Just Getting Started 

Dogfights break out as the presidential race gets complicated.

I am driving home from Memphis International Airport, "refreshed" with maybe an hour of sleep — a fact, I remind myself, which puts me in the same shape, conceivably, as Democratic candidate John Edwards, who concluded his campaigns in both Iowa and New Hampshire with 36 straight hours of campaigning, doing all-nighters while last-minute hop-scotching from here to there. An impressive feat, but I do wonder who would turn out for such stops except people who were already supporters. And how many of them stayed awake long enough to go vote?

Anyhow, after eight days on the road in both of those early bellwether states, I am homeward bound, thinking only of the sweet — if temporary — surcease that awaits me at journey's end. (Oh, and, yes, indeedy, my brain lapses into mock-Shakespearean internal rhetoric sometimes — particularly when it's staving off exhaustion.)

Just then, two things happen: It starts to pour. A regular monsoon. And my colleague Chris Davis calls — courteously enough — to tell me he's handling a local assignment which I would ordinarily have taken care of had I already been on the ground. Good, I tell him, and I go on to float a few notions about what had just happened in New Hampshire to ensure that the Democratic race for president, which had seemed to almost everybody to be rounding out in favor of a new champion, Barack Obama, had become instead — here comes the term that various pedants and scolds abhor — a horse race.

Shocking even herself — we would hear over and over from this or that TV pundit with "inside" sources that her own polls had her 11 points behind — Hillary Clinton would beat Obama in New Hampshire, thus unexpectedly squaring accounts with a rival who had finished a strong first to her third in the previous week's Iowa caucuses. (The indefatigable Edwards came up second there, where the former North Carolina senator had all but lived for a year, but lapsed into a distant third in the Granite State.)

The outcome in New Hampshire meant that the vaunted Clinton machine, rich in money and networks and super-delegates (those apportioned from the ranks of elected officials) would be able to continue, contesting the issue with Obama through the primaries of "Super Tuesday" on February 5th (when Tennessee votes, along with a passel of other states, including New York and California) and perhaps even to this summer's party convention in Denver.

In a conversation made almost inaudible by the downpour all around me, Davis and I managed to agree that "the media" — by which was meant the major papers and periodicals and wire services and TV networks, regular and cable — had erred badly in their initial treatment of an incident in which Hillary had seemed to tear up while discussing her commitment to the Democratic cause with a women's group.

Subsequent examination of the video in question would convince almost everybody who saw it that A) there was no "crying" as such, and hence no breakdown, as first indicated, and B) instead, the usually calculating Clinton had, for one of the few times ever, materialized as an honest and compassionate and emotional person — capable, almost in the vaunted, well-documented manner of husband Bill, the ex-president, of feeling a constituency's pain.

Her usual mechanical cadences were absent, and in a husky, breaking, unfamiliar and strangely affecting voice, she said, "I just don't want to see us fall backwards!" — meaning further backwards, actually, along the trail where, in the view of all her partymates and, the polls would suggest, increasing numbers of independents, a tax-cutting, war-waging, brush-trimming George W. Bush had hacked away at huge tracts of the New Deal, the Great Society, maybe even the nation's solvency and the Constitution itself, along, of course, with the whole infrastructure of lost Democratic control.

Had it been worth 10 points for Hillary Clinton thus to wear herself on her sleeve? Was that what did the trick and sent the Democrats' race for the presidency into overtime? I thought so, and, when the MSM (mainstream media) finally came around, they seemed to agree.

There are numerous voters and even some pundits who insist that "issues" come before personality in political races and who frown at all efforts to discuss the latter in preference to the former. I'll grant all the senses in which this is true, but my favorite refutation is to remind folks that John F. Kennedy's noble phrases ("Ask not what your country can do for you," etc.) and many of his policy initiatives were authored for him — as is the case with all presidents.

But try to imagine some of these architects serving on the cutting edge itself — speechwriter Ted Sorensen, say, having to deal with the Cuban missile crisis or Reagan's amanuensis, Peggy Noonan, charged with coming to grips with Gorbachev. And then you understand why it's important for a nation's leaders to look and sound a certain way, even more so, to be a certain way, to have withstood certain agonies on their way to the top — not excluding those travails of the extended presidential campaign itself.

When I first heard about the aforesaid Hillary Clinton "breakdown," it was Monday of last week, election eve in New Hampshire, and, along with Flyer online columnist Cheri DelBrocco, who takes a political working vacation every four years (and provides good company), I was hanging with the press pack in the Rochester Opera House. We were watching what seemed to be Obama's victory lap — his climactic speech of the New Hampshire campaign, one punctuated with phrases like "hope" and "change" — not only in his words but in the signage borne aloft by the supporters, mostly youthful and female, who had taken the stage with him.

He was confident then, a prince preparing for his imminent coronation. In retrospect, that was perhaps the last moment in which this lithe, immaculate, well-dressed presence — son of his birth father's Kenya and his mother's Kansas — would appear to have transcended the usual categories of race or even of party.

On the next evening, he appeared belatedly in Nashua before a crowd of supporters who had waited for the expected victory, chanting their candidate's name and repetitions of the chant "Fired Up/Ready To Go" until the cruel consistency of results favoring Hillary silenced them.

click to enlarge JACKSON BAKER

Moving gracefully about the stage and bravely managing occasional shows of his patented toothy grin, Barack stirred them up again by delivering a concession speech which had his usual verbal checkpoints, defying the partisans of a "reality check," the warners about "false hope," the "chorus of cynics" who had disbelieved in his victory and declaring, "Nothing can stand against a chorus of voices asking for change." Only the addition of an inspirational "Yes, we can" coda incorporated the possibility of doubt. Along with everyone else, he clearly had expected to win.

And there were giveaway moments in the victorious Clinton's own prepared text, like "Tomorrow we will get up, roll up our sleeves, and keep going," that indicated she, too, was unprepared for the outcome. And God only knows how satisfying it must have been for this spouse of 1992's "Comeback Kid," Bill Clinton, to be able to promise America "the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has given me."

For lovers of consensus, the aftermath has been more than a little dismaying. In a series of coded exchanges between the two Clintons and their surrogates, on one hand, and Obama and his backers, on the other, the competing Democrats began accusing each other of bad faith on issues relating to race (see Editorial, p. 16). Or so said the media, which all too often had taken shortcuts in its analysis. As one example, former president Clinton had used the term "fairy tale" to describe Obama's account of his steady opposition to the Iraq war. Careless commentators implied that Clinton was debunking Obama's status as a new black hero.

So, for better or for worse, there won't be an early end to the Democratic contest this time around. Even Edwards, backed up on the stump by his dedicated wife Elizabeth and a troupe of supportive show business people, vowed to hang in for the duration. And those "Bill Clinton for First Lady" T-shirts which I'd seen but not bought in the Des Moines airport might still become sellable commodities.

The Republicans, too, were in something of a stalemate, with the old warrior John McCain, written off six months ago as dead meat, managing to pull off what amounted to a resurrection in New Hampshire, the same state that had given him a short-lived leg up over George Bush eight years ago.

For the time being, the Arizona senator's chief nemesis was ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had finished second in both Iowa, where he had campaigned assiduously and spent much of his own private fortune, and New Hampshire.

In a televised debate during the week of the New Hampshire vote, Romney had been mocked by virtually all his rivals, with McCain getting off the best zinger: "I'll say one thing. You are the candidate of change." That was a reference to Romney's various turnabouts from moderate to conservative on such issues as immigration, gay rights, the Iraq war, and even health care, though, as governor, Romney had pioneered in developing a form of universal coverage for Massachusetts citizens.

McCain, still revered as an ex-POW and hero of the Vietnam War, had profited from his stubborn belief in the ongoing surge strategy in Iraq, which, if not an unqualified success, had proven itself — militarily at least — as not being a failure.

But he would go on, in Michigan, to render himself vulnerable as he had in South Carolina eight years ago, when his characteristic plain-speak put him out on a limb. In that case, he had made a careless but essentially harmless comparison of George W. Bush to then president Clinton on matters of veracity. Bush, whose surrogates were even then slandering the war hero in every known way (including widely distributed suggestions to white South Carolinians that the Asian child McCain and wife Cindy had adopted was — horrors! — a black baby) made so bold as to call the Arizona senator's modest trope "negative campaigning" and somehow made the charge stick, thereby enabling a Bush victory that crippled McCain's momentum.

Only time will tell if he was as generous to the needful Romney this past week in telling an audience, on the eve of the Michigan primary, that the jobs lost because of the decline of obsolete rust-belt industries would stay lost and that new ones would have to be found or even invented. That gave an opening for rebuttal to Romney, born and raised in Michigan when his father George was running American Motors. (The senior Romney, a onetime presidential prospect himself, later served as governor.)

click to enlarge JACKSON BAKER

Predictably, Romney exercised his well-demonstrated flexibility to become something of a champion of old industry, promising to maintain as much of it as possible against transitional times and alarms about an incipient recession.

What to make of Mike Huckabee? Clearly, the former Baptist pastor, who preferred on the stump and in debate to emphasize his 11 years' service as Arkansas governor, was no single-issue religious zealot. Both in the lines and between his lines, he offered a populist vision unusual for Republican presidential hopefuls. "Bryanesque" he has been called by one or two astute observers, after the fire-and-brimstone prairie orator whose "Cross of Gold" speech had electrified the 1896 Democratic convention and made the Nebraskan his party's presidential standard-bearer that year and in two other losing presidential campaigns later on.

Challenged by the other Republicans for his demonstrated willingness to raise taxes in Arkansas, Huckabee would go on to boast of the schools he had improved and the roads he had built. Though he tempered his crossover rhetoric somewhat once he suddenly and unexpectedly had risen to the front of the GOP pack in Iowa, he let the caucusgoers in that state, which he won, and the primary voters in New Hampshire, where he finished a respectable third, in on some of his patented philippics against "Wall Street Republicans." That worked out for him, inasmuch as both states allowed independents to vote on whichever side, Democratic or Republican, they chose (though in Iowa, prior party registration imposed certain restrictions on that).

Though I pretty much let him go his own way in New Hampshire, I had followed Huckabee out to the east Iowa farm community of Grinnell the previous week.

He began his remarks there by reminding his overflow audience of some professorial advice he said he had picked up during his first year of college: "Always be smart enough to tell nothing but the truth, but don't be so dumb as to tell all the truth you know." In practice so far, that had meant acknowledging the parameters of his fundamentalist faith but doing so in a sort of understated code.

Among other things, he owned up to being unrelentingly pro-life but shied away from espousing any drastic agenda in that direction. He was now also the last man standing in GOP ranks (which meant the last man standing overall) willing to raise his hand early on in response to a debate moderator's survey concerning which candidates disbelieved in evolution. With a possible eye for how the impressionable cynics of the working press might regard him, however, Huckabee had since elaborated on that, Carl Sagan-style, to explain that, in creating the world and the universe, the Lord might in fact have taken "billions" of years to do so.

This was a man whose flip side was a hip side. He could play a mean bass guitar, rock-and-roll-style, and did so at several of his stops. (In New Hampshire, he would tour with macho actor Chuck Norris and a hot-blooded chanteuse calling herself "Mama Kicks.")

click to enlarge JEREMY M. LANGE

"You are the ruling class. We are elected to be the serving class," Huckabee told his audiences at Grinnell and elsewhere, and he promised to rid them of dependence on foreign oil while easing their financial burdens by abolishing the IRS and instituting a "fair tax" based entirely on consumption.

Genial and quick-witted on the stump, Huckabee hardly seemed the bugaboo that he was to many liberals, who feared his fundamentalism the way serious religionists profess to be apprehensive about the anti-Christ. That seemed an overstated fear, except that at Grinnell, Huckabee concluded his remarks with an earnest homily directed at the specter of gay marriage, likening the dreaded prospect to a disastrous cake once made by his teenage son, who, ignorant of cooking terms, heaped a cupful of salt into the mix instead of the "dash" called for by the recipe. Having thereby echoed some homespun version of the Sodom tale, the minister/candidate went on to say:

"When you make up your own definitions, the results are a disaster. What you believe matters. What you do matters. That's why we've got to understand some things are still right and some things are still wrong."

In his well-read tome, What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Franks demonstrated that people in the hinterlands were, in effect, the children of divorce, having seen the Democratic Party they once owed loyalty sunder its populist economic outlook from the traditional moralities they were raised in. Beguiled by the lip service paid by leading Republicans to their beliefs, they had begun voting GOP, though the current unpopularity of President Bush put all of that at risk.

If Mike Huckabee — shepherded by one Chip Saltsman, the ex-Memphian who is managing his campaign — should succeed in his quest for the presidency (and that is still unlikely), it is because he is something of an answer to Franks' paradox, as well as to the Republican Party's need.

 

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, is the other side of the coin from Huckabee. Famous for his highly publicized suppression of crime, petty and otherwise, during two volatile terms as Gotham's mayor, and genuinely revered in many quarters as the symbol of national response to the catastrophe of 9/11, Giuliani was, for many months, the clear leader in nationwide preference polls, at least among Republican presidential candidates.

The same factors that made a down-homer like Huckabee a candidate of choice in Iowa rendered that Middle-American state ("red," in current parlance) a potentially inhospitable terrain for Giuliani, a twice-divorced proponent (while serving as mayor, anyhow) of legal abortion and gay rights. So Rudy ducked it, and his involvement in the New Hampshire primary, as other campaigns generated more steam than his own, turned out to be largely pro forma as well.

He made a few stops in the Granite State, however, keeping his cool, appearing at all times pleasant and businesslike — as if he was aware that his reputation back in Gotham for vendettas and temperamental weirdness wouldn't play elsewhere. Giuliani's slogan — "Tested. Ready. Now." — was meant to focus voters instead on his aura of public heroism, his reputation as the crime-buster who tamed an unruly city, and his self-proclaimed capacity for leadership.

He seemed to be trying to establish a persona unobjectionable enough as to work for him if and when he somehow was able to get the nomination and had to come back through in the fall, no longer the atypical specimen he was now but as the official Republican.

On the eve of New Hampshire's primary, Giuliani made a stop at a smallish Grange hall in the Manchester suburb of Hudson. Typical of his suddenly dormant campaign's taking-no-chances outlook, the candidate was appearing in a building tiny enough to ensure that his campaign aides, standing outside, could cluck warnings about "the fire marshall" and thereby turn away a few stragglers trying to get in. That was one way of competing with the likes of McCain and Romney and Huckabee and even libertarian Ron Paul, all of whom were able to fill public squares and large auditoriums.

Inside, he had barely gotten started stressing his theme of experience and reliability, coupled with a by-the-GOP-playbook conservative platform that called for tax cuts even larger than those carried out by President Bush, when an anti-abortion protester began shouting, "Rudy! Rudy!" — calling the visibly nonplussed candidate a "baby-killer" and taunting him, a Catholic, for having the temerity to go to communion.

Once the man was ejected, Giuliani quickly became Mr. Smooth again and was able to continue reciting his resume, but the interloper had already underscored Giuliani's big problem, that which had caused him to fall behind. In this year, in which the most successful candidates were clearly talking crossover politics, Giuliani had a double vulnerability of being considered too wanton and too liberal for one set of voters and too rigidly conservative (his economic policies sounded Bushite, as did his hawkish foreign policy) for others.

For Giuliani, it was win-or-else in Florida on January 29th, with a successful follow-up in home-state New York and other big states on Super Tuesday.

 

The outlook for Fred Thompson, the politician/actor from Tennessee, was even simpler and more drastic. Win South Carolina or drop out. There were various theories as to why Thompson, ballyhooed as his party's savior during a prolonged malaise among Republicans in early 2008, had not worked out for the part.

First, he had waited too long to get in, whether because of a long-rumored fecklessness or, mindful of the re-run season, out of some sense of obligation to the Law & Order TV show on which he played a district attorney with his usual air of dour but folksy authoritarianism. In any case, when Thompson finally turned up in mid-summer, the mojo was gone — a fact not improved on by his sometimes haggard appearance, uncertain message, and on-again, off-again attitude toward making campaign appearances.

Ol' Fred would skip New Hampshire, hoping to stay in the race by bagging enough marbles in the South Carolina primary. (The GOP votes there this weekend; the Democrats hold their primary — an equally crucial showdown between Clinton and Barack — a week later.) In Iowa, Thompson had managed third place in a virtual tie with McCain, largely playing to everyone else's right with sentiments like these: "The big-government, left-wing, high-taxes, weak-on-security Democratic Party is just salivating about taking the reins and the power just so they can kinda roll to a welfare state. And we're not going to let that happen." It was part of a barn-burner I had heard him deliver before a Holiday Inn audience in West Des Moines.

Thompson had beamed as he left that breakfast meeting, and former Tennessee GOP chairman Bob Davis, who is traveling with him, had managed a hopeful smile. However such rhetoric goes down in the Palmetto State, Thompson's chosen role may not work in a campaign year in which the much-abused watchword has become "change."

The Republicans tend to talk up issues like immigration and approve the ongoing surge in Iraq, while Democrats devote their time to formulas for universal health care and getting out of Iraq. Candidates of both parties worry about the economy. And both parties, informed by the larger-than-usual turnout from independents in the bellwether states so far, know that something different is being called for this year, something which may not quite have been spoken to yet. And this is one reason why the amazing races of 2008 will go on for a while. Maybe even through the conventions themselves, in Denver for the Democrats, in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the Republicans. May we lovers of that lapsed arena-style drama dare to hope?

Meanwhile, other tests beckon: Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina this week, Florida next, and Super Tuesday, with Tennessee itself in the mix, just around the bend on February 5th. All of this is, of course ...

To Be Continued.

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