It's Getting Hot in Here
I will be a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange tomorrow morning. I will be joining Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute and host Laura Knoy, for a discussion of climate change and the presidential candidates. You can pick up the show live here (lower left) at 9 AM, or listen to it later here.
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The Left Jab Needs Some Work
For anyone tuning into last night’s Democratic presidential debate hoping to see Barack Obama close the gap with Hillary Clinton by aggressively attacking her, it should now be abundantly clear that it is just not going to happen that way. Obama seems genuinely uncomfortable with the task of throwing political punches as a means of drawing sharp distinctions with Clinton. Supporters will no doubt argue that Obama’s cool demeanor will better serve him in the long run, but given the premise recently set by his own campaign, Obama simply did not frame the choice between himself and Hillary Clinton as explicitly as needed.
The Obama campaign will soldier on with its message of change, but it is John Edwards who has, in several debates now, firmly established himself as the candidate most likely to take on a status quo politics embodied by the Clintons and the Bushes. Time and again last night, Edwards defined the choice between himself and Clinton in stark terms, much as I am sure he did for juries during his years as a successful trial lawyer. This style of political engagement may not appeal to some voters, particularly those who prefer Obama’s more measured approach, but it will certainly keep Edwards relevant to the Democratic political discourse into the primaries.
Finally, viewers may have noticed that Hillary Clinton has developed an interesting coping mechanism for dealing with the onslaught of criticism directed at her as the frontrunner. Clinton typically argues that whatever the issue – Iraq, healthcare, taxes – President Bush will leave the problem to his successor, thereby requiring her to carefully gauge the political context for policy change early in her first term, before actually offering any firm recommendations. While there is some logic to this argument, it sometimes leaves Clinton looking evasive at the podium, and may be an increasingly difficult strategy to sustain over time, as she is relentlessly pressed for specifics by her opponents.
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What About John Sununu?
Today’s Concord Monitor covers Senator Judd Gregg’s endorsement of Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. The article correctly notes that this is not a surprising endorsement, especially when viewed in light of Gregg’s close relationship with Romney advisor, Tom Rath.
What does strike me as interesting, however, is the little tidbit in the article mentioning that Senator John Sununu will not be endorsing any Republican presidential candidate in the primaries. It reminds me of the difficult reelection contest that Sununu will face in 2008, against his likely opponent, former Governor Jeanne Shaheen.
With all of the Republican candidates (except Ron Paul) largely supportive of President Bush’s troop surge policy, and given the general unpopularity of the Iraq War in New Hampshire, Sununu likely wants to avoid having a close association with one of these candidates pin him down on the issues in November. It sure would be interesting to know, however, who would be his first pick.
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Democrats to Debate Hillary Clinton
The Democratic candidates will gather tonight in Philadelphia for another presidential debate (9 PM, MSNBC). More than any debate this election cycle, the focus will be on frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Her closest rivals for the nomination, Barack Obama and John Edwards, have made abundantly clear their desire to aggressively engage Clinton on issues like Iraq, Iran and Social Security reform. Any soft-pedaling of their criticism tonight, in light of these recent attacks, would likely be cause for great consternation among their core supporters.
With the current Democratic primary discourse so dominated by daily Clinton-Obama-Edwards exchanges, Bill Richardson has taken a page from Republican Mike Huckabee's playbook, calling for an end to the negativity among the leading Democratic candidates. Whether this will earn Richardson more than a pat on the back at tonight’s debate remains to be seen.
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No More Mr. Nice Guy
A piece in yesterday’s New York Times reveals Barack Obama’s intention to strike harder at Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. The Obama camp hopes that announcing this strategy will reassure nervous donors, who believe that the campaign has stalled, allowing Clinton to solidify her lead in the polls.
Since I was under the impression that Obama had already been hammering Clinton (particularly on Iraq and Iran) for the better part of the past month, I am not sure how this new strategy will differ in practice from what we have already seen.
This type of now the gloves are coming off official campaign re-launch may provide a short-term psychic boost to staff and supporters, but it is also fraught with political peril. Directly engaging a primary opponent like Clinton is smart strategy, but whenever a candidate ratchets up the rhetoric (and announces publicly that he is officially doing so), he runs the risk of sounding shrill, desperate to gain traction, and potentially as polarizing as those he criticizes.
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Is John Edwards Channeling Walter Mondale?
Whenever I hear John Edwards enumerate the impressive array of new domestic programs on tap for his presidency, and his plans for financing them, I am reminded of Vice President Walter Mondale’s 1984 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president. Edwards’ recent visit with the Concord Monitor is no exception. Here is an excerpt, as reported by Lauren Dorgan:
At every stop, Edwards said, he tells voters he'll ask them to sacrifice. Asked to describe what he means, he described his plan for increases in capital gains taxes, saying taxes on "wealth income" should be in line with those on work income.   "I think if we want to fund the things that I think are important to share in prosperity, then people who have done well in this country, including me, have more of a responsibility to give back," he said. Later, he added: "There are no free meals."
Why does this remind me of Walter Mondale? Here is what the former Vice President said in his acceptance speech on July 19, 1984 in San Francisco:
“Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan's bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. And anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth to the American people…Let's tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.”
I remember watching this speech live on television, hearing those lines, and thinking to myself that Mondale had just sealed his fate.
I do not mean to pass judgment here on the intrinsic value of Edwards’ policy proposals. But in so closely linking his policy agenda with tax increases, he is setting up a Herculean task for himself, as the potential Democratic nominee. If his campaign thinks that Republicans will not remember come this November, I encourage them to do a simple web search with the phrases “John Edwards” and “tax increase.”
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The Clinton Leadership Dilemma
Today’s New York Times runs a “presidential style” piece on Hillary Clinton. In an article that otherwise feeds into the conventional wisdom that Clinton is a calculating and methodical, process-oriented manager, reporter Mark Leibovich drops one very interesting nugget from Senator Clinton into the profile:
“My husband has extraordinary leadership ability,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview. “But he was also not as interested in the day-to-day management. He was much more focused on our goals and objectives: how you do the politics, how you do the persuasion. I’m trying to meld leadership and management in a way that really suits me.”
The issue of how to strike an appropriate balance between inspirational leadership and effective management is one that has vexed presidential candidates for decades. Michael Dukakis’ inability to transcend a technocratic governing style is often cited as a chief reason for his failed presidential bid in 1988. Yet, a central criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy (from both Republican and Democratic candidates) is an ongoing lack of managerial competence.
This raises a difficult challenge for candidates. While voters often profess a desire for more efficient stewardship of our government, candidates know that these same citizens can be genuinely moved in the voting booth by the visceral power of leadership. So, when I hear presidential candidates talk about their managerial credentials (as virtually all of them have), I think of the late political scientist Richard Neustadt, and his famous dictum that presidential power is the power to persuade. As a student of politics, Bill Clinton clearly learned this lesson.
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Catch My Drift?
The Concord Monitor runs an interesting piece today on the extent to which Governor Bill Richardson’s position on the Iraq War has shifted dramatically to the left. In recent months, Richardson has been a vocal proponent of immediate withdrawal from Iraq, but here is what he had to say on the subject in his 2005 memoir, Between Worlds:
"We must see this mission through...We mustn't stay in Iraq past the point where the new government asks us to leave, but neither can we unilaterally pull out before the Iraqis have achieved control over their own internal security. We owe them the opportunity to make their democracy work."
Is this a case of one typically moderate DLC’er trying to outflank another on the left for electoral gain, or does it represent a natural evolution of Richardson’s thinking on Iraq?  Dante Scala (in the article) gives Richardson the benefit of the doubt. I am inclined to believe that Richardson’s view on the war has evolved in response to events on the ground, but that it is also not likely lost on his campaign that this recent strong opposition on Iraq has bought Richardson some much needed traction with Democratic primary voters, especially as Hillary Clinton drifts back to the center on the war.
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To Shrink the Presidency
Take a look across presidential history, particularly during wartime, and you will see that both Republican and Democratic presidents have a tendency to expand their institutional power at the expense of the other branches of government. This authority, once accrued by the president, is rarely, if ever, returned to the collective judgment of Congress at some later date.
President Bush has certainly been no exception to this rule, expanding the executive toolkit at his disposal for foreign policy and homeland security, while sometimes testing the limits of his constitutional authority in the process.
In a recent interview, however, Hillary Clinton suggested that she would be willing to relinquish some of this power as president, although she was not explicit about what exactly she has in mind, nor did she say whether such a move would be contingent upon Democratic control of Congress.  While this is an intriguing possibility, history also tells us that Clinton would not be the first candidate to find, once in office, that the institutional powers of the presidency actually feel...just about right.
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Fred Thompson, We Hardly Knew Ya
If you think that Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson has been missing from the campaign trail in New Hampshire, you are not mistaken. As The Hill reports today, Thompson will likely send a surrogate to file his candidacy papers in Concord, rather than partake of the tradition, himself. This speaks to the larger issue of whether the Thompson campaign has essentially decided to forgo competing in New Hampshire, in favor of a strategy that focuses on South Carolina, Florida, and beyond.
Although this may be frustrating for curious New Hampshire Republicans, given the brand of social conservatism on which Thompson is building his platform, and the preexisting blueprint for such a strategy from President Bush’s 2000 campaign, this may be a plausible approach for Thompson, provided he can keep himself even moderately relevant in at least one of the other early states.
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Now That's Retail Politics!
Here is John McCain in classic form on the campaign trail. As reported in today’s Concord Monitor, note how McCain tailors his message to fit his constituency at a New Hampshire arms manufacturer:
During a talk with more than 100 of the company's employees, the Republican presidential candidate promised to "bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell and shoot him with one of your products." The line got a big round of applause.
Now that is connecting with your audience.
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John Edwards is Trippin' Out
I have often commented that, this time around, John Edward’s retooled populism has been an uneasy fit for New Hampshire’s political culture and economic climate. Today’s Washington Post has an interesting piece detailing the extent to which former Howard Dean strategist, Joe Trippi is playing an increasingly pivotal role in shaping Edwards’ aggressive, populist message on the stump.
Trippi received great praise in Democratic circles for his innovative use of the internet as a political mobilization tool in 2004, but he was much less successful in also helping Dean shape a political message that would resonate beyond antiwar activists on the left.
So, while Edwards is smart to directly engage Hillary Clinton, there are real limitations to the impact he can have with a recast, Howard Dean-style message of angry populism. Such a Trippi-inspired approach might help Edwards with some Democratic activists in Iowa (although Dean lost there, too), but it is not likely to help him with many voters here in New Hampshire.
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You Gotta Believe!
The Boston Globe’s James Pindell gets Chris Dodd to reveal his path to the Democratic presidential nomination…a fourth place finish in Iowa. Here is what Pindell tells us over at The Primary Source:
As for his presidential campaign, Dodd said he does [have] a chance to be the nominee. Under his calculation the three top-tier candidates have to win Iowa, but only one can. So besides the winner the second big story of the night is the candidate who comes in fourth, something he is vying to be.  Dodd says that without doing well in Iowa he can't be a player in New Hampshire and beyond.
Chris Dodd has been a passionate campaigner throughout this presidential cycle, and he appears to genuinely appreciate the importance of retail politics to New Hampshire’s political traditions. But it is not clear to me that New Hampshire voters will see a fourth place finish in Iowa as evidence of newfound viability. This logic (and Dodd is not the first to float it) suggests that the second and third place campaigns in Iowa will be so devastated, that they will no longer be competitive in New Hampshire, leaving the fourth place finisher as the chief rival to the frontrunner.
Although it is possible that a failure to win in Iowa may hamstring one of the top three campaigns, it is much less likely that both the second and third place finishers would be undone, making one of those candidates, rather than Dodd in fourth, the likely alternative to the frontrunner.
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Republicans Look for the Orlando Magic
It seems like just yesterday that I was writing about the Republican presidential debate in Dearborn, Michigan. Well, actually it was ten days ago, but time flies when you are watching the leading candidates brawl for the title of “true conservative.”  The Republican candidates, now without Sam Brownback, gathered in Orlando, Florida yesterday to continue mixing it up.  Direct attacks among the leading candidates were interspersed with occasional pauses to pummel Hillary Clinton, in absentia.
Regardless of whether this is really the debate that American voters want the Republican candidates to have, it is the one they seem intent on having now, despite the potential pitfalls for November 2008.  Mike Huckabee attempted to remain above the fray, but one still wonders whether this strategy, combined with the good press he has received recently, will help him edge up in the polls a few notches.
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Still Takin' the Show on the Road

As previously mentioned, for those of you looking for a good weekend dose of politics, I will be participating in an open forum on the New Hampshire primary tomorrow at 10 AM at Colby-Sawyer College in New London.  I will be joined at the forum by New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and NHPR Executive Editor Jon Greenberg. The event, sponsored by the Adventures in Learning program at Colby-Sawyer College, is free and open to the public.  You can read more about the forum here. I hope that you can join us.

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David Brooks Leaf-Peeps Mike Huckabee
In an earlier post, I puzzled over why former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, despite his second place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll in August, was not getting more traction as a potential conservative standard-bearer in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. In today’s New York Times, David Brooks (writing from Rindge) amplifies the case for Huckabee’s inclusion in the first tier of Republican presidential candidates.
This is especially fitting, given that Kansas Senator Sam Brownback is expected to end his bid for the Republican nomination later today. I have often noted that, in the implicit head-to-head match-up between these two social conservatives, Huckabee has largely eclipsed Brownback as the more viable candidate. Despite his distinctive brand of compassionate conservatism, and his bipartisan proposal (with Joe Biden) for a federal solution in Iraq, Brownback always seemed lost somewhere in the large and aggressive field of Republican competitors.
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Same Country, Different Worlds
In case you were unable to catch the two Exchange shows this week, I recently completed an in-depth look at Democratic and Republican presidential candidate positions on the Iraq War. For me, the exercise underscored the starkness of the choice that American voters will face at the polls in November 2008. While these two political parties share responsibility for the governance of our country, their competing interpretations of the Iraq War evince divergent worldviews with real implications for stability in the region and for American foreign policy, in general. At the necessary risk of simplifying these competing narratives a bit, here is my take on the two groups of candidates:
In general, Democratic candidates claim that the Iraq War has been a misadventure, distracting us from fully engaging Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and resulting in a dangerous drain on our precious human and financial capital. While they credit (sometimes grudgingly) the surge for reducing the level of daily violence in Iraq, Democrats see the central government’s failure thus far to secure national reconciliation in its path, as a critical sign that the policy has not worked as intended. Their foreign policy focus going forward is on the process of disentangling the United States from the engagement.
In contrast, Republican candidates (excluding Ron Paul) argue that Iraq, a former state sponsor of terrorism, is one front in a broader global war on terror that increasingly identifies a nuclear Iran as the focal point of this battle. While they are equally critical of Iraq’s national government, Republicans are optimistic that the surge is creating a genuine opportunity for the country to take its next steps toward stability and democratic governance, provided that the process is not short-circuited by Democratic timetables for withdrawal. In the meantime, they are increasingly turning their foreign policy attention to Iran.
So, voters will be left to sift through these competing partisan narratives, perhaps weighing the available options in light of their own ideological prejudices, but also no doubt motivated by a genuine desire to leave neither a humanitarian crisis, nor a destabilized region, in the wake of whatever comes next.
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Ron Paul, Ron Paul
In an earlier post, I considered several scenarios for strategic behavior by New Hampshire’s large block of independent (undeclared) voters. These voters can select a ballot for either presidential contest on primary day.
Among the possibilities discussed, was a scenario in which Democratic-leaning independents, expecting a Clinton victory and disheartened by John McCain’s position on Iraq, choose to vote for Ron Paul. They do so, both as a means of voting for their preferred non-Democratic (antiwar) candidate, and of sending a broader policy signal on the war to the Republican Party.
Stir in similarly alienated, Republican-leaning independents, and more traditional libertarian Republicans frustrated by the field’s current preoccupation with social conservatism, and Paul could make a substantial statement on primary day in New Hampshire.
Check out this nice visual, detailing the geographical distribution of Paul’s fundraising success.
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And in the Red Trunks
As I watch the leading Republican presidential candidates brawl this week for the title of “true conservative,” it strikes me that the retrospective tenor of this debate cannot be helpful for a Republican party that, to remain viable, needs to define its next act by breaking with much of the party orthodoxy of the past seven years.
E.J. Dionne catches the same vibe in today’s Washington Post, and extends the analysis to the Democratic presidential candidates, as well.
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Which Wing of the Republican Party?
Over the weekend, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney firmly affixed a rhetorical bull’s-eye to his candidacy, by claiming to represent, “the Republican wing of the Republican party.” While some Republican voters may accept Romney’s explanation that his experience in office has transformed him into a more conservative politician, they may find his claim to represent the soul of the party (and the legacy of Ronald Reagan) a bit more problematic.
Of more immediate concern for his campaign, however, is that Romney’s remarks created a timely opportunity for John McCain to raise, once again, charges of ideological inauthenticity against him.
I am not sure why Romney thought it would make good political sense to draw an explicit parallel to Howard Dean’s famous 2004 mantra about his similar place in Democratic politics (borrowed from the late Senator Paul Wellstone), but his campaign no doubt understands that candidate discipline on the stump is essential to any successful presidential bid.
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Twice As Nice
I will be doing a pair of shows this week on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange, dealing with Democratic and Republican presidential candidate views on Iraq.
I will be joining Professor Bill Martel of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and host Laura Knoy, to discuss the Democrats on Tuesday (October 16th), and the Republicans on Thursday (October 18th).
You can pick up the live feed here at 9 AM on both days, or you can catch the shows later, archived on the web here and here.
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McCain, Once Again
In an earlier post, I noted that a host of articles have appeared in recent months detailing the ways in which a downsized campaign and love of retail politics have made John McCain a “happy warrior” on the trail. Today’s Concord Monitor offers the latest contribution to this genre.
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Comin' Round Again

I will be back on WMUR-TV's Close Up tomorrow morning (Ch. 9, 10 AM) for a freewheeling discussion of state and national politics.

I will be joining the Nashua Telegraph's Kevin Landrigan, the Boston Globe's James Pindell, and host Tom Griffith (filling in for Scott Spradling) for a look at the latest developments in the Democratic and Republican races for president, the elusive primary calendar, and new approval polls for President Bush and Governor Lynch.

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Whoa Nellie!
I listened to Hillary Clinton’s impressive, hour-long interview on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange yesterday, and what I heard was the sound of her general election cart speeding past its presidential primaries horse. 
The tenor of Clinton’s assessment of her own potential for presidential leadership, and her positions on a range of issues, including Iraq, healthcare, and Michigan’s Democratic primary ballot, neatly underscored Clinton’s newfound comfort with her frontrunner status.
Her campaign must know the danger of eschewing intra-party dialogue in the primaries for a candidacy tailored to the more centrist and incremental preferences of the general electorate. Clinton’s decision to increasingly highlight her ability to work within the current political system, rather than to change it, may not resonate with Democratic primary voters eager for a more substantial recasting of our national politics.
So, in the coming weeks, perhaps Clinton’s staff will help her get that cart back behind its horse.
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The One-Two Punch
I mentioned in a post last week that, in recent months, Hillary Clinton has successfully staked out a centrist position on Iraq that allows her to call for an end to the conflict, while retaining maximum flexibility for how that policy is implemented over time. Well, apparently I am not the only one who has noticed.
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Gore, Once More?
A veteran reporter asked me this morning about what a Nobel Peace Prize might mean for a potential Al Gore presidential run. You may have noticed much speculation on this issue recently, even here in New Hampshire. Substantial fundraising and organizational constraints aside, I see three fundamental issues that make a late Gore bid less than likely:
First, polling has shown repeatedly that Democratic primary voters are quite happy with the candidate choices currently available to them, so there is no disaffected Democratic constituency to naturally coalesce around a Gore candidacy.
Second, there is no discernable issue vacuum in the collective policy platforms of the Democratic candidates that Gore could rush in to fill. While he is still out in-front on climate change, his policy positions on global warming and related environmental issues are no longer the oddity that they once were among presidential candidates.
Third, Gore has built a highly visible and remarkably sturdy international platform for himself, and I am not so sure that he would still be willing to make the sort of political compromises required of any presidential candidate.  But that is a very personal question that only he can answer.
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Facts on File
In yesterday’s assessment of the Republican presidential debate in Dearborn, Michigan, I raised the broader issue of how candidates use canned statistics as a strategic tool for casting their records in the most favorable light.
In the context of a fast-paced, multi-candidate debate, sorting out these competing factual claims becomes an almost impossible task for viewers, leaving one to fall back on spot judgments about how persuasively candidates wield these facts, rather than on the nature of the facts, themselves.
Over at Slate, John Dickerson picks up on this thread, with a critical look at how Rudy Giuliani employs this rhetorical skill, to great effect.
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Bias? What Media Bias?

Gallup has released some very interesting polling data on the stark partisan differences in citizen perception of media bias.  The link comes to you courtesy of a reader.

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New Hampshire's Strategic Voters
In a recent post, I suggested that John McCain might have difficulty assembling a winning coalition in New Hampshire, due to the defection of independent voters on Iraq, and the loss of conservative voters over immigration reform. I received a thoughtful comment in response, from UCLA professor, Lynn Vavreck.  She speculated on what this scenario might mean for the strategic calculus of New Hampshire’s independent voters, who (as registered undeclared) can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary.
Lynn wrote:
If Clinton has the Democratic nomination locked up in NH, the undeclared partisans who you describe above (who lean Democratic this time) may choose to opt out of the Democratic primary (their preferences are realized even if they do not vote) and vote in the Republican primary for the opponent they would prefer second to Hillary if she loses the general. This is a slightly different take on the traditional theory of "strategic voting", in which out-party partisans usually try to hijack the other party's primary to elect the LEAST viable general election opponent. In this case, undeclared partisans are able to ensure their first preference (a Clinton nominee) and avoid maximum regret (a non-McCain Republican president).
As Lynn notes, this is a very interesting twist on the traditional notion of strategic swing voting in the New Hampshire primary. For me, it raises two important issues. First, although Clinton has made inroads into this Democratic-leaning independent constituency, that group is still strongly predisposed to Barack Obama, and it would likely take a resounding Clinton win in Iowa for those voters to consider the New Hampshire primary a lock for her. This does not preclude such strategic voting in the other party primary from occurring, but it certainly muddles this scenario a bit, as some independents may be loathe to defect from Obama at the last minute, under all but the most dire circumstances.
Second, it is no longer clear that McCain would be the likely first Republican choice of these independents, given his closeness to President Bush on Iraq, and the potential for some of these voters to consider Ron Paul instead, both for his opposition to the war and his libertarian position on social issues.
Still, it is a fascinating scenario to consider, and my thanks to Lynn for suggesting it. If you can think of any other interesting strategic voting scenarios, send them in, and I will give them a spin.
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The Dearborn Identity
Yesterday’s Republican presidential debate in Dearborn, Michigan, provided an informative glimpse into the future economic identity of the Republican Party. One could argue that it sounds a lot like the current economic identity of the Republican Party, as leading candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson all touched on familiar Republican themes of lower taxes, fiscal restraint, entitlement reform, and a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned optimism.
There was a fascinating subtext to this economic discourse, however, as several other candidates including, Mike Huckabee (sounding a lot like John Edwards), Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Duncan Hunter provided sharp populist and protectionist counterpoints to those themes, perspectives which, if reflected by sufficient numbers of voters in November, could spell real trouble for the party. John McCain underscored this tension within the party, with his familiar riffs on fiscal irresponsibility, ethics, and voter mistrust.
Thompson’s debut, while not a stellar performance, was certainly solid enough to make him a legitimate contender for the nomination. As I suggested in an earlier post, Thompson spoke largely in generalities, noting the need to “do some things differently,” and to look at “the bigger picture.” With a bit more seasoning on the campaign trail, Thompson could potentially use this rhetorical style to lay claim to “the vision thing,” but he is not there yet.
As I also noted in my earlier post, Giuliani and Romney did indeed escalate their skirmish over the tax pledge, line item veto, and respective fiscal records. Although Giuliani seemed to get in the last word this time around, the exchange largely ended in the sort of “he said, he said” standoff that often results when candidates come to a debate armed with canned statistics designed to cast their records in the most favorable light.  Both candidates were very comfortable at the podium, fine-tuned from months on the campaign trail, although my guess is that Romney would likely rescind his “lawyers” comment on Iran, if given the chance.
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That's Debatable
As I prepare to watch today’s Republican presidential debate on economic issues (4 PM on CNBC, 9 PM on MSNBC), here are a few random questions on my mind:
  • Should Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney further escalate their recent skirmish over the tax pledge, line item veto, and fiscal policy records in their respective states?
  • Does Ron Paul’s five million dollar fundraising quarter buy him any new respect from his colleagues on stage?
  • Can Fred Thompson venture beyond a general restatement of Ronald Reagan's economic philosophy to offer any policy specifics from his own campaign platform?
  • Must John McCain be asked for the umpteenth time about why he opposed President Bush’s original tax cut, but now supports making the tax cuts permanent?
  • Will Mike Huckabee, coming off of a respectable third place showing in the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa caucus poll, take any heat for his fiscal policy record as governor of Arkansas? Huckabee has been stalked relentlessly on this issue.

 I will post my reaction to the debate on Wednesday morning.

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McCain in Vain
Ever since John McCain downsized his presidential campaign, there have been a host of news articles about the liberating effect of that move on his candidacy.  While the latest comes to us courtesy of The New York Times, these stories are all variations on a theme. Freed from controlling political consultants and campaign bureaucracy, the iconoclastic, straight-talking politician is regaining his footing on the trail, perhaps even recapturing a bit of the magic from his 2000 run in New Hampshire.
I have witnessed the power of McCain on the stump many times, and I have seen firsthand the genuine connection that he makes with voters when he speaks his mind.  Yet, the real problem for McCain this time around is a more fundamental ideological one.  He finds himself boxed in on both sides by the positions he has taken on immigration reform and Iraq.
On the left, New Hampshire's independent voters, who voted enthusiastically for McCain in 2000, still love the man, but are truly unhappy with his support of the Bush administration's surge policy.  On the right, conservatives, who continue to question (perhaps unfairly) McCain's commitment to their social agenda, are mightily displeased with his position on immigration reform.
So, the question is, from where does McCain piece together a winning coalition in the primary? If New Hampshire's big block of independent voters abandon him over Iraq for more promising Democratic pastures, and conservatives continue to question his true ideological colors, the "happy warrior,” may find himself with insufficient troops to lead into battle.
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Down in Front!
If the past 48 hours are any indication, we may have a sudden outbreak of frontrunner posturing on our hands. Spurred on by a pair of polls casting new light on issues of candidate viability in the general election, candidates in both parties have redoubled their efforts to characterize themselves as offering the best November 2008 match-up against the other side’s nominee.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows for the first time that a majority of Democratic voters are comfortable with the idea of Hillary Clinton as their nominee. Similarly, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that Republican voters are warming to the idea of a Rudy Giuliani candidacy.
As I noted in an earlier post, general election viability is a critical component of any successful run through the presidential selection process. While voters want a candidate who faithfully represents their own issue positions, they also like to pick a winner. It is precisely this sort of political calculation that helped John Kerry slip past Howard Dean, once ballots were actually cast in 2004. So, it was no surprise yesterday to see Mitt Romney spar aggressively with Giuliani over which Republican candidate would best match up against Clinton, and certainly a sign of frontrunner battles to come.
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Pre-Game Show

While you are waiting for the Patriots game to start on Sunday, why not check out Close Up on WMUR-TV (Ch. 9, 10 AM).  I will be talking politics with the show's host, Scott Spradling, and the Boston Globe's James Pindell,

In addition to analyzing the latest campaign fundraising totals and the evolving presidential primary calendar, we'll discuss the recent political fortunes of several Republican and Democratic candidates, including Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards.  I am sure that many of you are familiar with the old phrase, a political football.

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The Lone Star
The Concord Monitor details yesterday’s editorial board meeting with Republican presidential candidate, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. Here is the passage that caught my eye:
Paul can simplify problems in a way that must give his Republican rivals fits. On Iraq and the use of military force as an instrument of foreign policy he said: "We're taxed to blow up their bridges, then we're taxed to rebuild their bridges. Meanwhile, our bridges are falling down."
We have already witnessed several of those fits first-hand in recent presidential debates. Paul may have little likelihood of winning the Republican nomination, but his ability to paint the choices facing our country in such stark terms (and raise some cash, too), means that he still has an opportunity to influence the political discourse driving his party’s nomination contest.
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Takin' the Show on the Road

For those of you who are looking for a good weekend dose of politics, I will be participating in an open forum on the New Hampshire primary on Saturday, October 20th, at 10 AM at Colby-Sawyer College in New London.  I will be joined at the forum by New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and NHPR Executive Editor Jon Greenberg.  The event, sponsored by the Adventures in Learning program at Colby Sawyer College, is free and open to the public.  You can read more about the forum here.  I hope that you can join us.

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The Puzzle That is Mike Huckabee

I continue to puzzle over why Mike Huckabee is not running a more competitive race for the Republican nomination.  He has received universally strong reviews for his many debate performances, has been singled out by both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as the only candidate sufficiently talented to challenge any of the top tier Republicans, and has largely eclipsed Sam Brownback as the most viable religious conservative in the race.

Yet, despite substantial media coverage of his second place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll in August, Huckabee's fundraising continues to lag, and his organization has yet to turn all of that favorable press into substantial gains on the campaign trail.

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Obama's Iowa Silver Lining

In an earlier post, I noted that Barack Obama trails Hillary Clinton both nationally and in New Hampshire, despite earlier expectations that he might catch her by the end of summer. The Obama campaign can take some solace, however, in this week's Newsweek poll (scroll down past those Republican results with Romney still in the lead) that shows Obama leading both Clinton and John Edwards in Iowa.

For those who believe in the critical importance of early state momentum, an Obama win in Iowa would shuffle the candidate deck in a hurry.  Throw in a second place finish for John Edwards (he has been leading in Iowa for most of the past year), and Hillary Clinton would no longer look like the inevitable Democratic nominee.

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The Romney/Giuliani Disconnect
Anyone closely watching the Republican contest should notice the interesting disconnect between Mitt Romney’s lead in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and Rudy Giuliani’s continued dominance in national polls. A look at the polling averages for each of these contests (take your pick, RCP or Pollster) underscores the dichotomy of state and national frontrunner.
So, the question is how will this all play out? Does Romney win the early contests, giving him critical momentum going into South Carolina and the numerous primary contests on February 5th, or does Giuliani eventually benefit from voter calculations about his viability in the general election, much in the same way that John Kerry benefited from last-minute voter calculations about his viability in a race against George W. Bush?
There is some suggestion that support for Romney is softening in New Hampshire, and that Giuliani is focusing on general election viability out on the campaign trail. Nonetheless, Romney has strong organizational support in both Iowa and New Hampshire, so it would be a mistake to count him out (and he is still leading in those states).
Early state momentum and general election viability are two essential components of a successful campaign, and the battle between Romney and Giuliani is providing campaign observers with a fascinating window into these political dynamics.
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The Old John Edwards
Watching the Dartmouth College debate last week also reminded me that I have been pretty tough on John Edwards thus far in this election cycle. Back in 2004, I argued that a few more weeks between the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary might have been sufficient for Edwards to catch John Kerry and Howard Dean.  Such was the buzz surrounding his candidacy at that moment. This time around, however, Edwards’ retooled populism has been an uneasy fit for New Hampshire’s political culture, and its economic climate. His poll numbers have in large measure reflected this unease.
That being said, I am not alone in noting that his performance in the debate was his best in this election cycle, recapturing some of the energy, directness, and folksiness that served him well in 2004. Whether he can capitalize on this performance remains to be seen. Edwards is in a tough must-win battle in Iowa, and his poll numbers will also need to spike dramatically upwards in New Hampshire.  But for at least those two hours at Dartmouth, he was the old John Edwards.
You can listen to an extended recap of my thoughts on the Dartmouth debate here, by clicking on the link for the September 29th edition of WKXL's On The Campaign Trail, with Chris Ryan.
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On the One Hand...
In the wake of last week’s Democratic debate at Dartmouth College, I have given some thought to Hillary Clinton’s dogged refusal to be pinned down by Tim Russert on troop withdrawal from Iraq, Social Security reform, and her pick for a Yankees/Cubs World Series. While the Clinton-Russert exchanges on these issues were quite vivid, she is certainly not the first presidential frontrunner to avoid taking specific issue positions in the primaries for which she might later be pilloried by an opponent in the general election.
So, when I am asked whether Clinton can sustain this sort of strategic position-taking over the long haul, my answer really depends on whether another Democratic candidate is willing to frame this behavior as a reflection of broader concerns about whether Clinton possesses a core set of political beliefs, from which her policy positions logically and consistently emanate. Absent this sort of direct challenge by another candidate, I do not think that media coverage alone will be sufficient to undercut this strategy.
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Hillary Clinton's Endless Summer
Back in the spring, some political analysts were predicting that Barack Obama would pull even with Hillary Clinton by the end of summer. Judging by last week’s New Hampshire polling data from the UNH Survey Center, and today’s national polling data from The Washington Post, that scenario has not yet materialized.
In addition to running a disciplined campaign, and continuing to cultivate an aura of inevitability, Clinton has been remarkably resilient on the Iraq War issue. Some local political observers (me included) thought that she might not survive the wrath that New Hampshire’s antiwar voters directed at her at town hall meetings last winter, for her unwillingness to apologize for supporting President Bush’s Iraq War resolution.
Despite taking some jabs from John Edwards on the issue at last week’s debate at Dartmouth College, and a continued hammering from Obama, Clinton nonetheless appears to have successfully staked out a centrist position on the war that allows her to call for an end to the conflict, while retaining maximum flexibility for how that policy is implemented over time.
An issue that once had the potential to be Hillary Clinton's undoing as a candidate, no longer appears sufficiently sharp to deflate her buoyancy in the polls, and we don’t hear much talk from voters these days about that undelivered apology.
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Live From Concord, New Hampshire

To my family, friends and colleagues who have offered so much enthusiasm and support for this new (ad)venture, you have my sincere gratitude.

To those of you who are discovering my little corner of the political universe for the first time, I hope that you will find reason to return here often.

And now, in the words of the late, great Clash Frontman, Joe Strummer, "Letsagetabitarockin!"

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