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 bearing...how 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.
NOTES AND VOTES:
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.