardson's e-mail to supporters: "My endorsement." Inside? "I'm not endorsing any of them -- at least not for now," he writes. Oh but there IS a reason for the e-mail: "There's one last issue I still need your help on before I can officially end my presidential bid. Right now we still have an outstanding debt."
"I don't think he's a rookie. He's served as a senator very capably, and he is very skilled in terms of his ability to organize and lead people. And that's what we need right now." -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to HuffingtonPost's Nico Pitney, grabbing Magic Johnson's rebound.
"Sometimes when you have a family feud it's harder than when you have a feud with someone in a different clan because you have to dig deeper to find where the difference is." -- Bill Clinton, still digging.
"That's Al the Pal.'' -- John McCain, upon learning that his endorsement for former senator Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., was leaked before he got to New York -- presumably by D'Amato himself.
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