ENPR: Week of May 2, 2007

May 2, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 9b
  • A look at the House seats likely to be targeted in 2008
  • In Democratic debate, Clinton doesn’t do badly and Obama doesn’t do well
  • Hagel facing opposition from Nebraska Republicans
  • As McCain tries to rev up his campaign, Republicans eye Thompson to see whether he’s really running


  1. President George W. Bush‘s veto of the Iraq supplemental bill formalizes what everyone has expected for weeks. As negotiations proceed, the probable outcome is that there will remain no hard deadline for getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, but Bush will have to put up with some conditions that he does not like.
  2. The impact of former CIA Director George Tenet‘s memoir has been reduced by his mistake in getting the wrong date for an alleged conversation with neo-conservative Richard Perle. Tenet’s complaint also suffers because it appears he waited for the Iraq intervention to go South before coming out against it. Still, Perle was indeed eager to invade Iraq just days after September 11, 2001, just as Tenet suggests.
  3. Will House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) get a compromise trade bill or will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) block it and side with Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), representing organized labor on Ways and Means? It’s a close call that might be settled this week.
  4. Shaky Republican prospects for at least holding their own in the Senate in ’08 have been improved by developments in Oregon and Minnesota. The decision by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to stay in the House removes the strongest challenger against Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is boosted by the prospect that comedian Al Franken (D) will be his opponent.

House 2008

Having passed the first quarter of the 2008 cycle, House Democrats are extremely optimistic about their chances of holding the House majority. Buoyed by their lead in the congressional generic ballot — which has widened since November’s election — they also claim that their polls in the 50 most competitive congressional districts could bring them a nine- to 11-seat gain in 2008. Such a gain would be an unprecedented second surge by the party following its 30-seat gain last November.

This may seem too optimistic, given the number of shaky seats they will be defending — particularly those in the chart below. Democrats’ success in the last election would suggest that they are clinging to more competitive ground this time than they were in 2006. Although they did manage to seize some House seats they will be able to keep, they also won some seats solely because of GOP corruption. These are the most likely to return to the Republican column in 2008.

Democratic Seats Likely to be Targeted
% in 2006
Jerry McNerney (Calif.)
Tim Mahoney (Fla.)
John Barrow (Ga.)
Jim Marshall (Ga.)
Nancy Boyda (Kan.)
Tim Walz (Minn.)
Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.)
Paul Hodes (N.H.)
Chris Carney (Pa.)
Jason Altmire (Pa.)
Patrick Murphy (Pa.)
Nick Lampson (Tex.)
Steve Kagen (Wisc.)

On the other hand, Democrats’ hopes are based on the many near losses that Republicans had in 2006. One could argue that 2006 was a Republican low point, and therefore many of these districts will not be competitive again in 2008. However, a continued sour mood over the Iraq War could produce another massive Republican defeat in 2008 that makes 2006 look tame by comparison. Republicans in Washington generally concede that the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq by next November could mean disaster for the party.

There are still many GOP targets — three in kind: First, several incumbent Republican House members who won by in 2006 will be targeted in 2008. Second, some House Republican freshmen are conservatives holding down competitive-enough districts that a first-term challenge represents a last good chance for Democrats to score a takeover. Third, some Republicans are currently embroiled in scandal — their seats may open up, or they may be forced to call it quits.

Whether or not he retires, Democrats are likely to target the Arizona seat of GOP Rep. Rick Renzi. Renzi is unique in that he is the only member facing legal problems who hails from a competitive congressional district.

Republican Seats Likely to be Targeted
% in 2006
Rick Renzi (Ariz.)
John Doolittle (Calif)
Marilyn Musgrave (Colo.)
Vern Buchanan (Fla.)
Bill Sali (Idaho)
Tim Wahlberg (Mich.)
Jon Porter (Nev.)
Heather Wilson (N.M.)
Mike Ferguson (N.J.)
Deborah Pryce (Ohio)
Jean Schmidt (Ohio)
Jim Gerlach (Pa.)

In previous elections, major House gains by either party have always been followed by losses in the next election. For example, the 54-seat Republican gain in 1994, which handed Republicans control of the House, was followed by an eight-seat loss in 1996. However, the current Republican political slump, fueled by President Bush’s unpopularity and the Iraq War, would reverse that pattern if the election were held today, according to Democratic polls.

President 2008

Democratic Debate: The first Democratic presidential debate, watched by few at such an early date, is nonetheless a nice first snapshot of the candidates. Their simultaneous presence in one place offers an opportunity to assess the common wisdom about the strengths and weaknesses of each.

  1. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was nothing special, but the consensus among Democrats is that she did well enough. She won by not losing the debate. Although she displayed her typical mechanical style, she also showed a depth of policy understanding that went beyond that of her chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Clinton was strongest in discussing the war and casting her vote for the Democrats’ Iraq supplemental bill as a vote to end the war.

    Given that Iraq is the most pressing question for most Democratic primary voters, this is an area in which she must shine, considering her 2002 vote in favor of the war. She was straightforward in explaining that vote and how she has come to the view she holds now. For some reason, Clinton’s voice was hoarse — deeper than that of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a fact noticed by several Democratic debate watchers.

  2. Obama, meanwhile, was extremely disappointing. His fans hold out hope that he will improve in the coming months, but the consensus is that he lost by not winning the debate. All jokes aside, his reputation as an "articulate" politician comes into some question after this debate, particularly after his failure to state right away that he would retaliate in case of further terrorist strikes against the United States.

    He seemed to be trying too hard. He nearly adopted the staccato speaking style of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) while answering most questions, and he appeared somewhat lost at times. His answer on the environment — in which he talked about planting trees for Earth Day — generated nervous laughter after he failed to stand up for himself and insist that it is a serious personal activity he has done to help the environment. Like President Bush, he may be a speaker who is far better on the stump than he is on his feet.

  3. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) had a deer-in-the-headlights moment not unlike the one President Bush had in his first debate with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. It was made worse by the fact that he did so on a softball question. When asked whom he considered his moral leader, Edwards took nearly 10 seconds to fumble around and finally name Jesus, his wife, and his father.

    His answer to moderator Brian Williams‘ question on his $400 haircuts was probably as good as it could have been, but it was nothing but embarrassing for him. Worthy of note — since some commentators have missed this — few people outside of Washington find it significant that Edwards paid for the haircut out of campaign funds. Most ordinary people are just appalled at the idea that anyone — especially a man — would get a $400 haircut (the haircut was actually closer to $200, the rest of the money was for the house-call). It plays into the image he has accidentally cultivated since 2004, when a video was leaked of him spending an inordinate amount of time combing his hair in front of a running camera.

    Edwards’s answer on a question about hedge funds demonstrated that either he does not understand financial markets, or he does not think it profitable to talk about them in front of an audience. He basically ducked the question, speaking instead about uninsured children and poverty.

  4. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), usually derided as verbose, may have stolen the show with his performance, even though no one considers him a top-tier presidential candidate. His one-word "yes" answer to a question on his being a "gaffe machine," followed by his careful riding out of the silence that followed, evoked lasting laughter from the crowd and generated much good will. His riff on energy and the environment showed his depth of policy knowledge.
  5. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) got himself in some hot water when asked who was his favorite Supreme Court justice. Richardson gave as his first answer Justice Byron White, apparently without realizing that the John F. Kennedy appointee and former NFL running back was a dissenter in the Roe v. Wade abortion decision of 1973. Richardson, a moderate who nonetheless favors legal abortion and supports Roe, compounded the problem when asked about this contradiction. He demonstrated that he had no idea that White had been one of two Roe dissenters, along with the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

    Richardson, who is Hispanic, also came off poorly in explaining his attitude toward Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales — defending his earlier statement that it was based on Gonzales’s Hispanic origin.

  6. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) lived up to his reputation: stately, intelligent, and dull. His references to the need for "experienced leadership" were clever, playing to his strengths, but he does not strike anyone yet as presidential or vice presidential material.

Hagel: Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), facing opposition from the right wing of the Nebraska Republican Party, is expected to decide by July what he will do in 2008: Run for President, seek a third term in the Senate, or retire from politics. Hagel has been testing the presidential waters in Iowa and New Hampshire over the past several months. He and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) would be the only Republican presidential candidates who oppose President Bush’s Iraq policy.

Meanwhile, Hagel’s stance on the war could bring him a primary challenge next year from state Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning (R), who has withdrawn his earlier support for Hagel. For Bruning, the race is a free shot, since he is not up for re-election until 2010. Hagel would receive the backing of Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and other prominent state Republicans in such a race.

McCain: Sen. John McCain‘s (R-Ariz.) announcement of his presidential run was really a non-event, considering that no one has even slightly doubted his presence in the race for months now. It comes at a time when he must convince potential supporters that he is for real. He has lost significant support in his own state, dropping almost one-third of his backers. Currently, it remains to be seen whether his post-announcement tour will put some vinegar back in his campaign, but no one is terribly optimistic.

Within McCain’s circle, there is a feeling of dread over the candidate’s relatively poor fundraising in the first quarter. The belief is that if McCain does not reach his stated goal of raising more than $20 million in the second quarter, he may have to shut down the campaign and give up on the presidency.

McCain, who had been the darling of the political press corps during the 2000 election cycle, complains to friends that he is getting much rougher treatment from the news media than his Republican competitors. The likely reason for the spoiled relationship is McCain’s support for President Bush’s Iraq policy. Although other candidates such as Giuliani and Romney have also been criticized by the media, McCain feels that he has been singled out for sticking by the Iraq plan — and for advocating even a stronger war footing and a commitment of more troops than President Bush has called for.

Thompson: Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) is still a non-candidate, but he has been racking up straw-poll victories nonetheless. The Oklahoma Republican convention, the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, the California Republican Assembly, Georgia’s 9th Congressional District party convention, and the Floyd County, Georgia, Republican convention have all put Thompson at the top of their straw polls. Thompson travels to Connecticut later this month for the state party’s annual Prescott Bush dinner.

Thompson, starting far behind in the money chase for the Republican presidential nomination, is considering adopting the 2004 tactics used by Democrat Howard Dean (D-Vt.) of raising campaign money via the Internet. All the signs of discontent at the grassroots level suggest that he could succeed in doing this. Thompson’s telegenic and stately manner help him, but his greatest asset is the general feeling among Republican primary voters that all of the other candidates are either unsatisfactory or cannot win.

Robert D. Novak