All Aboard
A reader, Lynn, asks for my reaction to John McCain’s performance in the CNN/YouTube debate, particularly his rejoinder to Mitt Romney on waterboarding and torture. You can read Lynn’s entire post to the website here. In her comments, Lynn makes reference to dial focus group measurements taken during the debate, which scored McCain’s response on torture as a low point in the evening. Joe Klein, blogging at Swampland, provides some useful background on this focus group. It appears from Klein’s reporting that, although Romney’s performance left me rather drained, it evidently invigorated a number of other voters.
As for McCain, he is obviously buoyed by evidence that our troop surge in Iraq is reducing the level of violence there, which seems to further stoke his moral indignation on the issue of torture.  John Dickerson at Slate notes that McCain has exhibited similar moments of strong moral leadership in previous debates, as well, but they do not appear to help him much in the polls.
My sense is that McCain’s negative dial group measurements are driven by Republican voter suspicion that he is not fully committed to the prevailing conservative political narrative on the Global War on Terror. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and most of the other Republican candidates all subscribe to the notion that we are currently engaged in a profound struggle between the forces of democracy and those of radical Islam, in which the Iraq War is just one front. Disavowal of any tactics for fighting this battle, including enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, is viewed by some as a form of unilateral disarmament. My guess is that the dialing voters were registering their displeasure with McCain on this count.
So, those flashes of moral leadership from McCain may help him with some independent voters in New Hampshire, but they will likely only further his estrangement from the Republican base.
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I'm Tired (and I'm Just Watching)
It must be intellectually exhausting to be Mitt Romney. At this point, it should be abundantly clear that his campaign is driven by the well-worn political dictum that to win the Republican presidential nomination, a candidate must run hard to the right on litmus test issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, and gun control. Given Romney’s political biography, this strategy has required him to cover much more ideological ground than most of the other Republican candidates.
Over the past year, I have seen Romney struggle mightily to prove his conservative credentials, while taking a beating from those who question his authenticity. Last night’s CNN/YouTube debate in Florida was no exception. Watching Romney once again defend his ideological transformation on a host of social policy issues (be it genuine or instrumental) was a draining television viewing experience.  His uneven performance only served to underscore the ease with which candidates like Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson glided smoothly around the same conservative ideological terrain. Ironically, it may be precisely because Romney is working so doggedly to prove his bona fides, that he now finds himself challenged in Iowa by Huckabee, a man who seems a lot more comfortable in his conservative skin.
Note: If you would like to hear more of my reaction to the CNN/YouTube debate, I will be discussing it further on Sunday morning, as a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up (Ch. 9, 10 AM).
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Don't Be Antisocial
If you were unable to catch this afternoon’s live broadcast of The Iowa/New Hampshire Exchange, you can still listen to it here, at your own convenience. We had an engaging conversation on the role of social issues in the presidential campaign. The discussion ranged from the tactical to the philosophical, as we considered the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research, and, more broadly, the relationship between faith and politics. For me, the show underscored the challenges that the candidates face, in trying to tailor their messages to fit the varied demographics of these two states.
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Are You Experienced?
You may have noticed that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have recently escalated their rhetoric over which candidate has the most experience to be president. A recent piece by Michael Kinsley at Slate also considers this issue.  My sense is that experience is somewhat overrated as a candidate selling point.  I am reminded of a piece by political scientist Paul Quirk, dealing with the issue of presidential competence (chapter 5 in this volume). Quirk essentially argues that new presidents need only grasp three experiential concepts, beyond which (I would argue) appeals to prior professional experience do not bring much additional value.
First, a new president needs a basic grasp of the design and functioning of the Executive Branch. Since he is charged with setting the nation’s policy agenda, a president should have a sense of how the process works from policy formulation through to final implementation.  Second, a president must appreciate the value of liaison activities with the other branches of government, particularly Congress. A president will not be implementing much policy, if he is unable to marshal support from other political elites in the policy-making environment.  Finally, since public opinion is such a powerful tool for achieving one’s policy objectives, a president should be able to sell his agenda to a broader audience. Any president will have a wealth of well-schooled advisors in each of these three areas, so a basic familiarity is really all that is required.
My guess is that both Clinton and Obama clear this threshold for experience, making the issue a somewhat overplayed bone of contention between the two candidates. While sniping between the campaigns will no doubt continue, it appears that Obama, at least, is looking to move on to a more promising line of attack.
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Comfortable in Social Situations
I will be participating in a special radio broadcast tomorrow at 2 PM on New Hampshire Public Radio. NHPR is partnering with Iowa Public Radio to present a series of joint broadcasts called, The Iowa/New Hampshire Exchange. You can learn more about the series here.
Tomorrow’s show will look at differences in how the presidential candidates are campaigning on social issues in the two states. You can catch the show live here (lower left corner), or listen later here.  I hope that you can join us.
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Bill Me Later
In a previous post, I criticized John Edwards for openly telegraphing his willingness to raise taxes, in order to fund an ambitious array of domestic initiatives. My point was that Edwards’ position would set him up for a firestorm of Republican criticism, were he to become the Democratic nominee. Edwards would run the risk of being tarred as a “tax-and-spend” liberal, much in the same way that Walter Mondale was in 1984.
Not surprisingly, the issue of Edwards and fiscal responsibility continues to be a concern for some New Hampshire voters, as evidenced by comments (scroll down for article) that he received at a recent event in Rochester. This time, however, voter concerns over budget deficits were met by Edwards with general language about using his domestic initiatives to grow the economy out of debt, rather than more talk about taxes. So, perhaps Edwards has decided to modulate his tax rhetoric a bit.  But, as his Q&A this morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange suggested, the issue of fiscal responsibility is one with which Edwards will continue to struggle.
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Happy Thanksgiving

I will be away from the website for a few days, in order to celebrate Thanksgiving and to enjoy the holiday weekend.  I will be back in action on Monday with new content for you.  Happy Thanksgiving.  -Dean

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Nothing but Reruns
Late night is not the only time that you can see reruns on television these days. An item in today’s First Read confirms what those of us living in New Hampshire already suspect. The season of endless campaign advertisements on television is officially upon us. Reporter Mike Memoli counts 23 political commercials during just two newscasts on WMUR-TV. A quick look at the advertisement titles suggests that if you miss any at 6 p.m., you can catch reruns at 11 p.m.
I am not suggesting that campaigns should eschew political advertisements. Well-constructed ads can frame the vote choice quite persuasively. They can also provide useful shortcuts for voters interested in learning more about particular candidates, in an environment that is awash with political information.
Still, I have always sensed that the efficacy of the candidate ad blitz peaks well before the actual voting begins, and provides a campaign with a decreasing return on its investment over time. The sheer quantity, frequency, and repetition of these ads eventually combine to create political white noise, which New Hampshire voters are quite adept at tuning out. So, I am not yet at the point where I can recite the various scripts from memory, nor do I hear the familiar hum of white noise in my ears, but I do know that it won’t be long now.
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You Sure Know How to Pick a Winner
Every election cycle, political observers and the media spend months examining the minutia of candidate issue positions, quarterly fundraising reports, and campaign staff composition. Yet, at some point late in the game, it inevitably occurs to those covering the presidential race that what really matters to voters is candidate electability.
The media seem to rediscover this basic fact every four years, but I actually learned it many years ago, while reading Sam Popkin’s classic 1991 work, The Reasoning Voter. If you can find a copy of this book, I encourage you to read Chapter Six, “Expectations and Reassessments: Surges and Declines in Presidential Primaries.” Popkin goes on at length about how voters like to pick a winner, and thus are constantly recalculating candidate electability (or viability), in light of new information about the Democratic and Republican races.
John Kerry’s Iowa/New Hampshire surge past Howard Dean in 2004, provides a perfect recent example of this phenomenon. Voters, particularly the many who are not activists, engage in this kind of candidate reassessment right up until they vote, which makes early prediction of the likely nominee (based on public opinion polls) a very tricky business.
The difficulty for campaigns is that the concept of electability is an elusive one to define. For many voters, it involves a gut-level decision about which candidate seems the most presidential, based on a constant updating of factors like competitiveness, character, leadership, ideology, and even physical appearance.  The relative importance of each factor varies from one voter to the next, but the end result is a personal calculation about whether a particular candidate can win.
So, as we approach the first nomination contests, and I hear talk of the importance of candidate electability this time around, I am reminded of the great Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, with its famous refrain, same as it ever was.
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Hillary Hold'em
Hillary Clinton went into Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas as the solid frontrunner, and nothing that transpired on stage last night is likely to change her status. Given the pitched battles waged between the top three campaigns since the last debate in Philadelphia, it was no surprise to see the explosion of kinetic energy on display during the initial moments of the debate.
Clinton was much less defensive this time, however, quickly hitting Barack Obama and John Edwards with their own records on healthcare and social security. While Clinton’s early “mudslinging/Republican playbook” riposte struck me as a preplanned retort, it nonetheless dissipated the highly charged atmosphere, and the debate subsequently settled down into a more predictable pattern of exchanges.
Obama’s performance must have been frustrating for his campaign. While he is capable of delivering a good stem-winder on the campaign trail, Obama’s debate performances continue to be really uneven. His inability to articulate a clear position on the drivers license/illegal immigrant issue was absolutely stunning (in comparison to Clinton’s simple “no”), given the role it played in Clinton’s undoing in the Philadelphia debate.
In contrast, John Edward continued to do what he does best, which is to frame the choice between candidates in stark trial lawyer terms. His rhetoric on Clinton’s place among corporate Democrats and Republicans was some of his strongest yet. Still, my sense is that Edwards did not get the kind of traction in this debate that he enjoyed during the previous one.
Finally, as I turned off the television last night, it occurred to me that perhaps it is a good thing that the time to vote is fast approaching. As much as these debates feed the political junkie in me, I am not sure that there is much more insight to be gained from them. They may provide some additional plot elements for the nomination contest’s twisting political narrative, but more debates are not likely to break any significant new ground in the final month of the campaign.
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Clinton and Obama's Philly Fortnight
It has been two weeks since Hillary Clinton was roasted at the Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia. The lively exchange over driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants tested the limits of Clinton’s general election strategy, and provided the first sign of cracks in her campaign’s façade of inevitability. Yet, even with several additional (admittedly entertaining) missteps since the debate, including complaints about inadequate tipping and accusations of question planting, Clinton continues to enjoy solid frontrunner status.
In contrast, Barack Obama has had a pretty good two weeks in the wake of the Philadelphia debate, receiving excellent reviews for his Jefferson-Jackson speech in Iowa, but mixed notices for his appearance on Meet the Press. A consensus has also gradually emerged among political observers that Obama has benefited by not attacking Clinton as aggressively as John Edwards.  It is taking me some time to come around to this line of argument, given my earlier thoughts on the subject.  I am still not there yet, but I am listening.
Having watched these past two weeks closely, my sense is that Obama’s best hope for closing the gap with Clinton rests in all of the polling data showing that support for Clinton is still quite fluid. The question now is whether and how Obama will turn up the heat on Clinton at tonight’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, in order to get some of that fluid support to flow his way.
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Planters Nuts
I continue to scratch my head over the Clinton campaign’s attempt to plant a friendly question with a college student, during a recent candidate Q&A session in Iowa. Given that the campaign is greatly concerned with demonstrating that its candidate is neither calculating nor rehearsed, this strikes me as a pretty significant blunder by the Clinton staff. In addition to the issues it raises for Hillary Clinton personally, the episode brings unwelcome comparisons to President Bush’s tightly controlled public engagements, events renown for their carefully vetted guest lists and softball questions.
The episode also raises a bigger issue for me, not just about the tactics of the Clinton campaign, but about the relationship between candidates and voters, more generally. As technological advances like digital media and the internet have allowed local retail politics to play instantaneously to a worldwide audience, campaigns have scrambled (sometimes with great difficulty) to maintain control of their candidate’s message and appearance.  As a result, they attempt to use local citizens as extras, scripted to perform in predictable ways for a broader audience.
While I understand the desire of the Clinton campaign to put its candidate’s best foot forward, control strategies like the planted question do not foster the free exchange of ideas between candidate and voter, which is the democratic essence of our presidential selection process.
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Ron Paul Skips the After-Party
In a previous post, I suggested that perhaps Ron Paul’s passionate grassroots constituency was better suited to support a third party bid by Paul, rather than a traditional run at the Republican presidential nomination. Well, as James Pindell reported in the Boston Globe over the weekend, Paul has nixed the idea of launching another third party run for the presidency, linking his refusal to what he sees as the anti-democratic nature of our two-party system.  So, I guess that clears the way for New York City Mayor, Mike Bloomberg.
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Is Rudy Giuliani Frontloaded for Success?
It has been fascinating to watch the conventional wisdom on the impact of the frontloaded primary schedule evolve over the past year. Last winter, there was much speculation that a big multi-state primary day early in February 2008, would lessen the traditional influence of early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, in picking the nominees. Conventional wisdom suggested that campaigns would need to fundraise and organize on a national scale, in order to remain competitive across a large number of closely packed primaries and caucuses.
By this fall, however, most campaigns seemed to have reverted back to the time-honored strategy of trying to build momentum through victories in one or more of the early (pre-February 5th) states. Some campaigns were forced to adopt this approach due to the reality of fundraising and organizational shortfalls, while others switched in response to the realization that these early states continue to capture the lion’s share of media attention and public scrutiny. The new conventional wisdom was that Iowa would be pivotal for the Democratic race, while South Carolina would likely be decisive for the Republican contest. Both campaigns and media seemed to respond accordingly to this revised political narrative.
That is until now. In the past 24 hours, a significant amount of press has focused on statements by Rudy Giuliani’s campaign manager, Mike DuHaime, that Giuliani would not necessarily need wins in any of the early states, in order to secure the Republican nomination. Giuliani would hang in until the big multi-state primary day on February 5th, where he could amass a large number of delegates in states like Florida and New York.
So, we have come full circle with the conventional wisdom, and the Giuliani campaign has now set itself up as a test case for assessing the impact of the frontloaded primary schedule on the outcome of the presidential races. If Mitt Romney wins in the early states where he currently leads, like Iowa and New Hampshire, yet still loses the nomination to Giuliani, then that would be a remarkable testament to the changed nature of our presidential nomination process.
No presidential campaign has ever lost in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and gone on to win the nomination. Giuliani’s campaign may have done the delegate math correctly, but primary races are not conducted in a vacuum. Early wins by Romney would fundamentally alter the media’s narrative of the race, and voter perceptions of candidate viability, in ways that the Giuliani campaign cannot possibly predict at this point. So, we will all be watching to see whether the Giuliani campaign is truly frontloaded for success.
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Stand By Your Man
You may have noticed all of the media coverage leading up to today’s unsealed federal grand jury indictment of former New York police commissioner, Bernard Kerik. Much of it has focused on Kerik’s close relationship with Rudy Giuliani, and on what the indictment might mean for the Giuliani campaign.
Political observers have always assumed that their close relationship, and in particular Giuliani’s supporting role in Kerik’s failed nomination for Secretary of Homeland Security in 2004, would get some notice during the campaign, but nothing focuses discussion quite like a criminal indictment.
Whether this issue will be of more than passing interest to voters in part depends on how visibly the legal case unfolds over the next year. But it is likely that some of the other campaigns will continue to use it as an opportunity to raise questions about the soundness of Giuliani’s judgment regarding the selection of close advisors, and about the potential dangers of a chief executive emphasizing personal loyalty over professional qualifications.  The latter charge is similar to that leveled at President Bush over the nomination of Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales. Not surprisingly, the Giuliani campaign has already signaled that it will not let any Kerik-related attacks go unanswered.
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Is Ron Paul on the Move?
With a remarkable $4.3 million one-day fundraising haul on Monday, following on the heels of a good third quarter total, Congressman Ron Paul seems poised to do something, but the question is what? Political observers have noted that Paul’s antiwar stance and broad libertarian message might make him a pretty good fit for New Hampshire, in comparison to other early primary and caucus states. Not surprisingly, Paul has begun advertising here, added staff, and promised more New Hampshire campaign activity in the near future.
Still, despite a national network of dedicated followers, and some initial moves toward an increased presence in the state, Paul has not broken double digits in any polls of New Hampshire voters, consistently finishing in fourth place or below. I am not yet convinced that Paul’s campaign can translate the energy surrounding his candidacy nationally into measurable gains on the ground here. Until such time, speculation will continue to center on whether Paul’s constituency is actually better suited to drive a third party run for the presidency. Paul certainly would not be the first independent candidate to have his prospects buoyed by a core group of disaffected voters, who do not see any other good options in either of the two major parties.
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Strange Bedfellows
I have been thinking about the recent spate of Republican candidate endorsements by religious conservatives, and wondering what a fragmented evangelical voting bloc might mean for the party’s field of candidates. With three prominent religious conservatives endorsing three different Republican candidates within 48 hours, evangelicals are no longer waiting for an ideologically attuned “white knight” to emerge as the party’s standard-bearer. Fred Thompson’s recent comments on abortion and gay marriage may have officially brought this waiting period to a close.
So, we may be looking at a Republican primary field in which candidates will continue to compete for the conservative Christian vote right up until the balloting begins, with no one candidate benefiting disproportionately from the support of this influential group of voters.
Today’s curious Pat Roberston endorsement of Rudy Giuliani brings some religious fervor to the Giuliani campaign, but may not actually be all that far-fetched, in light of Giuliani’s own zealous rhetoric on the War on Terror.
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It Isn't Easy Being Green
Last week, I discussed climate change and the presidential candidates on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. During the show, I commented on the expansiveness of the Democratic vision for fighting global warming. Go to any Democratic presidential candidate’s official website, and you will find a highly detailed, comprehensive plan to address global warming that incorporates cutting edge environmental tools and green technologies.
When asked how the issue would play out in November 2008, however, I suggested that it would likely be folded into a larger ideological debate about the cost of federal regulation, the need for fiscal responsibility, and the role of economic incentives in changing environmental behavior. My conclusion was that only a Democratic president with a substantial partisan majority in Congress would ever have the legislative clout necessary to realize the scope of environmental change suggested by these candidate platforms.
In the spirit of our radio discussion, today’s Washington Post runs a piece on this same topic, noting the difficulties that Democratic candidates may face in defending the potential cost of these broad programs against Republican criticism, in a general election where not all voters share a similar sense of urgency on climate change.
As I also mentioned last week, recent survey data from the Pew Research Center suggest that only 36% of Republicans rank the environment as an issue that is very important to their vote, in contrast to 72% of Democrats. This voter ambivalence is reflected in the more modest climate change proposals put forth by most of the Republican candidates. It is within the context of these highly polarized views that Democrats will face the challenge of selling their big green ideas to the general public.
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Federalism, the Other Red Meat
A central aspect of the summertime hype surrounding a potential Fred Thompson presidential bid was the idea that Thompson might serve as a political vessel in which social conservatives could wash away their long-standing anxieties about the ideological purity of the existing crop of Republican candidates.
I am guessing that some of those voters, particularly religious conservatives, were less than thrilled with the principled federalism that Thompson expounded during yesterday’s Meet the Press interview. Thompson admitted that his views on states’ rights would allow for individual states to make their own decisions regarding the legality of abortion and gay marriage.
From the interview transcript, here is Thompson on abortion:
Before Roe v. Wade, states made those decisions. I think people ought to be free at state and local levels to make decisions that even Fred Thompson disagrees with. That’s what freedom is all about. And I think the diversity we have among the states, the system of federalism we have where power is divided between the state and the federal government is, is, is—serves us very, very well. I think that’s true of abortion.
And on gay marriage:
But, at the end of the day, if a state legislature and a governor decide that that’s what they want to do [legalize gay marriage], yes, they should have, they, they should have the freedom to do what Fred Thompson thinks is a very bad idea.
A consistent application of the tenets of federalism, but one that is not likely to capture the imagination (and wallets) of social conservatives who are more interested in talking about federal amendments to ban abortion and gay marriage. Interestingly enough, Thompson just may find his stock rising in New Hampshire, as a result.
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Stay the Course, or Something
I caught Fred Thompson’s appearance on Meet the Press yesterday. It was a golden opportunity to get a closer look at a candidate who has not exactly expended a lot of shoe leather on the sidewalks of New Hampshire’s cities and towns. After watching the show, I do not think that anyone would ever accuse Senator Thompson of being rehearsed on the issues. He seems to work from a core set of ideas about foreign and domestic policy, but his actual answers can be, shall we say, impressionistic.
Here is the response that really got my attention. Tim Russert asked Thompson to clarify how his position on Iraq differed from a “stay the course” approach, and to also touch on a possible exit strategy from the conflict. See if you can follow Thompson’s “clarification,” as taken from the interview transcript:
Well, it’s, it’s not a, it’s not a stay-the-course when—in, in terms of what’s been going on there. What’s been going on there’s been quite negative. It is a—giving us an opportunity to succeed. You know, we’ve got to, we’ve got take yes for an answer. We got to take success as a, as a reality when we find it. We’ve, we’ve seen a lot of negativity, and rightfully so. But now that things are turning, even those in some of the think tanks around town are not pro-war by any stretch of the imagination have stepped up and said, “We’re making real progress.” We see the headlines that, that are, that are changing now. The stakes are too high, Tim. It’s not, it’s not a matter of, of just Iraq. The—we’re being tested. The whole world is watching to see whether or not the American people have the will and the ability, the unity, the determination to, to succeed in any front that we happen to be engaged in, and this is a front in much larger war.
I think that some Republican voters will actually find it quite refreshing that Thompson does not work from a standard menu of sound bites when answering questions, but instead seems to genuinely work his way through a response.  Still, in a media culture that has little patience for a lack of clarity in political discourse, Thompson would do well to hone his rhetoric a bit.
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Don't Snake My Wave
It is now Friday afternoon, and John Edwards is still surfing the media wave generated by his sharp rebuke of Hillary Clinton at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia. While all of the attention is well-deserved, now would probably be a good time for Edwards to paddle in to shore, and leave the crowd on the beach wanting more. There will be other tasty waves to ride, before this competition is over.

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Meet Your New Neighbors
A recent piece in the Washington Post nicely captures the intensity with which staff from the leading presidential campaigns has set up shop in New Hampshire, on a scale never before seen by political professionals in the state. We get a glimpse of a new style of professional grassroots organizing, one in which technology allows the campaigns to target their voter mobilization efforts on a remarkably localized basis.
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What a Difference a Year Makes
Every so often, I come across an item suggesting that Rudy Giuliani is steadily gaining the support of former Bush administration officials and political advisors. Yet, it was only a little more than a year ago that articles like this one were more frequent, depicting John McCain as the primary recipient of Bush insider political expertise and resources. 
At the time, McCain was considered the Republican frontrunner, a popular and highly visible politician who backed George Bush on the Iraq War, and who had a conservative voting record on key social issues like abortion.   McCain seemed like a more logical fit for the transfer of Bush allegiances than Giuliani, a former New York City mayor with a social agenda well to the left of the conservative constituencies anchoring the Bush administration.
So what changed during the intervening year? McCain has continued to strongly support the mission in Iraq, but it is Giuliani who has aggressively staked out the most conservative position on the Global War on Terror, with all of its ancillary issues, including domestic surveillance, detainee rights, interrogation techniques, a nuclear Iran, etc.   Listen to Giuliani on the campaign trail, and you will quickly realize that he has become the heir apparent to Bush’s worldview on these issues. As defenders of this central presidential legacy, Bush supporters now appear willing to tolerate some dissonance on social issues in exchange for Giuliani’s broad defense of the president’s foreign policy vision.
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