Monday, December 3, 2007

SpongeBrain SmartyPants

Encouraging news: more than four million people watched the most recent Democratic presidential debate on CNN. Sobering news: that was only good enough for 14th place in the week's cable TV ratings. Ten of the Top 15 shows were episodes of "SpongeBob SquarePants" on Nickelodeon. Two others were WWE Raw wrestling shows. It's no surprise that more Americans would rather watch people in masks wrestle than see politicians wrestle with the truth. And having met Tom Kenny, the extremely funny guy who's the voice of SpongeBob, I have to admit he's far more entertaining than Dennis Kucinich. I'll take a SquarePants over a SmartyPants anyday.

Despite a whopping case of Debate Overload ("tonight, live from East Muscatine, Iowa, it's the Organic Bean Farmers Association's Vegan Voters Forum"), more and more people really are starting to tune in to this election, with only a month to go before primary and caucusgoers start casting ballots. And many of them are actually thinking for themselves, essentially ignoring the punditocracy. Most of America counts on Iowans and New Hampshire-ites (New Hampshireans?) to sort through the field and separate the wheat from the chaff, which is something farmers do better than the rest of us anyway. Have you ever actually seen chaff? I have a sneaking feeling it looks a lot like Mike Gravel. Typically, most Americans vote for the person they've heard of the most and believe will win, sort of like buying lunch at McDonald's and coffee at Starbuck's because they're familiar and you know what you're getting, even though the mom-and-pop cafe next door may grill a mean burger and brew a better latte.

But people in Iowa and New Hampshire take this process very seriously. They don't tend to care what the polls say. I'm mildly proud of the fact that I met every president from Carter to Clinton (they won't let me get closer than 20 feet or so to the current President Bush). But just about everyone in Dubuque, Iowa and Dover, NH has not only met every president since, say, Lyndon Johnson - they've also shaken hands and had coffee and talked at length with everyone who's even considered running for president in the last 40 years. They know how to measure their candidates, and unlike many in the media, they make up their own minds. I am always astonished by analysts and columnists who simply assume that the fall frontrunner is a shoo-in for the nomination. These are the people who gave you President Gephardt in 1992 and President Dean last time around. Nominations aren't won in August, or even November. We have all been told for six months that it will be Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It may well be, but I don't believe it for a second. I've written here before about why I don't think Rudy can win the nomination, let alone the election. Hillary remains a formidable frontrunner, but don't dismiss Barack Obama or John Edwards just yet. And look what's happening in Iowa: someone forgot to tell the Hawkeye Cauci voters that they're expected to bring their "INEVITABLE" stamps with them on Caucus Night so they can ratify Rudy and Hill.

Now, given the sterling performances of our recent presidents, maybe it's a mistake to let Iowa and New Hampshire do the sorting for us. Iowa Democrats tend to be more liberal than the norm, and Iowa Republicans are more conservative, heavily influenced by the Christian right. That can give early momentum to candidates who may not be the best choice for the national party, in either case. The Democrats, in particular, might do better in November if a state like Michigan or Ohio wielded more early clout. But this year, it could mean a real shakeup for the conventional wisdom. Rudy Giuliani simply doesn't play well among Iowa Republicans, which is why he's invested less in the state, and has a truly national strategy that pins more hope on the February 5th super primary, than on the early, more conservative states. Rudy doesn't need to win Iowa or New Hampshire to remain viable, while all of his competitors, except maybe the deep-pocketed Mitt Romney, do. So it's likely that either Romney or surging Mike Huckabee will win in Iowa, which will vault one of them to the top of the field, and maybe, finally, rattle all those pundits who keep insisting Giuliani will be the nominee. Again, Rudy can survive two early losses, but if Huckabee, for example, suddenly starts raking in money, volunteers, free media coverage and some national buzz after some early upsets, he could take away an awful lot of February 5 delegates that Rudy's camp has already been counting in his column.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Iowa are warming to Obama, find him more likable and genuine than Hillary, and could knock her Inevitability Train right off the track. A recent AP-Yahoo survey found voters far more willing this year to vote for the candidate that impresses them the most, instead of the one they think will win, which bodes well for the underdogs and not so well for the frontrunners. They're not even basing their decision on the perennial "who would I rather have a beer with?" test - because last time, the answer to that question was George W. Bush, and we all know how that's worked out.

It's good to see voters resist the pack mentality. Fifty percent of those supporting Obama say they think Hillary will beat him - but they don't care. About a third of Edwards voters feel the same way. The only way America will elect more effective presidents is if we think for ourselves, and don't choose the leaders that we're force-fed. We can have cartoon heroes with spongy minds, but let's open our own, with critical thinking and tough questions, as we make these critical choices over the next two months.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Obamapalooza - Here Comes Huckabee - Odd Bedfellows


Presidential candidates don't typically hunker down and stay awhile when they come to the Bay Area. This isn't Iowa or New Hampshire; usually, they sweep through in a whirlwind, leaving tired reporters and buzzing supporters in their wake. That's exactly what Barack Obama did this week, spending about 24 hours here, raising money as well as the hopes of his ardent fans.

Between fundraisers, Obama came to Google, the latest to appear in the company's "Candidates @Google" series. More than a thousand Googlers, mostly young, bright and enthusiastic, jammed the company cafeteria, clutching laptops and smart phones, to see Obama speak, and ask him a few questions. The charismatic presidential contender seemed downright middle-aged among this crowd; several times, he joked about his age and the relative youth of his audience, many of whom crammed onto the cafe's catwalks and balconies in positions older voters would never attempt. Think "Downward-Facing Democrat."

Google is a weird place. I haven't been there in a few years, and its growth is beyond exponential. It used to be a 20GB hard drive and now it's more like a 500-gig. Google security people escorted me everywhere I went, even to the men's room. I'm not sure what they were afraid of; I was more likely to scarf some of their legendary free gourmet food than company secrets. Their techno-smarts extend even to the bathrooms, where there are electronic bidets installed on the toilets, and Java code-writing tests posted in the stalls and above the urinals - something about mistakenly outfitting a Death Ray with a blue laser, when everyone knows green is cooler, so how would you fix that - and why not bone up on your software skills while answering nature's call?

Hillary Clinton probably drew the best of the five previous candidates to visit the Googleplex. But Obama's crowd dwarfed hers, according to numerous Googlers in the audience. Even the Google guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were there, and they're not, usually. Obama was well-received, delivering a 12-minute or so speech about his "innovation agenda" - much of it similar to what all the other Democrats are proposing, except for his call for America's first Chief Technology Officer - and then sitting down for a 45-minute chat with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and a few questions from the crowd. Obama was smart, funny and thoughtful, and the few Googlers I had time to speak with afterwards came away impressed.

I didn't have much time, because this was Obamapalooza, which meant I was off to the races - otherwise known as Highway 101 at rush hour - so I could make it back to San Francisco in time for the candidate's next appearance, a more typical campaign rally at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. It was Obama's "Countdown to Change" event - except it turned into "countdown until the candidate shows up" for most of the throng of about six thousand. The line to get in snaked around the building, thanks to an oh-so-slow security process of metal detectors and body-wanding, which turned out to be a good thing, since most of the Obamamaniacs didn't get in until long after he was due to speak. But Obama ran especially late, not taking the stage until after 9pm, even though the doors opened at 6:30 and we were told to expect him around 7:30. He was busy raising money at the Atherton home of former California Controller Steve Westly, one of the leaders of his California campaign.

This was another young crowd, even more adoring than the Google bunch; after all, these folks paid money to be there, albeit just 15 to 30 dollars, but it still represents a commitment. They brought Obama to the stage with deafening shrieks, the kind people Obama's age (and mine) associate with Paul McCartney or maybe the Bay City Rollers. Obama's rousing 30-minute speech was punctuated with cries of "I love you!" from young women in the upper balconies. The Senator reacted with bemused smiles and sometimes a sheepish "I love you, too." I've covered most of the candidates now, and trust me, I haven't encountered too many voters with crushes on Hillary or Rudy.

Obama left the crowd buzzing about hope and change and possibilities. He does seem to have some new momentum, but is it enough to win the Iowa caucus? A victory there, or even a very close second, should give him a big boost in New Hampshire, but if he doesn't actually defeat Hillary in one of those states, it's hard to see him winning the nomination. An Iowa triumph will open the money spigot for whoever wins - it will bring magazine covers, a surge of new volunteers and media coverage - but without it, the only change Obama will be able to offer these loving crowds will be the loose stuff left at the bottom of his campaign piggy bank.

(To hear Obama's speeches at Google and in SF, please go to the Featured Audio column, either on the Sovern Nation home page or on Obama's Sovern Nation candidate page)


Which brings us to good ol' Mike Huckabee. We have written before in this space about his appealing qualities, and the good folks of Iowa seem to be embracing them. The former Arkansas governor is a tailor-made candidate for Hawkeye State Republicans: he is a staunch conservative with a terrific personal story, he's folksy and downhome, and he seems to be a sincere man of his word. He seems more reliably conservative than the Iowa frontrunner, Mitt Romney; he's more conservative in general than the national poll leader, Rudy Giuliani; and he's warmer and more likeable than Fred Thompson. And as Iowans cast about, searching for the right man from an underwhelming Republican field, more and more of them are settling on Huckabee. Why is he a longer shot than Mitt Romney? Huckabee is a former governor, with more experience in government than Romney, and he's a Baptist pastor, not a Mormon. The bottom line, sadly, is money: Romney's got it, by the bushel full, and has proven he can raise as much as he needs, while Huckabee has struggled to generate campaign cash. But the latest CBS News poll shows him hot on Romney's heels in Iowa, and if Huckabee scores an upset there, the money will flow as never before for him. Click on Latest Polling Data to check out those latest numbers from Iowa.


Nothing underscores the angst of Republican voters more than the split among Christian conservatives, who find something to dislike about every one of these candidates, and whose failure to coalesce around one of them will weaken their own clout within the party and could undermine the GOP's eventual nominee.

We all know politics makes strange bedfellows, but Pat Robertson endorses Rudy Giuliani? The same Pat Robertson who famously said the September 11th attacks were God's punishment for rampant secularism? Now he's endorsing the pro-choice former Mayor of Godless City - I mean, Gotham City? In announcing his support, Robertson proclaimed Giuliani an "acceptable candidate." That's hardly a gushing endorsement. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback used the same words when he threw his support (such as it is) to John McCain, calling his former rival for the nomination "not perfect, but ideologically acceptable." Elsewhere in the past week, the National Right to Life Committee decided to go with Fred Thompson, who proudly touts his "100 percent pro-life voting record"...but Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich endorsed Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, the last time I checked the AP-Ipsos poll, 24% of self-described born again voters were leaning towards Thompson, with 20% supporting Giuliani and 22% still not sure for whom they will vote.

The endorsement split reflects both uncertainty among the party's right wing and a reluctant concession to pragmatism. Conservative Republican leaders have gotten used to winning and they didn't enjoy the 2006 elections one bit. They're genuinely alarmed by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency, and disappointed by many of the actions of the Bush administration. They want to win in 2008, desperately, and this time around, they're willing to sacrifice some political principles for the sake of victory. But their diffuse and lukewarm support may serve simply to nullify their clout. They won't have as much impact in the nominating process if they split among four different contenders, and they're less likely to rally behind the eventual nominee if only 25% of them actually like him. Let's not forget 1996, when the GOP's conservative wing dithered and waffled and wrung its hands over Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. Buchanan eventually got their support, but it was too late, and the conservatives didn't turn out in great enough numbers for Dole to beat Bill Clinton, with many of them bolting to Ross Perot's candidacy instead. Democratic voters seem much more likely to be enthusiastic about their party's nominee in 2008, and that could spell the difference in a tight race next November.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Spin Class

Uh-oh, here we go, those darn candidates are debating again. That means a barrage of emails in my inbox from their spin docs as soon as the pontificating and question-dodging is done. But why wait? These days, the campaigns inundate the ink-stained wretches of the working press around the clock, whether anything significant has happened or not. The latest trend is to send us "confidential campaign memos" and "strategy sheets," that make their case while seeming to include us in their most private thinking. These talking points eventually turn up in wire stories and newspaper columns, which is exactly what the campaigns want. And now some of them will turn up here...except I'm going to bust them for driving me spin-sane. (I've even thought about setting up some sort of junk filter that I would call my "spinbox" to keep these things from cluttering up my email).

The smoothest operator is Mark Penn, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's campaign. This comes as no surprise, since Penn is the CEO of Burson Marsteller, maybe the leading PR company in the world. If anyone is the master of message massage, it's Penn. We've been getting his "memos" all year, with headings like "Strength and Experience" and "Strengths of Hillary Emerging." Guess what they say? If they actually revealed Hillary's strategy, they would be fascinating. But they typically just tell us about her surge in the polls...her presidential comfortable the voters are getting with her...and how the dynamics of the race favor Senator Clinton. But they sure look like secret internal campaign documents, with the inside deep dish.

The other leading campaigns have similar strategists sending similar memos, if not as well-written. Some are thinly disguised appeals for campaign contributions. Some are laughable bits of stunning puffery. Joe Trippi, who is managing John Edwards' campaign, sent one out called "Karl Rove's Worst Nightmare," about how all the Republican attacks on Hillary Clinton are designed to engineer her nomination, because Rove and the GOP have identified Clinton as the easiest Democrat to beat. By attacking Hillary, they figure, they will rally Democratic primary voters around the one candidate they'd most like to face next November. In fact, writes Trippi, his man Edwards has the best shot at beating the eventual Republican nominee. There's some truth to this; the Bush re-election team did go after John Kerry in 2004 because they feared Edwards more. And there's no doubt that Hillary Clinton has higher negative ratings than Edwards. But is Edwards really the "only Democratic candidate who can beat any of the Republican candidates hands down" - as Trippi writes in his memo? Uh, no. They all can. The Hillary-haters and the racists who won't ever vote for Barack Obama might make it tougher for either Clinton or Obama to get elected, but many polls consistently show the top three Democrats well ahead of the top four Republicans in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.

Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, uses any excuse to send out a memo than ends with an appeal - complete with a link - for campaign contributions. I'll probably get one tonight reminding me how much it costs to buy makeup for these debates, and don't I want to join Powder Puffers for Obama?

Then there's Brett Seaborn, campaign strategist for Rudy Giuliani. He seems to simply make things up. Like the map he sent out that "guarantees" at least 210 electoral votes for the former New York Mayor, if Giuliani faces Hillary Clinton in the general election. Seaborn maintains that Rudy would force Hillary to waste her vast campaign fortune competing in places like New York and California, that she'd be able to take for granted if she were running against John McCain, Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney. Really? Yes, Rudy is more moderate than the other three, but he would have little to no chance of beating Clinton in California. And if memory serves, Rudy bowed out of a Senate race against Hillary in New York that she won handily. Now he's going to beat her there for the presidency? Nice try, Brett, but in reality, wouldn't Thompson, McCain and Romney all run better than your guy in the Deep South? Are conservative evangelicals in Texas and the Carolinas really going to turn out for Rudy?

And now that Obama and Edwards have decided to take off the gloves and start tearing into Hillary, Mark Penn has sent me a new memo, a pre-emptive strike against their anticipated attacks. "One candidate is defining the 'politics of hope' ," he writes, "while the others are abandoning them...Does the 'politics of hope' mean launching attacks on one candidate? Does it means questioning a rival's integrity?" Which is exactly what Edwards and Obama are starting to do. Edwards suggests that Hillary's presidency would be a "Democratic version of the Republican corruption machine," and given past allegations, that's not that outrageous a claim. But with only about two months now before Americans start voting, the candidates who are falling behind are bound to start getting nasty, and does Penn really expect us to believe that Hillary wouldn't lash out too, if she were 25 points behind, instead of 25 points ahead?

Sigh. I guess I'd better go empty my spinbox. It could be a long night.


I (Heart) Huckabee

Mike Huckabee is my Republican dark horse. Is he going to be president? I really doubt it. But I always look for a likeable governor (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush - you get the idea), and Huckabee sure fills the bill. He comes across as honest, sincere and genuinely nice, and how many politicians can you say that about? He's also unwaveringly conservative, which makes him appealing to Republicans who are wary of Giuliani's social positions and Romney's flip-flops. He's got a terrific personal story (lost lots of weight, runs marathons, plays the bass in a band, is even from Hope, Arkansas - the same town as Bill Clinton) and is consolidating the right wing voters that are lukewarm about the frontrunners. Prediction: Huckabee surges into the top tier with a surprisingly strong showing in Iowa, parlays that into a Top Three finish in New Hampshire, and hangs around long enough to maybe get the number two spot on the GOP ticket. You heard it here first, folks.

Obama Opens Up

Barack Obama slammed the Bush administration the other day for being secretive and opaque. He promised an "open government" attitude when he's president, saying "I'm not just going to have one of these press conferences every six months where I call on my three favorite reporters. We're going to have regular press conferences to explain to the American people, here's what we're trying to do, and to be held accountable." Sure, let the sun shine in, Barack - except maybe you should prove you mean it by starting now. I've covered five Obama appearances in the Bay Area so far this year - and only once did he have a news conference. He routinely avoids reporters and their pesky questions. At the California Democratic Convention in San Diego last spring, he was the only one of the eight candidates who did not meet with the media. He's coming back to San Francisco November 14th - let's see if he talks to KCBS (or any other media!) this time around.

Mr. Mitt Builds His Dream House

Maybe the long slog of the campaign trail is taking its toll on Mitt Romney. He's said some pretty strange things lately. First he confused Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden, repeatedly referring to Al Qaeda's leader by the Illinois Senator's name, and then actually attributing bin Laden's latest anti-West rant to Obama. And then, did you catch that odd moment in last week's Republican debate in Florida? Here's what Romney said: "Look, we're all Republicans on this stage. The question is, who's going to build the house, who's going to strengthen the house that Ronald Reagan built, because that's the house that's going to build the house that Clinton Hillary wants to build." Huh??? (And yes, he said Clinton Hillary). I know Bill Clinton was big on building bridges to the 21st century. Now that we're there, Romney wants to build us a house. Apparently, it's a big Republican house. One that can build other houses. That's a heck of a house. Luckily for us all, Mitt Romney has enough money to build it without needing a subprime mortgage.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Hillary vs. Obama, Etc.


This past Sunday was Democratic Smackdown Day in downtown Oakland. Hillary Clinton came back to the Bay Area for a huge campaign rally at 14th and Clay. The Clinton team pushed hard to get a big turnout, making robo-calls to random cell phones, to generate a crowd. Unfortunately, five of those random calls went to the phone of Barack Obama's California campaign director, Mitchell Schwartz. By sheer coincidence, he was planning to open Obama's Northern California headquarters a block away (at 14th and Broadway) the next afternoon. But upon learning about Hillary's event, he moved the shindig up a day, to try to steal some of Hillary's thunder.

The Obama camp put on a hiphop rally, starring local rappers Blackalicious. They gave out stickers and sold buttons. They brought in local elected officials who have endorsed Obama. They cut the ribbon on their first campaign office outside of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada (Oakland even got one before Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago). The sparsely furnished office smelled of brand new industrial carpet, and eager young volunteers sparred over which folding table should go where. But they were missing one key ingredient: Obama. The Illinois Senator was campaigning elsewhere, vacuuming up campaign contributions on the last day of the third quarter fundraising period.

That kept the crowd down to about 500 people or so. As the Obama party was in as full a swing as it was going to get, thousands started lining up across the street for the Hillary rally, attended by Hillary herself. That crowd probably topped ten thousand eventually; Clinton organizers claimed 14,000, but that seemed generous to me. But it was laid out in an awkward fashion. Instead of using the crowd-friendly plaza in front of City Hall, as Obama did earlier this year, Clinton's people set up their stage in the middle of an intersection, and packed her fans down the side streets. This left thousands craning their necks from about a block away, trying to catch a glimpse of the Senator. I didn't hear much grumbling about it though; the crowd was enthusiastic, and thrilled to get even that close to the woman they hope will be president.

Both rallies aimed for Oaktown street cred, with R&B artists, African American religious leaders, and black local officeholders. But there was also a distinctly San Francisco flavor to this Oakland showdown. The biggest name on hand for Obama was San Francisco's DA, Kamala Harris. The mayor of Oakland, Ron Dellums, avoided both events...but San Francisco's Mayor, Gavin Newsom, was on stage with Hillary and spoke on her behalf. Clinton paraded a who's who of Bay Area black preachers, but they were all from San Francisco, led by the venerable Rev. Cecil Williams. It's pretty clear Hillary and Barack are waging an all-out war for the black vote, which polls show is split right down the middle between them. It's not good news for Obama that Clinton is doing so well among his presumed natural constituency, especially when women are breaking heavily for Hillary, and accounting for much of her huge lead in the national polls.

Mayor Dellums endorsed Hillary the next day, at a separate event, which took the Obama campaign by surprise. His handlers had no idea they had lost the fight for the mayor's nod, until they were notified by reporters, minutes before the announcement. Dellums' clout has faded nationally, but he still has tremendous moral authority among the black community, and his face and name will mean on a lot on those Election Eve mailers, when undecided voters are wavering between Clinton and Obama.


My favorite typo this election season was on the Associated Press wire the other day. It was in a story about how Rudy Giuliani is trash-talking about Hillary on the campaign trail, boasting about his own electability, and dismissing the chances of his Republican rivals. Except the story said Rudy is touting his "delectability," instead of electability. Does anyone other than Judy Nathan really find Rudy delectable? And even then, only when he's wearing one of his dresses. Which is probably why the AP later moved a correction, saying it meant electable, not delectable.


The number-crunching isn't done yet, but Hillary had an astounding third quarter of fundraising, raking in more than $22 million, surpassing not just Obama but even her own campaign's expectations. We'll talk more about this in the next week or two, after all the campaigns turn in their paperwork and we can see where all this money came from. It will also be useful to see how much has been spent, because cash on hand will determine which candidates can afford big media buys in the weeks before the first primaries.


Something always seems slightly amiss when I attend a Hillary Clinton campaign function. The aforementioned logistics at the Oakland rally, for example. The unseemly "upgrade" line at that block party, where attendees had to cough up a 20-dollar bill to get a spot closer to the stage. Then there was the strange scene at the Dellums endorsement announcement, which was held at Laney College in Oakland. Students were barred from the event, which was attended by 75 invited guests, handpicked by Mayor Dellums. Angry college kids jammed the quad below, demanding access, which they were finally granted when the campaign realized it had a PR nightmare waiting to happen. A hundred or so were allowed to stand in the back of the room while Dellums and Clinton spoke, but the editor of the school paper, Reginald James, who's also a student trustee on the college board, said he felt insulted, and wondered why Clinton would hold such an event on a college campus but then exclude students. None of this bodes well for how a Clinton administration would run the country.

You can hear Hillary's speech at the Oakland rally, Mayor Dellums' fiery endorsement of her, and her remarks about Iran, Iraq and Dellums at that event, in the Featured Audio section on the home page, or on iTunes as a podcast.

NEXT TIME: The "secret" internal memos the campaigns send us, to tell us how well they're doing and lay out their strategy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Catching Mitt

Once upon a time...maybe a dozen years ago...I was waiting for the elevator at One Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the 40-story skyscraper where our radio station used to be, before we moved into Gray Rock, the local CBS complex. The elevator doors opened, and out swept a tall, handsome man of impeccable bearing, flanked by a coterie of solicitous sycophants.
"Who's that?" I asked the lobby guard, as the man and his entourage bustled by.
"Why, that's Mr. Bain," he beamed.
"No," corrected a second guard, "that's Mr. ROMNEY."
It was, in fact, Willard Mitt Romney, the CEO of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that occupied two or three floors of offices below our studios. He was the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney (who'd been president of American Motors), and a very rich man.

The other day, I saw Mitt Romney in person for the first time since then. He came to Silicon Valley for the first public Bay Area appearance of his presidential campaign. He's been here quite a few times to raise campaign funds - something he's quite good at - but this was his initial contact with Northern California voters.

Romney spoke at a Santa Clara restaurant, holding one of his "Ask Mitt Anything" town hall meetings. It was free, and anyone could come, and a capacity crowd did. They were mostly, but not all, Republicans, and many were undecided, curious, eager to learn more about the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney has aged well. He is 60 years old, still tall and handsome, upright and trim. He's grayed at the temples, but hey, haven't we all? (Okay, I guess I haven't, but if more of my hair hadn't abandoned my head, it might be gray by now). He's still impeccably tailored and carries himself with the assurance of a man of privilege, someone who knows who he is and feels good about it. He's comfortable with people, smooth-talking, a pleasant chatter. He looks you in the eye, finds a way to relate, smiles easily, remembers your name. It's no wonder he's made a quarter of a billion dollars, and become a successful politician -- which is why I think he's being underestimated by many of the pundits, who can't look beyond his religion, and why I think he'll do a lot better in the Republican primaries than many people expect.

I've had Mitt Romney in the top spot in my GOP Power Rankings since I started posting them in June. Some are incredulous at that, pointing to his low showing in the national polls, and dismissing Romney's chances because he's a Mormon. But the man is a fundraising machine, can (and will) supplement those donations with his own fortune, has done extraordinarily well in the early debates, and has built an impressive ground operation in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He's been on television and radio for months now in the Midwest, where his name recognition is much higher than it is nationally, and the voters who have met him at bakeries, restaurants and these "town hall" meetings, like him.

Let's face it, Mitt has "it." "It" is, for better or worse, the main determinant of success in an American presidential election. Got it? You've got a chance. Don't? Forget it, you're Al Gore. Or John Kerry. Or Bob Dole. Or Michael Dukakis, Fritz Mondale or the first George Bush or Jimmy Carter when they were running for re-election (psst: "it" can wear off).

Unfortunately, most American voters base their Election Day decision on likability, not self-interest. Polls in 2000 showed a majority disagreed with George W. Bush's positions and beliefs, yet enough voted for him anyway to put him in position to "win" that election, simply because they felt more comfortable with him than with Al Gore. Americans want a leader who projects confidence and quiet strength, not intellectual arrogance, and certainly not tentativeness. For many, many years, the taller candidate has always won...although Bush broke that streak, by defeating the taller Kerry (Gore is taller than Bush too, but he got more popular votes, remember?). Most voters will never meet their president, let alone have a beer with him or her, so it's certainly silly to vote for someone you like in the abstract but whose policies will tangibly worsen your life -- but most don't ever bother to study those policies, so the beer buddy test has to suffice.

There's no doubt that getting the measure of a man, or woman, can tell you a lot about his or her character, and my votes in the past have certainly been influenced by my interactions with the candidates. John Edwards has a very firm handshake; Barack Obama is extremely bright and exudes charisma; Fred Thompson seems twitchy. Rudy Giuliani seems almost mean sometimes; John McCain is funny and has a quick, self-deprecating wit; Hillary Clinton comes across as incredibly smart, well-studied and self-assured. But I would still never vote for someone with whom I disagreed consistently on the issues, no matter how much I liked them. I am in a very fortunate position of uncommon access to these people, so it is my job to communicate what I can to those who aren't, to help them make a more educated decision. That's why you can hear every word Mitt Romney uttered in Santa Clara, under the Featured Audio section of his SovNat page (click on Mitt's button under Meet the Candidates) and also on the home page Featured Audio. He talked a lot about education, immigration, technology, the economy - mostly bread-and-butter, pocketbook issues that hit home with the Silicon Valley crowd. He uses words like "mosey on down" and "folks" and talks a lot about America, the future, greatness - always upbeat, optimistic, and folksy. I think he's going to wear very well on the voters, and I would not be that surprised to see him pop out of the early primaries and surge past Giuliani, Thompson and McCain.

We did catch him off guard a couple of times, though. Romney changes his positions the way other candidates change suits. How many of you have completely altered your thinking on fundamental social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control over the last five or ten years? Romney has. The woman who introduced him in Santa Clara enthused about how great it would be to finally have a real businessman in the White House, someone from the private sector with an MBA, sentiments Romney echoed, apparently forgetting that that also describes George W. Bush. When I asked Romney about that, he said he wasn't talking about Bush, or any of his rivals - and then proceeded to say that none of his rivals could match his Wall Street cred. We also asked him about the Blackwater scandal in Iraq, since the company's vice chairman, Cofer Black, is Romney's top campaign advisor on national security. It was the only time I saw uncertainty in his eyes. He seemed unprepared for the question, and stammered through a non-answer, about awaiting the results of the investigation into the "troubling" allegations.

Romney's nomination would be good news for Hillary Clinton, because evangelical Christians don't trust him, and conservative Republicans wouldn't be motivated to turn out for him in November. Clinton, or whomever the Democrats nominate, should prefer Romney to Fred Thompson, who might prove a more formidable general election opponent. But stand Thompson next to Romney on a stage at an Iowa county fair or a New Hampshire candidates' forum, and see who makes more voters smile and nod.

"Mit" means "with" in German. I think more and more Republicans are going to be mit Mitt, as we get closer to those first primaries. If not...with that square jaw and smooth baritone, he'd make an outstanding TV anchor. Maybe he'll swing by CBS for another visit.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fat Man and Little Boy

No, that's not the bipartisan Dream Ticket of Mike Huckabee and Dennis Kucinich (besides, Huckabee's not fat anymore; he lost, like, a hundred pounds). It's one of the many movies in which former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson has starred. Now, like so many actors-turned-statesmen before him - well, two anyway, who made a real impact (that would be Ronnie and Arnold) - Thompson wants to move from the soundstage to the world stage. To commemorate his entry into the presidential race, we present the following updated synopses of some of Thompson's, um, best-known films:

IN THE LINE OF FIRE: What Thompson found himself in, barely a week into the race. First he said Osama bin Laden no longer matters; then he wanted him caught and killed, but "under the rule of law." Then he demurred on the Terri Schiavo case, saying he didn't remember the details, before saying later that Congress shouldn't have gotten involved; then, he was surprised to learn while visiting Florida that there's oil in the Everglades and controversy over drilling there (never mind that this was an issue while Thompson was in the Senate). A rough start for Fred. He may need to study his lines a little more. Cue the music - it's time for "Law and Order: Trial By Fire."

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER: What the Republican nominee will be engaged in a year from now: trying to turn some of those blue states into red ones. You can be sure the cable networks will use this one in a logo if Thompson wins the GOP nomination.

NECESSARY ROUGHNESS: What Rudy Giuliani claims as he lays into Hillary Clinton in his new attack ads. Rudy's sinking his fangs into his fellow New Yawker for dissing General Petraeus during last week's Senate hearing, trying to somehow link her to the Move On ad that bashed the general in the New York Times. Hillary's trying to stay above the fray, deflecting questions about the ad and her snarkiness with platitudes about how much she respects the general's service, if not his conclusions. They're just getting started, folks: it will be bump and run all the way to next November.

DAYS OF THUNDER: What we're guaranteed a year from now, when the Democrats and Republicans hold their conventions within a few days of each other, and as close to 9/11 as they can get. Expect a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

CLASS ACTION: What John Edwards will file against Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and friends if they don't stop calling him the "Breck Girl." He will sue on behalf of pretty boys with long hair everywhere. God, I wish I were still part of that class...

CURLY SUE: What Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and friends will call John Edwards next.

CAPE FEAR: Where the Democrats will hold their 2008 convention, unless they clone some stem cells and grow a spine for the party before next summer.

BED OF LIES: I don't remember this movie, but Fred was in it, so I couldn't resist. But this one is too easy, so we'll move on to...

BARBARIANS AT THE GATE: The immigration plank in the Republican platform.

BABY'S DAY OUT: A freshman Senator finds himself in over his head as he runs for president with a big bag of charisma and a teeny little one of actual policies. Starring Barack Obama as himself.

SEX AND THE CITY: Hmm, are the Republicans really still going to hold their convention in Minneapolis? Can they all fit into that stall at the airport? Even while Katie Couric and Larry King anchor from there? Fifty cents says Larry Craig won't get to deliver the keynote (and yes, Fred Thompson did a guest shot on Sex and the City once).

BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE: What each candidate instructs his handlers to do before he or she takes a deep breath and enters the presidential free-for-all.

LAST BEST CHANCE: What each candidate tells us he or she is, for Democracy and the Future of our Homeland. This one goes with...

BORN YESTERDAY: ...which is what they must think we all were, since everyone is running as the candidate of change, which is what every candidate has been promising since John Adams.

And finally...

NO WAY OUT: What the American people have, as we endure the longest, earliest and most expensive primary season ever... followed by the longest and most expensive general election campaign ever...followed by another disappointing president who is roundly criticized by carping pundits who all do stories about how there's no such thing as a presidential honeymoon anymore...followed by intensifying speculation about who will run in which point we will start all over again.

Boy, this blog is way too cynical. Have I been on the campaign trail too long? Okay, then, we'll give it a happy ending, with:

KEEP THE CHANGE: What we all hope we will finally get to do, when Our Next President fixes the economy, cuts taxes, balances the budget, solves the mortgage crisis, brings Peace In Our Time, Joy to the World, the arts back to our schools and flowers to the streets of Baghdad.

See you next week...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Barack Obama came back to San Francisco last Friday. You can hear my report on his visit, and the whole 33-minute speech he gave at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, on Obama's page under Meet The Candidates (just click the Obama button, then click on what you want to hear under Featured Audio, in the righthand column). But here are some random observations:

He may be slipping in the polls, but Obama is still a rock star. A crush of Obamamaniacs, mostly women, crammed against the barricades in front of the stage after his speech, screaming as if they were at a Beatles concert, circa 1964. Grown men and women stood on tiptoe, reaching out their hands, hoping he would touch or shake them. Cell phone cameras clicked and flashed. Autograph pads were thrust across the barrier. If I'd had the foresight to set up a Sharpie stand, I'd be a rich man now. Senator Obama chatted and signed cheerfully, smiling, making small talk, moving quickly down the line, his Secret Service brigade nervous and watchful. I was in this same hall five months ago with Bill Clinton, when my band played before his speech on health care. Clinton drew a bigger crowd, and he relished the flesh-pressing more than Obama. Clinton seems to draw his very life force from contact with other human beings, especially adoring ones he can lecture. Obama was relaxed and comfortable, but he didn't linger and suck every last second out of each encounter the way Clinton does.

Obama also drew an eclectic mix of admirers, including literati and even a hoop star. I ran into a veritable Algonquin circle of Bay Area writers, each wearing a "Women for Obama" button, though most were men. I dubbed them the "Authors for Obama," which seemed acceptable to them. Berkeley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and "Wonder Boys," among others) was there, with his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman (Waldman went to Harvard Law School with Obama). So was Daniel Handler, who writes for kids under the name Lemony Snicket ("An Unfortunate Series of Events"). They were palling around with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and a couple other members of the local intelligentsia. And holding up a wall nearby was Golden State Warriors point guard Baron Davis. Obama joked that he would be rooting for the Warriors this fall - as long as they lose to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals (long-suffering Warrior fans would certainly settle for that!).

There were Catholic high school kids in plaid skirts, aging Oakland activists in dreadlocks, eager college students in Obama t-shirts and jeans. There was also a dynamo from Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Hains, who's the Dean of Freshmen, who led the crowd in Obama chants and was the firiest speaker of the day. The campaign should hire this woman as a crowd-warmer, because she whipped them into a frenzy, with humor and passion, before Barack took the stage.

Lemony Snicket is not politically active, and told me he was essentially dragged there by Waldman and Chabon. He was noncommittal about Obama, but was intrigued enough to come, and impressed by what he heard. Chabon, on the other hand, is a True Believer. He said no candidate has ever inspired this kind of passion in him; finally, after 44 years, he is moved the way young people in the 60s were by Robert F. Kennedy. Chabon spoke eloquently about Obama, and told me that the Senator's books were the clincher for him. He's extremely impressed by Obama's writing, which is high praise coming from someone as creative and imaginative as Chabon. (I will post the audio of my interviews with Chabon and Handler/Snicket, so you can hear those later this week in the Featured Audio section on Obama's page).

As for the Senator himself, he's got a new stump speech, and he delivers it as well as the previous one. The last one focused on change, a fresh perspective, new ideas. The new one talks more about his experience, responding directly to what the campaign recognizes is Obama's biggest weakness - some voters just aren't comfortable with someone so young, and with such a short government resume. The Hillary Clinton campaign has been hitting Obama hard on his lack of experience in Washington, using words like "naivete" as often as possible. The Edwards camp focuses on "change." Bill Richardson is now describing himself as the perfect combination of experience AND change. So Obama's shoring up his experience plank, by emphasizing his social justice work in Chicago before he went into elective politics.

Of course, none of this is new. Bill Clinton was a "change agent" (I always pictured him with one of those little metal changemaking machines on his belt when he said that). Gary Hart had "New Ideas," FDR the "New Deal." I can't even count how many candidates have promised "Peace and Prosperity." Every four years, we are promised new and different, hope and change, often from an outsider who, once he gets inside, will return American democracy to its Jeffersonian ideal. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer who'd never even BEEN to Washington. George W. Bush was the "compassionate conservative" who would unite Washington the way he did Austin. Hmmm...why is it that the qualities that get someone elected are not always the same ones that make someone good at actually running the country?

Obama's new message actually IS "Hope and Change," with a dollop of "experience that matters" thrown in there. (But of course Mike Huckabee is actually FROM Hope...the same tiny Arkansas town that gave us Bill Clinton, so he's one-up on everybody. Is there a town called Change somewhere?) Obama is smooth on the stump, easy on the eyes, and is starting to develop a nice little tinge of Martin Luther King Jr. in his cadence and timbre. So he definitely still has hope...and judging from the San Francisco crowd, he's got a lot of passionate fans...but he's still got a long way to climb to knock Hillary off the top of the mountain.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Super-Cali-Tex-Illistic Tuesday

Florida announced today that its 2012 Democratic Primary will be held next Thursday, just to make absolutely SURE no other state beats it to the punch.

Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. In an effort to boost their clout with the candidates, various states are playing an embarrassing, confusing game of primary leapfrog, that is alienating voters, angering the national party leadership, and creating awkward situations for those presidential contenders. Four states - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina - are supposed to kick things off in January, but Wyoming just jumped its Republican caucus ahead of the pack, Florida is moving up and scofflaw Michigan plans to vote January 15. The national parties are responding by threatening to punish the renegade states and withhold delegates, and now most of the Democratic candidates have agreed to boycott the unauthorized early voting states, by not campaigning in them...which defeats the purpose of moving up in the first place.

Meanwhile, so many states (23, the last time I counted), have crammed their primaries or caucuses onto the first Tuesday in February that the quaint moniker "Super Tuesday" will no longer do. Some news agencies are adopting "SuperDuper Tuesday" instead, but even that doesn't do it justice. So I've decided to go with SuperCaliTexIllistic Tuesday, which at least gets three of the bigger states (California, Texas, Illinois) into the name. I wish Florida would join the Feb. 5 party, because SuperCaliFlorIllistic sounds better, but what's a wordsmith to do? I'm writing a song about it too, which includes the full phrase: SuperCaliTexIllistic YorkiZonadocious...but you'll have to wait to hear that on KCBS (and, subsequently, on this site).

I've never been a fan of these early primaries. I understand the intention, and it's true that the candidates have been campaigning in California far more than usual, which makes my professional life more interesting. But in the long run, is it better for the voters, and for the process? In the old days, when we Californians voted in June (and occasionally in March), the candidates only came here to raise money, and by the time the nation's largest primary rolled along, it was essentially a meaningless afterthought in an already-decided race.

But look at the unintended consequences of this ridiculous exercise. Instead of beginning their campaigns in mid or late 2007, most of the contenders started running a year ago. Instead of holding their first debates in October or November 2007, when voters are starting to pay attention, they've been "debating" since last spring ("Let's see a show of hands: who believes in torture?"). The pressure to raise obscene amounts of money, to pay for all those extra months of staff, office space, polling, etc., is enormous. This will be, by far, the most expensive presidential campaign in American history, as well as the longest.

And what will we get for our money? The nominees will likely be determined by my birthday (which happens to also be the birthday of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln), which means we will have a TEN-MONTH general election campaign. Yes, instead of a fall race that lasts from the summer conventions until November - typically three or four months - the general will drag on for almost a full year. That's guaranteed to produce voter burnout, not turnout. We will see ten months of overpoliticized, superficial, image-conscious rhetoric...not ten months of thoughtful discussion of the issues. Call me cynical, but even a spoonful of sugary sweet biographical campaign ads won't make this medicine go down. I will love being out on the campaign trail, and look forward to bringing you all the deep insight I can muster, but the Perpetual Campaign is not in the best interests of the voters. It's another symptom of the sickness that has made campaigning more important than governing...placed party politics above doing the people's business...and turned off so many voters from even caring what their representatives do in their name.

Okay, this has turned into a rant. Sorry. Cue Julie Andrews....
Super-Cali-Tex-Illistic YorkiZonadocious, moving up these primaries is getting quite atrocious....

Friday, August 17, 2007

Leveling the Field

It's been five months since the Field Poll surveyed California voters about the 2008 presidential race. That's an eternity for political junkies like me; we've been jonesing for fresh data. What's a wonk to do? Gorge himself on lesser polls with unsound methodology? Yes, it's been the demographic equivalent of bad fast food fries since March, but now pollsters Mervin Field and Mark DiCamillo have laid some filet mignon on us.

By the way, DiCamillo promises us new poll numbers on a more regular basis from here on in. Can't really blame him for a little bit of summer down time before the campaign intensifies. "We'll be very busy from now on," he told me, spitting out fresh numbers between now and California's February 5th primary.

The leaderboard in the new Field Poll is no big surprise: Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani are dominating their respective primary fields. But there are a couple of interesting wrinkles behind the numbers (to see the poll results, click on our Poll of the Week on the Sovern Nation home page. You can also compare Field's findings to the poll done by Survey USA in California earlier this month. And to hear pollster DiCamillo talk about the survey results, go to Featured Audio on the SovNat home page. Our podcast with him should be at the top of the column).

For one thing, Hillary Clinton seems to be right. She told me last month, when I asked her how she could possibly win when half the country hates her, that she wins people over one at a time. She said New Yorkers were skeptical about her too, but now they love her. That when people meet her, and hear her speak, they are impressed, and become Clinton converts. Well, at least in California, it does seem to be happening. She's pulling away from Barack Obama here. In March, when Golden State liberals were buzzing about Obama, he trailed Hillary 41% to 28%. Now the bloom seems to be off the Barack rose, and he's fallen to just 19%, while she's risen to 49%. And since everyone else in the poll has stayed at roughly where he was five months ago, Clinton's new support seems to be coming directly out of Obama's camp, which means she's pulling liberals away from him. Hillary is also winning across the board; Obama does best among younger voters, better-educated voters, and African Americans, but Clinton still beats him soundly in all those groups. Yes, Hillary is winning the black vote in California: she's got 52%, and he's got 28.

On the Republican side, Rudy still leads, but his numbers are static, and he'd better keep an eye on those bubbling under. Giuliani had 34% in March; he's got 35% now. His biggest rival in the spring has had a summer of discontent, and is barely a factor now. Yes, those who were sure last winter that John McCain would be the next president of the United States were probably also investing in subprime mortgage bundlers. McCain has fallen faster than California home sales. He's plummeted from 24% in the previous survey to just nine percent now. He's been displaced as the anti-Rudy by Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, essentially tied for second. On the one hand, there's a lot here for Romney to crow about. Those who aren't paying close attention still don't know who he is, and a measly one percent of them say they'd vote for him. But of those who ARE following the race closely, 21% like Romney, which means he's scoring in the debates and impressing voters on the stump. That bodes well for the Massachusetts Mormon, and suggest he could close the gap with Giuliani as we get closer to the primaries.

On the other hand, though, the Christian conservatives who often determine the Republican nominee want nothing to do with Romney. Of those who consider themselves born-again Christians, 37% prefer Giuliani, 16% like Fred Thompson, 12% pick McCain, 15% split among the second-tier Republicans, and only seven percent back Romney. Those who identify as strongly conservative also lean towards Rudy, with 38% in his corner, and Romney and Thompson tied at 16%. That means there's an opening for Tennessee's Thompson (if he ever declares and gets in the race already!), to outflank Romney on the right and emerge as the most viable challenger to Giuliani.

We're just over five months from the primary. There will be many more polls, a ridiculous number of debates, and God only knows how many gaffes and controversies. Nothing in these numbers dissuades me from my current belief (held for several months now) that the nominees will be Clinton and Romney. But there's still some good stuff to chew on.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

That's My Girl

A beaming, feisty Hillary Clinton told a raucous AFL-CIO debate crowd at Chicago's Soldier Field Tuesday "if you want a winner, if you want to take on (the Republicans), I'm your girl!" Now that'll thaw the ice princess image. Never mind that Ivy League feminist stuff - this was the Midwest, and Hillary is starting to feel her oats as the frontrunner. Shucks, she's just a corn-fed country girl at heart - the girl next door, by way of Yale Law School, the White House, and the U.S. Senate. Hillary is enjoying being out in front, and is starting to nurture that gnawing sense of inevitability that's boosting her campaign and dogging all the others. Now it's time to woo the good folks of Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina - salt of the earth Democrats who may need a dose of girlish charm to knock that outdated image of Stiff Hillary out of their minds before Election Day.

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani hopes his daughter Caroline is STILL his girl. While America's Mayor was in Iowa telling Hawkeye State Republicans he's their best hope if they want to protect their children and keep their families safe...his own teenaged daughter was playing Rebel Without A Dad. Not old enough to vote yet, Caroline signed up for Barack Obama's Facebook friends group "One Million Strong For Barack," listing her political views as "liberal." As a potential First Daughter-in-waiting, Caroline is supposed to be part of the Two Strong for Rudy, firmly and proudly in Papa's camp, along with her brother Andrew. Except the Giuliani kids are apparently still miffed at Dad for dumping their mother and marrying Judy Nathan. Caroline is only 17, bound for Harvard this fall, and is certainly entitled to her own political identity, not to mention whatever feelings she has about her father and his divorces. But for the conservative voters Giuliani needs to win the Republican nomination, it's another chink in his already battered armor. Three marriages, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, he wears a dress and he can't even win the votes of his own kids? That won't play in Peoria. Or Paducah. Or Pahrump. For the record, as soon as Slate discovered Caroline Giuliani's treasonous perfidy, she quit Obama's group, and announced that she had only signed up as an "expression of interest" and not because she plans to vote for the Illinois Democrat next year. Rudy told reporters "My daughter, I love very much" and then asked them to respect the privacy of his family.

Now Americans are used to the foibles of First Families - in fact, we pretty much expect them. Billy Carter, Donald Nixon, Roger Clinton, the Bush twins in a bar - whatever. Oh, those silly presidential relatives - how embarrassing! It's reassuring when our leaders' families are as dysfunctional as our own. We enjoy their misadventures the same way we obsess about the train-wreck lives of certain celebrities -it makes us feel better about our own problems, minor in comparison to the woes of those on the grand stage. But even Mary Cheney still voted for her dad - twice, as far as we know. The president's son/daughter/brother/mistress may fall down drunk on the White House lawn, but they're still drinking with the President's party. They are not supposed to join the loyal opposition.

The frontrunner's crown seems to lie heavier by the day on Giuliani's head...while Hillary wears hers like the homecoming queen, letting her hair down as she gets ready for a hayride to the Iowa caucuses.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Totally Tubular

John McCain doesn't want to answer questions from snowmen. Neither does Mitt Romney. They both thought the global warming question posed by a melting snowman in the CNN-YouTube Democratic debate was "inappropriate." And the offbeat tone of the "revolutionary" debate has scared off some of the Republican candidates, most of whom still haven't committed to the GOP version, scheduled for September 17th.

I didn't think the debate was as groundbreaking as Anderson Cooper made it out to be (NB: Anderson is a sweet, sensitive guy, who's had a lot of sorrow in his life, so please lay off and don't begrudge him his success!), but I did find it more entertaining than your typically unilluminating slog through stump-speech answers to boring questions posed by reporters like me. This was hardly the first time citizens got to send in questions - that's a debate routine now - but they're usually done by email or on cards handed out to the audience. But the video angle was fresh, and it did liven things up, bringing much more pathos, humor, and yes, props - be they assault rifles, American flags, or family members. The YouTube format may help Americans better answer the proverbial "with which of these yahoos would I rather have a beer?" question (maybe they ask it because too often the policies of our presidents make us feel like we NEED a beer).

I've been a panelist on several debates - senatorial, gubernatorial, mayoral, never presidential - and the question-crafting process is a difficult one. We want to cover a lot of ground, and there are always questions we feel MUST be asked...but we're also trained to ask about issues in a certain way, without revealing biases (which of course we don't have), while still hoping to get the candidates to say something newsy or revealing. In my experience, most of the questions turned in by the public are much like ours, but written unprofessionally. But maybe ten percent of the "real people" have probing, insightful queries that go boldly where we wouldn't dare - and they ask passionately about issues that matter deeply to them. The best of those stood out at the recent debate. Few political journalists would bother asking about reparations for slavery or couch a gay marriage question in personal terms - but when a voter does it, it hits home.

The candidates are well-trained, too, to not answer the questions, or to use them as a platform for a finely honed message. The direct approach of the videotaped voters laid that bare, and the candidates who got caught naked fared the worst. Barack Obama, for example, for all his charismatic appeal, undermines his "fresh and different" message when he comes off as a politics-as-usual question-dodger of the first rank. On the campaign trail, Obama can be tentative, often avoids reporters, and doesn't have the depth of knowledge to respond quickly and cogently to every issue. At this debate, that showed as he repeatedly sidestepped questions, not answering directly on the reparations issue, or whether American soldiers died in vain in Vietnam. Obama treats his answers like magazine pieces instead of news bulletins; he backs into the answer and buries the lead deep within his feature-length, filibuster responses.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, continues to shine. She was smooth, relaxed, confident and sharp, demonstrating complete command of the issues and facts, comfortable in her own skin and emanating a presidential air that so far escapes all of the other candidates. Eight years in the White House and more than six in the Senate can do that for a person. She may be peaking too soon, but she is far exceeding expectations so far, and to me, right now, she has to be the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee.

The others all had their moments: Bill Richardson was forceful on Darfur, and he and Joe Biden both were strong on international topics, because of their experience there; John Edwards came off as earnest and sincere, and his "Hair" video was the best, funniest, and most memorable of the candidates' "YouTube-style videos" (most of them were essentially warmed-over campaign spots; Edwards actually produced something special that managed to be both humorous and poignant). But the bottom-tier candidates did nothing to distinguish themselves, or to change the nature of this race. Right now, it's Hillary on top, Obama a fading second, and Edwards scrambling to stay close.

As for the Republicans, the GOP edition of the YouTube debate could have a greater impact, and right now, with his campaign seemingly going down the tubes, John McCain would do well to take part. It's McCain who's melting down, so he'd better take questions from snowmen, cavemen, and anyone else who bothers to send in a video.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Welcome to Sovern Nation

My name is Doug, and I am a political junkie. Have been since I was seven years old. Forget the 12 steps - how about 12 presidential elections? 2008 makes it an even dozen in my lifetime, although, yes, I've only been politically aware for 11 of them. Forty years after my political baptism (as a juvenile guerrilla volunteer in a Wisconsin congressional campaign), we find ourselves in the midst of a fascinating, and potentially history-making, presidential election. Americans may choose a woman as president for the first time. Or the first African-American. Or the first Latino. They may elevate a mayor to the White House for the first time. We may have our second Catholic president, or only our second divorced one, or the first Vietnam vet, or the first Mormon. The 2008 field is among the largest in history, and it's the most wide-open race since 1928. And you can follow it all at Sovern Nation, part of the KCBS Radio Campaign Watch.

I am covering the presidential race for KCBS (740 AM, San Francisco on your radio dial or listen live at You can find exclusive interviews and all sorts of unique content at the Sovern Nation section of We plan to interview every Democratic and Republican candidate; so far, I've sat down with five of them. Every time one of them visits the Bay Area and gives a speech or holds a campaign event, we'll post the audio. I and my colleagues at KCBS are doing all sorts of feature stories about the campaign and the candidates, and you can hear those at the site. We've also got weekly trivia, a Follow the Money link, a Poll of the Week with the latest survey results, a Power Rankings feature, and much more. I've written biographies of each candidate, and there are links to their campaign websites. I'm working on an Issues Chart, to help you see where each one stands on the critical issues facing our country. And there are many more features in the works!

We want to make Sovern Nation nothing less than your one-stop, go-to website for the 2008 presidential race, to help all of us make up our minds as we elect America's 44th president. Informative, illuminating but also fun - stuff you won't find anywhere else - along with the latest campaign video and audio from CBS News. Okay, maybe it's ambitious, but as I said, I'm a political junkie, so it will be a labor of love.

I welcome your feedback and comments. I'll blog in this space as the campaign goes along, about whatever happens along the way, from close encounters with Hillary Clinton to how Mitt Romney did in the latest debate. Thanks for reading, and listening, and make sure you register to vote in 2008! Simply click on the Sovern Nation weblink to the right to check out the site.