Top Line: Lackluster Candidates, Cash to Bash, and Stephen Colbert

By ABC News

Jan 17, 2012 6:13pm

This week on “Top Line” from ABC News and Yahoo! News, we chatted through why Mitt Romney is skating through the early goings of the Republican primary fight, the Obama money machine and what it means, and how comedian Stephen Colbert is teaching us a serious lesson about campaign finance reform.

THE C-LIST: Even the most seasoned political reporters and pundits have been stunned, shocked or just plain stumped by GOP candidates this year. They miss easy opportunities to score points against their opponents, flub easy talking points, and even seem to change their messaging from hour to hour.

Then, after a particularly flat debate performance in Manchester, New Hampshire last week, it hit me. It’s not that they are doing anything wrong. It’s that we – the media – are expecting too much from them.

Most of these candidates, with the exception of Mitt Romney, have never run a national campaign before. Matched up against “A” GOP players like Govs. Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, most would fall flat. They just don’t have the money, the experience, or the infrastructure that most serious presidential campaigns take for granted.

Instead, most of these candidates running for the GOP nomination are like the “C” team.

CASH FOR BASH: The Obama campaign and the DNC combined raised north of $60 million over the last three months of 2011.  It was another impressive haul for the incumbent, but shy of the pace for the $1 billion campaign Republicans like to conjure.

The president’s political team is preparing to put all that money to use in two important ways.  First and foremost, tear down the GOP nominee as an unacceptable alternative (think Bush vs. Kerry 2004) and reshape the electorate with a massive grassroots effort to get new, young, and minority voters to the polls (think 2008 Obama campaign).

That’s the one-two punch Chicago hopes to deliver to secure the president’s second term.

COLBERT REPORTS: We can stipulate that Stephen Colbert will not be the 45th president of the United States, or even the United States of South Carolina. He won’t even get a single vote, since you’re not allowed to write in candidates in the South Carolina Republican primary.

But the lesson he’s teaching us, on his road through an exploratory committee and a Super PAC he’s handed over to Jon Stewart, is a serious one: This nation has a ridiculous hodgepodge of campaign-finance laws. These ostensibly independent Super PACs (funded by candidates’ top backers, and staffed by their former aides) are dominating the election cycle without any of the accountability that recent reforms were supposed to ensure.

Colbert’s joke is deadly serious, and if we don’t learn from him, the laughter should be directed at our society.

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