Monday, January 14, 2008

Election 2008 - Notes From the Campaign Trail

By Scott Cavanagh
With three weeks remaining before 24 states cast their ballots on Super-Duper Tuesday, candidates and operatives from both parties are working tirelessly to reposition themselves and their campaigns in the wake of some surprising results in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Seemingly overnight, John McCain has emerged as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, while Hillary Clinton's preeminence on the Democratic side is now in serious doubt. Here's a look at some of the major candidates as they try to either ride the wave of recent success or retool their failing messages prior to this week's three contests, including Saturday's first key southern showdown in South Carolina.

John McCain
The Arizona senator seems to have finally recaptured his voice from 2000, and just like 2000, it was the voters of New Hampshire that put McCain in position to make a run at the nomination. No one knows the importance of the South Carolina contest better than McCain, who's poor showing there in 2000 opened the door for George W. Bush. The good news for the former POW is that there is no prohibitive favorite like Bush to deal with this time. The bad news includes low approval numbers among the state's large evangelical community and rival Mike Huckabee's standing as a Baptist Minister.

Hillary Clinton
Despite her hard-fought victory in New Hampshire, the Senator from New York can only feel so good about her current position. While winning the Granite State was essential to maintaining her status as a top contender, her margin of victory over second place finisher Barack Obama was razor thin (39-37). That, coupled with her embarrassing third-place finish in Iowa, makes a strong showing in South Carolina a must if she plans on entering Super Tuesday as the front-runner. With nearly 50% of Saturday's Democratic voters being African-American, the former First Lady may need all the help she can get in order to keep the Illinois Senator from capturing another state.

Mike Huckabee
Once an afterthought, the Arkansas governor heads to South Carolina as the winner of the Iowa Caucuses and the main target of attack ads from all of his major rivals. Huckabee's appeal as a party outsider willing to criticize the current administration, coupled with his obvious attractiveness to religious conservatives, makes him a real force to be reckoned with in the Palmetto State. Money has been a concern for Huckabee from the start of his campaign, but the Iowa victory produced a much-needed influx of cash. A good showing this week could spur enough additional donations to keep the governor on even footing with his better-financed rivals for the remainder of the race.

Barack Obama
If you didn't know better, you'd think the Illinois senator was currently locked in a national election campaign to unseat incumbent Hillary Clinton--that's how rough the recent rhetoric has been between the top two Democratic contenders. What effect those battles are having on the electorate may become a big factor in South Carolina, where the Clintons have a very experienced and savvy statewide organization in place. How much of the large African American vote will go to Obama is uncertain, but one thing is not--his popularity among young voters seeking change. Those voters have been the bedrock of national support for both Bill and Hillary Clinton for 15 years. Their continued defection, combined with a large black voter turnout (another usual Clinton advantage) could tip the scales in his favor in both South Carolina and Nevada.

Mitt Romney
Though he spent nearly as much money in the two states as his three main rivals combined, the former Massachusetts governor was unable capture either Iowa or New Hampshire--making his former home state of Michigan an almost must-win. Although his formidable business credentials make him popular in many GOP circles, Romney's position changes on many key conservative issues (abortion, gun control, gay rights) coupled with his Mormon faith and status as an east coast governor may make South Carolina a tough nut to crack.

John Edwards

Despite a strong second place finish in Iowa, Edwards was unable make himself a real factor in New Hampshire, finishing in third place--over 20 points behind both Clinton and Obama. Edwards' powerful message of breaking the hold of corporate power over the lives of everyday citizens resonates well with voters, but his tough stance on the conglomeration of media outlets and who controls them may be registering loudly with the wrong people. Despite his solid showing in Iowa and consistently high polling numbers nationwide, the former North Carolina senator and successful trial lawyer gets little to no national press attention. On the positive side, recent polls have Edwards neck and neck with his rivals in Nevada (also Saturday), and as a son of the South, Edwards should be able to connect with voters in South Carolina. If not, his campaign is in a lot of trouble.

Rudy Giuliani
Is the former mayor of New York really utilizing a new winning strategy, or just committing political suicide? No one knows for sure, but the self-appointed hero of 9/11's decision to avoid campaigning seriously in either Iowa or New Hampshire to concentrate on later primaries has done nothing so far to boost his national numbers. Spending the last two weeks campaigning in Florida and avoiding South Carolina is his newest strategy. So, he was too liberal for Iowa, too conservative for New Hampshire and too New York for South Carolina. Where's his constituency--Brooklyn? Thus far, the only thing Giuliani is running on is the fact that he was mayor of a city when it was hit by a terrorist attack -- and that city is the bluest city in the nation. Not great GOP credentials.

Ron Paul
The darling of Libertarians everywhere is continuing to raise money at a startling clip, despite finishing fifth in both Iowa and New Hampshire. With absolutely no backing from his own party and fellow GOP candidates that treat him like a skunk at the family picnic, the Texas congressman still managed to garner more total votes in the two states than both Giuliani or Fred Thompson. In fact, Paul came within percentage points of finishing third in New Hampshire, where he received an impressive 17,788 votes, or 8% (Huckabee finished third with 11%). Paul's message of avoiding foreign entanglements and ending special interest perks has, at best, limited appeal among much of the party faithful, but his ability to fire up his core constituents and raise money should keep him in the race for a long time.

Fred ThompsonIowa voters seemed to like Thompson, giving the former Tennessee senator and veteran screen actor a solid third-place finish in the Hawkeye State--percentage points ahead of close friend McCain. New Hampshire voters were not as impressed. Thompson received only 1% there, finishing in last place--nearly 15,000 votes behind Paul. The rise of Huckabee and the rebirth of McCain seem to make Thompson's presence in the race almost pointless. South Carolina should be fertile ground for the folksy Thompson to make a strong case for his candidacy. Without at least a third place finish there, he's probably through.

Dennis Kucinich
The diminutive Ohio congressman managed to improve his showing from Iowa to New Hampshire--garnering more votes from Democrats (3,841) than Thompson did from Republicans (2,796), but it was not enough to make him a real factor. Kucinich appears to be gearing up to continue on however, despite receiving less than one-quarter of the N.H. votes of his closest competitor Bill Richardson--who dropped out of the race following his poor performance.
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