Tuesday, January 29, 2008

No Country for Old Men

There you go, Mitt Romney and the Democrats, I just gave you a free, catchy campaign slogan to use against John McCain - except it looks as if this particular old man will have the last cackle.

John McCain won the Florida primary tonight, and with it, the Republican nomination for president. Yes, you read that right: It's over. As predicted here a month ago, McCain will be the GOP nominee.

Now, I know Mitt Romney has deeper pockets than Shaquille O'Neal in overalls, but money can't buy you love from voters who don't like you. And not enough of them do to vault Romney past the surging McCain. McCain's win in Florida (final numbers: McCain 36%, Romney 31%, Giuliani 15%, Huckabee 14% and Ron Paul 3%) gives him a narrow lead in delegates that will expand next Tuesday, when he will win the majority of the 21 Republican Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses.

McCain has significant leads in a handful of those states already, and with Rudy Giuliani dropping out (it's about time - more on that in a moment), he will solidify the moderate vote...while Mike Huckabee hangs around to drain conservatives away from Romney. Huckabee may well win two or three states himself next Tuesday, and will hurt Romney enough in a few others to give McCain more wins than he could earn on his own. And since some of those Republican states are winner-take-all, McCain will start piling up enough delegates to make his nomination inevitable.

Now Romney's not going to go away quietly, and he can drop another $20 million of his own money into his TV account and run media blitzes from now till Easter. But he's done that already in New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and Florida - and McCain still won those states. McCain is winning without TV spots - he's surged into the lead here in California despite not running a single commercial, even on the radio. So Romney will get nasty, and negative, and empty a few Bain Capital accounts' worth of greenbacks - and it says here McCain still prevails, wrapping it up by the end of February.

As for Rudy - I remain stunned by the reaction of all the pundits and so-called experts who didn't see his collapse coming. "No one could have predicted this!" screamed Ari Fleischer on CNN tonight. "This will be analyzed for years!" I think Ari needs to read Sovern Nation more often. Or once, even. There's all this misguided hand-wringing over Giuliani's flawed campaign strategy. It wasn't his strategy - it's Rudy himself who was fatally flawed. I have been annoying colleagues for months with my dismissal of America's Mayor as a serious candidate for president. You can go back in the archives and read why, if you really want to, but suffice to say that an unlikable, thrice-married, adulterous, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, bald, bespectacled, Nixonian, ethnic New Yorker with a lisp is not a natural fit for most of the Republican Party. The surprise isn't that Rudy's gone before Super Tuesday - it's that he lasted this long. Everyone seems to conveniently overlook that Rudy did compete in New Hampshire - he did not skip the early states. He tried, and tried hard - he spent two million dollars in the Granite State. He was there early and often last year. But New Hampshire voters didn't warm to him at all (has anyone ever found Rudy "warm"?), and he rightly recognized that he had little hope of breaking through either there or in Iowa, so he really had no choice but to go all-out in Florida and bank on a miracle that would catapult him into Super Tuesday states where he'd have a better shot, such as California and New York. No one is foolish enough to choose not to compete in the first four states - there's simply no reason to - unless the nature of the candidate himself leaves no other option.

So, McCain will cruise to victory soon, and the Republican Party establishment will begrudgingly rally around the erstwhile maverick. Conservatives will gnash their teeth and pull out their hair - and either put up a third-party right-winger or hold their noses and vote for McCain in November...

...when McCain will face Hillary Clinton, as also predicted in this space a month ago. There's momentum building for Barack Obama right now, and I meet a lot of undecided Democrats who are moving his way - and even some former Hillary supporters who are turning away from her and embracing Obama. Teddy, Caroline and Patrick Kennedy's moving, powerful endorsements of Obama really touched a lot of liberal Democrats - hear it here. We spoke with Hillary Clinton on the phone about it today - you can hear her reaction by clicking here.

But a state-by-state analysis of the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses shows Clinton likely to win the lion's share. The Democrats don't have winner-take-all votes anymore, and many of these states will be close, preventing Clinton from putting Obama away the way McCain will Romney. So Obama will win plenty of delegates, keeping the nomination in play for at least another month, guaranteeing a long, occasionally nasty Democratic race that will make the consolidating Republicans quite happy. But Hillary will get it in the end - and then she'll have to make the case that this is indeed a country that's ready for a woman, not another old man, to lead.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Sunshine Boys

Obviously, the Republicans running for president watched the Democratic slugfest the other night in South Carolina and decided that getting down in the mud did not help Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama...and that they should take the high road in the Florida debate tonight.

The result? Nothing but sunshine in the Sunshine State. Which makes for a rather dull debate. But just because they were cordial to each other on the debate stage, doesn't mean that they weren't sniping and dishing behind the scenes.

I got no fewer than five emails from Mitt Romney's campaign during the debate, slamming John McCain and pointing out mistakes and contradictions in his statements. This kind of spin is common, but during debates, the campaigns work overtime to deliver real-time commentary. Romney's people were especially critical of McCain's economic positions and expertise, pointing out that McCain did, in fact, say that he needs more education on the economy, and doesn't know enough about economics, even though when debate moderator Tim Russert brought up those quotes, McCain denied ever saying that.

Romney knows that the weakening economy plays to his strength. He's rising in the national polls, as the Republican race dwindles into a two-man battle, between him and McCain. Watch for him to start overusing the word "turnaround," as in "I turned around the Olympics," "I turned around businesses as a CEO," "I turned around Massachusetts" and "I can turn around the American economy." His business experience resonates with conservative Republicans concerned about the economy, especially in contrast with the more foreign policy-minded McCain. So Romney will point out that contrast every chance he gets.

McCain pulled a classy move in tonight's showdown when he went out of his way to praise Rudy Giuliani, after Russert read from the New York Times endorsement of McCain, which savages Giuliani as "narrow...arrogant...vindictive." Unlike Romney, McCain rarely panders, and typically says what he believes, regardless of the political consequences. Why praise one of his main rivals in Tuesday's Florida primary, a man who desperately needs a win to salvage his candidacy? Because it was the noble thing to do...and besides, McCain knows as well as the rest of us that Rudy is sinking like a stone, probably won't win in Florida, and is no longer a credible threat. No, this is turning very much into a Romney-McCain battle, and you can be sure it won't stay this friendly between next Tuesday...and Super Tuesday...one week later.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Gloves Are Off

Wow, what a slugfest tonight in South Carolina!

I think that was the most entertaining presidential primary debate I have ever seen. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went at it - often in angry, nasty, personal fashion. And the winner was? John Edwards.

As my friend Brad said, it was a pleasure to watch three smart, passionate people debate earnestly about real issues. But the crackling, contentious back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama overshadowed some of the policy differences. Edwards succeeded in staying above the fray, coming off as the sage, level-headed schoolteacher trying to get the squabbling kids in the back row to settle down. He seemed knowledgeable, sincere and determined. He called the other two on their BS, cutting through the nonsense to get to the heart of key issues, again and again. Edwards rightly nailed Obama's hypocrisy for complaining about Clinton nitpicking over his record, while he does the same thing himself to her.

Obama isn't seasoned enough yet to know how to handle Clinton's sometimes savage attacks. She really seems to enjoy the repartee, the sport of political debating, the parry and thrust...hmm, lots of practice at home with Bill, Senator? Obama seemed overwhelmed at times, unsure of how to counter Clinton's aggressiveness effectively. He came off as angry and defensive at times, while she was like a bulldog who wouldn't let go of her prey.

For those who worship Obama, know that he can disingenuous and even deceptive. He accused Clinton of distorting the truth when she slammed him for representing a Chicago slumlord, saying he had simply spent a few hours working on a housing project for his law firm, and that the client had partnered with the slumlord in question. Innocent enough, right? But the truth is, that slumlord was a key fundraiser for Obama, and they had a long relationship. Obama has since given to charity the donations raised by the indicted businessman.

So Edwards scores the most points, and to me, was the clear winner of this debate. What does that get him at this point? A comeback, upset win in his home state of South Carolina this weekend? That's still unlikely, with Obama well ahead there, thanks to the state's large African American voter population. But Obama faltered tonight, probably raising a little bit of doubt in the minds of some voters, and Edwards may have saved his candidacy, at least for a few more weeks.

Leaving Las Vegas

PREDICTION: Fred Thompson is toast. He drops out of the race and endorses John McCain.

ANOTHER PREDICTION: John Edwards isn't quite toast yet, but he's definitely day-old bread. If he can't make a stand in his native state of South Carolina this Saturday - and he won't - he gets out after Super Cali Tuesday, Feb. 5. It's worth it to him to stay in that long, because he does keep accruing delegates...and he may end up with enough to put Clinton or Obama over the top at a brokered convention. That won't be enough to win him another shot at the vice presidency, but it could give him leverage to make some sort of deal. Maybe a Cabinet post. Attorney General? No. But Secretary of Labor, maybe, or HUD. In another country, he could be Minister Without Portfolio for Poverty and Social Justice, or some such thing.

RAUCOUS CAUCUS: What a surreal scene at Saturday's at-large Democratic caucuses on the Vegas Strip. My favorite moment: a Wynn Hotel cocktail waitress, with proportions not found in nature, wearing a revealing dress and impossibly high heels, going nose-to-nose with a housekeeper, in a perfectly pressed maid's uniform, over which Democrat is more electable. The Latina housekeeper kept yelling "But Obama is colored! Obama is colored! America no vote for a colored man!" while the waitress was shrieking "Change! He'll bring change! We need change!" The maid was using her Hillary Clinton sign as a shield against the other woman's wagging finger. Eventually, each retired to her side of the Lafitte Ballroom and cast her ballot. Hillary won the room, 189-187.

ANOTHER PRICELESS SCENE: Hillary Clinton, wearing bright red, working the casinos for votes, talking politics with two women who work at Mandalay Bay, also wearing bright red...except showing considerably more cleavage, and a lot more leg. Hillary seemed undaunted by the women's attire as she talked about health care and the economy. A politician on Election Day does not see clothing, or hairstyle...they see VOTER. But the photographers trailing Clinton sure seemed to snap a few more shots than usual during that exchange.

FRIENDS OF BILL: Many of the Hillary Clinton voters I met in Nevada - not a majority, but a substantial number - said they were voting for her because of her husband. Some assume that Bill Clinton will really run the country if Hillary wins. Some cited the strong economy during the Clinton years, saying obviously the Clintons know how to manage the country better than the Republicans. One simply shrugged and said, "I like Bill Clinton. He was a great president. If I vote for her, it's like I'm voting for him all over again." Hillary had better keep Bill's hot temper and loose lips under control though, or there could be a fierce backlash in a general election.

CORRUPTION, OR INCOMPETENCE?: All of the Democratic campaigns are accusing the others of playing dirty. The Edwards people say both the Obamas and the Clintons cheated. I saw no cheating at any of the caucus sites, but I did see chaos, confusion, disorder, anarchy - break out the thesaurus and look up "cluster@#%." Few Nevadans knew what they were doing. They weren't sure how to run a caucus, or how to vote in one. I guarantee that when the national delegates are awarded later, at Nevada's state convention, they won't break exactly the way the popular vote did, in either party. Many of the state delegates will change their votes, depending upon which candidates are still in the race.

MMMM, DONUTS: Mitt Romney cleverly locked up the Homer Simpson vote with his early-morning visit to a Republican caucus site in suburban Summerlin, a heavily Mormon area out on the western outskirts of Las Vegas. He arrived armed with dozens and dozens of Krispy Kreme glazed donuts, hot coffee, and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Romney shook hands, picked up babies, kissed old acquaintances and West Coast relatives, signed autographs and posed for pictures for about an hour. He joked with supporters and media alike, referring to his always-perfect coif as a "helmet head." He showed off the photographic skills he's acquired in a year on the campaign trail, teaching novices to stand with the sun behind them, instead of behind Romney, to snap a better picture of him. He was wistful about the lack of Dunkin' Donuts on the West Coast - Boston's best - and told Sovern Nation (that would be me) he was confident about his chances in California, and would be back this way often in the next two weeks to try to win the Feb. 5 primary. He demurred when I asked him why his campaign fell apart in South Carolina, and whether another lightly-contested caucus - much like Wyoming's - was a suitable consolation prize. Instead of answering, he offered me one of those glazed donuts. I told him I was on my new January diet, and that I didn't need the blast of sugar at 7:30 in the morning. I also told him if he brings donuts to Oakland, they'd better be either chocolate-frosted or filled with jelly. By the way, he won the Summerlin caucus, and the statewide vote, in a landslide. (You can see a brief clip of Romney giving out donuts, with me hovering nearby, that my friend Robin caught on MSNBC - click on the link over there in the right. I don't know how to embed the link here!)

Okay, that's it for now. Nevada was exhausting - a three-day marathon whirlwind of little sleep, a lot of adrenaline, and a lot of racing around Vegas covering Obama, Clinton and Romney. No time for gambling or glitzy shows. Besides, the presidential race seemed to be the best show in town, although it didn't come with mixed drinks and the participants were dressed more conservatively. The presidential candidates have left the building. Thank you very much.

P.S. For those of you who haven't seen it yet on YouTube, or CNN, or Fox News, or Drudge...I'm also linking the video clip of Bill Clinton's meltdown last week in Oakland. The former president was campaigning for Hillary at Everett and Jones BBQ, and got hotter than Dorothy's hottest sauce when Channel 7's political reporter, Mark Matthews, asked him about the casino caucus lawsuit in Nevada. Bill went ballistic. It's the second time in a year I've seen him lose his cool like this. Mark stood his ground and was respectful and non-combative. You can see my microphone darting in and out; the ABC-7 cameraman did his best to shoot so tightly you couldn't see it, but it's there some of the time. My boss loves it when our logo gets that kind of international TV play! The link is over there to the right, in the Weblinks section.

Friday, January 18, 2008

"Change" Slogans We'd Like To See

I'm wearing press passes from the various campaigns here in Vegas. The Obama one says "CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN." The Clinton one reads "READY FOR CHANGE! READY TO LEAD!"

As frustrated as he is by the media's focus on those two, at his expense, John Edwards' probably says "I"ve Got Your !@#$% Change Right Here."

A few more humble suggestions:

Dennis Kucinich: "Change Begins In Outer Space"
Mike Gravel: "Change My Medication"
Rudy Giuliani: "9/11 Changed Me. Ask Me How" Runner-up: "Change Wives"
Mitt Romney: "Changing My Mind"
Mike Huckabee: "What Would Jesus Change?"
John McCain: "Change? At My Age?"
Ron Paul: "Change Planets"
Fred Thompson: "Change Channels - Law And Order Is On Somewhere"
Duncan Hunter: "Spare Change?"

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Live From Sin City

There's something strange about seeing a devout Mormon race around Las Vegas, pleading with gamblers, smokers, drinkers and other assorted sinners for their votes.

But then that's politics for ya.

Mitt Romney, who was not supposed to be here right now, has suddenly appeared in the desert, and enjoyed himself so much today, he's going to spend the next three days here, running hard in Nevada's Republican caucus. That means one of two things: either he's got South Carolina in the bag, and can afford to turn his attention to the Silver State...or he's giving up on South Carolina, and conceding it to John McCain or Mike Huckabee. I think it's the latter, so Romney has decided to go for broke in Nevada, which until today, the Republicans weren't taking very seriously. You can understand the strategy in Romney's camp: okay, we're not going to win in the Carolinas, so let's get out to Nevada and make a big deal out of winning there.

This is indeed fertile ground for Romney. Las Vegas was first settled by Mormons (did you know "las vegas" means "the meadows"? I always wondered what it meant. Ah, the many blessings of the tourist guide book in my hotel room). Utah is right next door. And Nevada's most powerful politician, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is a Mormon, albeit a liberal Democrat. Nevadans in general may be a little too liberal for Romney, but he only needs 30% of their Republicans, or so, to win.

Look out for Ron Paul, though. He's the only other candidate running ads here, and the Area 51 Nevada fringe element may embrace his libertarian point of view.

It's surreal to be in Vegas on serious business at all, with its relentless glitz and 24-hour debauchery. I encountered a rowdy gang of hard-partying Republican businessmen on holiday, who were drunkenly arguing over who should get their vote. They seemed to be split between Fred Thompson and Ron Paul, and were debating who the truest conservatives were. Their political intercourse didn't seem to dovetail with the other kind they were seeking.

This town is lousy with Democratic candidates. I think there are six different permanent Cirque du Soleil shows running here, and I'll bet the Barack and Hillary Show puts on more performances tonight. Obama, Clinton and John Edwards are simply everywhere. From here to Reno, from Elko to Henderson to Boulder City, they are racing about, holding rallies, town halls and get-out-the-vote cheerleading parties. Hillary has a rally in Vegas at 9 in the morning tomorrow, and then another one back here at 9 at night. She has three more in other cities in between.

Obama took his wife Michelle out for a birthday dinner after tonight's rally. He wouldn't say where they were eating. Tomorrow night, he'll eat at a Martin Luther King Jr. dinner. His local headquarters is on MLK Boulevard. And no, Hillary's is NOT on LBJ Street.

The next two days will be a marathon, for the candidates, the voters, and for me, too. We'll be up and at 'em bright and early, and will blog as much as possible until we know the winners sometime Saturday afternoon...

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You Go, Girl

I was all set to call this post "You Gone, Girl" -- that is, if Hillary Clinton had lost New Hampshire. But she didn't.

I will proudly point you to last Tuesday's post, where I boldly predicted that the winners in New Hampshire would be Hillary Clinton and John McCain (you can ignore Monday's post, when I hedged my bets by saying okay, maybe Obama would beat Hillary in New Hampshire after all). But I have to admit, I am as stunned as anyone that Clinton derailed the Big O Mo' Mentum Express last night (I think the New York Post headline should be: "NO MO' O-MENTUM")

Here are the final vote totals from the Granite State:

Hillary Clinton 39%
Barack Obama 37%
John Edwards 17%
Bill Richardson 5%

John McCain 37%
Mitt Romney 32%
Mike Huckabee 11%
Rudy Giuliani 9%
Ron Paul 8%
Fred Thompson 1%

By the way, I am a little miffed at all those networks - including my own - which keep saying things like "a surprisingly easy win for McCain" and "it wasn't even close, McCain coasted to victory." Five points is pretty damn close in my book.

Anyway, how did Hillary do it?

Well, there are some conspiracists out there who think there may have been some hanky-panky with the Diebold machines in New Hampshire, but I see some pretty logical explanations in the exit polling data, which by the way, look far more accurate than all the polls leading up to the primary. CBS is part of the Exit Polling Consortium (along with the AP and the other big nets), so I get the data emailed to me, and the numbers are pretty consistent with the actual results.

Four factors leap out at me: women, youth, first-timers, and independents.

In Iowa, Obama surprised Hillary by taking 35% of the female voters, to 30% for Clinton. In retrospect, that shouldn't be so surprising. Did you know Iowa is one of only two states that has never elected a woman as governor or U.S. Senator? (Mississippi, that bastion of enlightenment, being the other - although it did produce my hero, Brett Favre, so it can't be all bad). But in New Hampshire, which often elects women to higher office, there was a huge turnout of women. Fifty-seven percent of the people who voted in the Democratic primary were women - and they broke for Hillary, 46% to 34%. The folks at Emily's List, who mounted a last-minute, full court press to get those women to the polls, must be turning cartwheels.

I asked campaign strategists for both Obama and Clinton this week, whether Obama would be able to replicate the huge youth turnout in New Hampshire, and beyond. They all thought he would. I have to tell you, I have met many young, enthusiastic Obama-niks in California, who spent their Christmas break in Iowa volunteering for his campaign. Very few of them continued on to New Hampshire. Either it was too far, or they had to get back to school or work. Coincidence or not, Obama did NOT get the young turnout in NH that he got in Iowa. There were far fewer young voters, far fewer first-timers, and those were the people who put Obama over the top in the Hawkeye Cauci.

Finally, in New Hampshire, independents can decide on Election Day to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary (out here in California, independents are only able to vote in the Demo primary; the state Republican Party does not allow them). And they had two very appealing choices: one-time maverick, indy darling John McCain - or enchanting newbie Barack Obama. So, unlike Iowa, where Obama had the lion's share of the independents all to himself, he had to share them with McCain in New Hampshire. Obama did very well with the independents, but he lost enough of them to McCain to make a difference. One of the reasons some pundits thought McCain might lose to Romney, is that they theorized Obama would drain away the independent voters he needed to win. But he didn't. Hence, McCain DID win...and Obama didn't.

One other thing I notice in the exit polling: 56% of the people who voted for Hillary Clinton say they would rather vote for her husband! If Bill had been on the ballot, he would have beaten her, too.

Hillary's teary-eyed sprint to the finish may have helped put her over the top, too. Real or not, it humanized her a bit, especially in the eyes of women. Many male voters reacted cynically to her show of emotion, but women seem to have found it genuine and appealing, and they showed their empathy by marking their ballot for her.

All of this fuss is over a paltry number of delegates: Obama and Clinton picked up nine more each in New Hampshire, and McCain got seven to Romney's four. By contrast, there are almost 500 at stake in California's February 5 primary. But again, this is about momentum, perception, energy, all far more valuable than that handful of delegates - they translate into money, volunteers, and votes in the bigger states that lie ahead.

Why were all the polls - even the Clinton campaign's own internal tracking polls - so wrong? Well, New Hampshire voters have a history of confounding the pollsters. I studied polling in both high school and college, and the Live Free or Die state is a notoriously difficult place to run a survey. People there really are fiercely independent - registered independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. There have been election upsets for years in New Hampshire- remember Eugene McCarthy's stunningly close second place in 1968, forcing LBJ out of the race? How about the past primary victories by John McCain and Pat Buchanan? Harold Stassen's shocker over Tom Dewey? (Okay, that's going WAY back). But voters there aren't always that forthcoming with the survey-takers, they often don't make up their minds until the end, and there's also the race factor to consider. Just as with Tom Bradley's gubernatorial losses here in California in the 1980s, the voters may simply have said publicly that they would back Obama - but then decided not to, in the privacy of the voting booth, something that wasn't available to them in the very public Iowa caucus meetings. And actually, if you look at the percentages, the only thing that was way off, was Hillary's vote total, which can be explained by that record turnout of women.

I'm kind of glad we still have such wide-open races on both sides. I can't remember a campaign like this, and I've been following presidential politics since 1972. This makes it fun, and interesting, especially for a reporter, and it guarantees continued voter engagement, at least for another month. That means the candidates will have to start answering more of our questions, and provide more details on their ideas and proposals. I know the Republicans want to see the Democrats beat each other up in a protracted fistfight, and the Democrats love the idea of the GOP contenders bleeding each other dry. But I don't want the nominations to be decided before I even get to vote next month.

That would be a crying shame.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Second Guess

Oops, I did it again.
No wait, that was for my Britney Spears blog.

Okay, so I was wrong about Iowa. As I wrote last week, it was a tough one to call. Actually, if I had just waited until Wednesday to write it, I would have predicted a Barack Obama victory. That's not 20-20 hindsight; all the tracking polls I read were clearly trending Obama's way by Wednesday, and even more so by Thursday morning. It was becoming apparent that the undecideds and the independents were breaking for Obama. But I had already made my call, two days before, and it didn't seem fair to log back on and change it. I stuck to my guns, and now I pay the price, absorbing the derision of my siblings, who ridicule my faulty prognostication abilities mercilessly. Hey, I never said I was Nostradamus.

So what really happened in Iowa? Well, in case our recent storms trapped you under a tree and you missed last Thursday's caucus, here are the final numbers:

Barack Obama 38%
John Edwards 30%
Hillary Clinton 29%
(five other people who did really badly, 2% or less)

Mike Huckabee 34%
Mitt Romney 25%
Fred Thompson 13%
John McCain 13%
Ron Paul 10%
Rudy Giuliani 3%
Duncan Hunter 0%
(and five people actually voted for Tom Tancredo. Not five percent; five PEOPLE).

According to all the entrance and exit polls, Obama won on the strength of a surge of young, first-time caucusgoers, benefiting from a record turnout. Fifty percent of the Democrats surveyed said they want change; only 20% are looking for experience. Obviously, that benefits a rookie Senator who's new and different, and hurts a veteran who's most associated with the politics of the last millennium (Remember Bill Clinton wanting to build "a bridge to the 21st century"? Note to Hillary: the bridge is out).

Only ten percent told the pollsters they care most about nominating someone who can beat the Republicans in November - and most of those people voted for John Edwards. Which I find interesting, because the Edwards voters often cite him as the most palatable candidate for middle America - a white, Southern male, just like the last THREE Democratic presidents (LBJ, Carter, Clinton). But the buzz I get from the Republican inner circle is that they view Edwards as eminently beatable, but are truly afraid of an Obama candidacy that galvanizes Americans across party lines and crushes the GOP in November like a pile of Barry Goldwater bobblehead dolls.

Iowa Republicans who were looking for a November winner voted mostly for Mitt Romney - but those who were looking for someone honest and trustworthy, who says what he really believes, and shares their values - voted for Mike Huckabee. I've been writing for months about Huckabee's likeability factor, and it showed up big in Iowa. It's playing well in New Hampshire too, though he doesn't have a big base of evangelicals to draw upon there. It may wear thin, though, if voters tire of Huckabee's affable-but-occasionally-lightweight shtick, and look a little more closely at some of the more controversial skeletons in his gubernatorial closet.

Hillary Clinton is still trying to mobilize female voters to help her come from behind in New Hampshire and rally in the next few states. Bad news, Senator: Obama beat you among women in Iowa, 35% to 30%. That's a shocker for the Clinton campaign. Obama even beat Johnny Labor (John Edwards) among union voters.

And Obama attracted vast numbers of independents and crossover Republicans like a human voter magnet, which also bodes very badly for the GOP if he wins the Democratic nomination. Yes, I know he's black; I've noticed. Yes, I know some of us think America is still too racist to actually elect a black president. Yes, I've heard the conspiracy theorists who say corporate America and the Powers That Be will never allow a young progressive of color to occupy the White House. Yes, I know only two U.S. Senators have ever been elected president. Yes, I know he's a northerner, and his middle name is Hussein, and (gasp!) he was raised abroad, in the world's largest Muslim nation, no less. This all means Obama will have even more to overcome than the typical Democratic nominee, but it doesn't mean he can't do it. Not if there's really a generational shift taking place in American politics, a true people's groundswell not seen since the likes of Bobby Kennedy.

Now let's see if Obama can handle the frontrunner's mantle (I think he can), if he can sustain his momentum (I think he will), and if he can roll from Iowa to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August without a few stumbles and faux-pas (I doubt it; everyone falters at some point). Another note to Hillary: if you don't win in New Hampshire, You Gone, Girl. Hmm, maybe that's the name of my next post.

I'm sticking with my original New Hampshire prediction from last week: that John McCain wins the Republican primary there tomorrow. But yeah, I'm switching my forecast on the Democratic side. I think Obama beats Hillary in New Hampshire now. She'll have a better shot at beating him in Nevada next week, and we'll be reporting from there, covering the caucus in Las Vegas.

Given my recent track record, I'd better not place any bets while I'm there.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Into the Great Wide Open

So it's finally here: 2008. Four years of speculation, two years of fundraising, one year of campaigning, and now we've actually reached our next presidential election year. The Permanent Campaign is about to give way to actual voting; slowly at first, then in great torrents of ballot-casting that should choose the Democratic and Republican nominees by Lincoln's Birthday (which happens to be mine, too).

And who will those nominees be? I'm proud to say I used to have a pretty good track record at picking them. Since January 1976, I have gone out on a very thin limb every four years, before the first primary or caucus, and published (or at least announced to my nerdiest friends) my predictions of the two parties' nominees. In '76, I gambled on Jimmy Carter, mainly because I was a big Allman Brothers fan, resisting my buddy Andy Borinstein's enthusiasm for Jerry Brown and my own soft spot for Mo Udall (he had "MO-mentum") and Birch Bayh (he was "BAYH-partisan"). I simply thought that in the aftermath of Watergate, the folksy peanut farmer routine might just work. On the GOP side, I decided President Jerry Ford would hold off the insurgency of Ronald Reagan. Okay, so I got lucky.

In 1980, it was easy: Carter and Reagan coasted to the nominations. Two for two.
1984 wasn't so tough either; Reagan ran essentially unopposed and Fritz Mondale was the obvious choice on the Democratic side (although you'd be surprised how many people miss the obvious when making these predictions. Gary Hart? John Glenn?? give me a break).
1988: The first race I covered as a reporter. Mario Cuomo told me to my face he wasn't going to run, so I tabbed his backup - Michael Dukakis. I figured a Greek-American liberal from Massachusetts was a reasonable replacement for an Italian-American liberal from New York. A lot of pundits (and my big sister) went with Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole, especially after they both won in Iowa, but I thought the Duke would take it, and I went with Vice President George Bush for the Republican nomination.
1992: Yes, I stuck with my original prediction of Bill Clinton, even after the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke; I'd had my eye on the Boy Wonder from Arkansas for a long time, and I figured his time had come. None of that Paul Tsongas or Tom Harkin stuff for me. President Bush's re-nomination was never in doubt, so that was easy.
1996: Again, it was an easy year: Clinton again, and this time, Bob Dole seemed a shoo-in for the GOP.
2000: Gore, natch, and George W. for the GOP; he'd been a lock for about a year before the primaries.

But the 21st Century is where it's all fallen apart for my fearless prognostications. In the 2000 general election, I predicted something crazy: that George W. Bush would win the popular vote, but that Al Gore would win the electoral vote, and the presidency. Whoever heard of such a thing? That happens once every century or so. But I went for it. I got it exactly backwards, of course. And then came 2004, when President Bush was an easily picked, unopposed GOP candidate...but the Democratic field was a MESS. As with Clinton, I had eyed John Kerry for the presidency for years, but when he finally ran, he blew it, with a wretchedly timid campaign. Howard Dean was my dark horse from the start that year, so when December 2003 rolled around, and Kerry was at 3% in the polls, and Dean was racking up dollars and supporters on that newfangled Internet thingy, I threw experience to the wind and picked Dean as the Democratic nominee. Ouch. We all know how Kerry surged out of Iowa, rolled into New Hampshire and locked up the top spot within a few days. Then, I predicted Kerry would beat Bush in the fall. Oops. Wrong again.

So, it is with great trepidation, no confidence at all, and no better shot than a blindfolded man throwing darts, that I make my annual predictions. I have no choice; I have to do it. But this exercise has gotten much more difficult than it used to be. Maybe my vision's getting fuzzier with middle age. I don't see this race clearly at all. It's quite close on both sides, and I think the general election will be another nailbiter, much like the last two, perhaps muddied further by a third-party independent candidacy (Mike Bloomberg? Ron Paul?).

So, again, who will the parties nominate for president? Let's run down our choices, two days before Iowa voters caucus. First, the easier one, the Democrats:

HILLARY CLINTON: The presumptive nominee for a year, with the highest name recognition, the best organization, the most money, the party establishment behind her - and the highest negative ratings, too. She's stumbled a bit down the December stretch, and has struggled to explain just how her "experience" makes her the smartest choice, but she remains the overall frontrunner.

BARACK OBAMA: He's gained momentum with a strong campaign in Iowa. Still a little vague on the stump, but his newness seems to have trumped his relative lack of government experience. He's successfully cast himself as the candidate of "change" - a campaign theme as old as the hills (remember Bill Clinton's "agent of change" campaign in '96?) - forcing his rivals to argue that THEY will better be able to actually effect change than the young Obama. Has the most passionate followers, but their numbers might not match their fervor.

JOHN EDWARDS: Edwards has put everything he's got into Iowa. If he loses there, he's toast. He's been campaigning there for eight years. He's running an angrier, feistier campaign this time but his one-note, anti-corporate schtick might not play that well with those mellow, corn-fed Iowans. The only way he gets the nomination is if he pulls off the upset in Iowa, rides a surge into New Hampshire, then rolls from there. That's asking a lot, I think. He does have a shot in Iowa if the Biden, Dodd and Richardson voters who aren't viable (a candidate needs 15% at each caucus or his/her supporters have to re-align with someone else) all end up in his corner.

JOE BIDEN, CHRIS DODD, BILL RICHARDSON, DENNIS KUCINICH, MIKE GRAVEL: The field. Forget it, folks. Of course, I would've lumped John Kerry into this group if I were writing this four years ago, so what do I know? But do you really think your 2008 Democratic nominee is coming from this bunch? Richardson could be Hillary's running mate if she gets the nomination, but I think she will also consider Wesley Clark and Bill Nelson.

Now, for the much tougher side - the Republicans. Damn, this is hard this year. They all have their flaws, making this the toughest nomination prediction I think I've ever had to make. I could go three different ways on this.

RUDY GIULIANI: Everyone's frontrunner but mine for most of 2007. I just have never seen how Rudy can win this thing. See my previous posts for the reasons why, but he's done nothing lately to change my mind. His "multi-state" strategy (which means he realizes he has no hope in the early states) just doesn't work. When was the last time someone won the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire? Well, Bill Clinton did it in 1992, but these states have grown in importance and it's a lot tougher to do now. Rudy will be completely forgotten while Huckabee, Romney and McCain get all the glory for their early state triumphs. By then, it will be too late for him.

MITT ROMNEY: I pegged Romney as my frontrunner last spring, but I think he's in real trouble now. He had the most money and the best field operation, which made up for his lack of national name recognition, but he doesn't come off as authentic on the stump, and that hurts him with voters who are looking for someone who at least SEEMS real. For the last two weeks, he's been lashing out savagely at Huckabee and McCain, as he watches his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire evaporate. There's a whiff of desperation about him all of a sudden. If he holds on and wins the first two states, he could yet be the nominee, but if he loses them both....

MIKE HUCKABEE: The December darling. Is he for real? Yes. Can he sustain the momentum, under greater media scrutiny and harsher attacks from his rivals? I'm not so sure. Will his Baptist conservative folksiness play outside Iowa? Again, tough to say. He does have the air of authenticity and likeability that can carry a modern presidential candidate a long way, but he has zero organization outside of the early states, which means he will have to parlay an Iowa upset into an extremely rapid infusion of donors and volunteers to capitalize in the two dozen states that vote on Super CaliTexIllistic Tuesday.

JOHN MCCAIN: The most interesting guy in the bunch. Now, McCain is starting to look like John Kerry four years ago: the early favorite who stumbles and is written off, only to recover on the strength of his foreign policy credentials. Kerry rode his opposition to the war in Iraq to a surprising win in Iowa. McCain could ride his sense of vindication over the apparent success of the surge in Iraq to a comeback win in New Hampshire. I would feel better about his chances if he were competing in Iowa; since he's not, he will have to overcome some early momentum for either Huckabee or Romney to get the nomination. McCain has the authenticity and a tremendous sense of honesty and integrity; he's also racking up endorsements from major, influential newspapers. He's less conservative than Huckabee, which appeals to everyone except the evangelicals; he's the most experienced candidate of all and can argue that the U.S. needs his steady hand right now. He's also wickedly funny. But he would be the oldest president ever, and doesn't have the money or organizational strength to compete with Romney right now, though those would presumably fall into place for him if he upsets Romney in his own backyard, New Hampshire.

FRED THOMPSON: Someone described him to me as a clumsy circus bear who can't stay on his feet. A soporific campaigner who can't generate any momentum. I don't see how he can win if he doesn't pull off some sort of magic act in Iowa or New Hampshire.

RON PAUL: He may surprise with a better-than-expected showing in the Granite State, and the passion of his followers could keep him in the race longer than he deserves. He's not a legitimate contender for the Republican nomination, but he could still emerge as a third-party, independent candidate (or even a fourth, if Bloomberg and his moderate brigade stage a rebellion of their own).


So where does this leave us? Did you really read this far? Is this the longest blog entry ever posted? Here, forthwith, are my bold and fearless predictions:

Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee win the Iowa caucuses....Hillary Clinton and John McCain win the New Hampshire primaries....and HILLARY CLINTON and JOHN MCCAIN win the presidential nominations.

Yes, McCain. Am I really typing his name? I still can't believe it, but the Republican race is so fraught with uncertainty that no one else makes sense to me right now. I will hedge my bets by saying that I did have Romney out in front all year, and that I picked Huckabee to emerge a couple months back...but when Rudy wins the nomination, I'll have no excuse and be unmasked as a fraudulent pundit.

I am not ready yet to predict who will win in November; we need to wait and see if there's a third, or fourth, party candidate (and if the Greens nominate Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader).

Now get out there and vote. Tune to KCBS for complete coverage of Iowa and New Hampshire, with much more frequent blogging in this space for the next month.