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 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.


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.