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White House and Democratic Congress are carefully picking their battles; GOP primary shaping up as a Giuliani-Romney fight; Sununu now the underdog in New Hampshire; Weller retirement gives Democrats their best opening in Illinois

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ENPR: Week of September 26, 2007

White House and Democratic Congress are carefully picking their battles; GOP primary shaping up as a Giuliani-Romney fight; Sununu now the underdog in New Hampshire; Weller retirement gives Democrats their best opening in Illinois

September 26, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 20a

To: Our Readers

Outlook

  1. This week’s charade on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) typifies the partisan game in Congress. Passage on party lines of a Democratic bill radically expanding a program for poor children into a general health insurance bill was intended to force a presidential veto that could not be overridden in the House. It is intended primarily as a political marker for the ’08 campaign.
  2. The inability of the Democratic majority in Congress to force a withdrawal from Iraq signals that the war issue has lost its political immediacy. Nevertheless, Republicans ruefully admit that it will be very bad news for them next year if the casualty lists are continuing through the election.
  3. U.S. sanctions against Myanmar (the former Burma) reflect deep concern at the State Department about an upheaval in the China-aligned dictatorship along the lines of the 1956 Budapest uprising. The prospect is that the U.S. will do no more for freedom in this little Asian country than it did for Hungary a half century ago.
  4. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) is slowly building on her lead for the Democratic presidential nomination, but she cannot rid herself of the high negative poll ratings that threaten her. It would take only one slip in the Iowa caucuses, and she may be in deep trouble.
  5. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still looks anemic in the national polls, but his lead in the early primary states is making him the Republican presidential candidate to beat (see below). He is not much of a frontrunner, but he is beginning to look a little like a favorite.

White House

Overview: The parties are showing their relative strengths and weaknesses with where they choose to fight and where they choose to back down.

  1. Bush backed down by naming Michael Mukasey as his attorney general nominee. Mukasey lacks any relevant experience for the huge task of rebuilding a troubled Justice Department. He was simply the best pick to avoid a confirmation battle and avoid the scorn of the GOP base. This shows that the Senate Judiciary Committee under the control of Senators Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) has the upper hand over the White House. How will this dynamic play if a Supreme Court vacancy arises?

  2. On spending, Democrats appear ready to back down for now. As the fiscal year ends this weekend, Democratic leaders indicate they will pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running at current levels into November. Bush threatened a veto if Democrats tried to increase spending, reviving the idea of a government shutdown. For now, before they have finished work on individual spending bills, Democrats do not want that. Once they have the work done on all the bills, Democrats will get more combative.

  3. On Iraq, Democrats are unwilling to force a withdrawal, reflecting the perennial unwillingness of Congress to dirty its hands in war.

President 2008

Republicans: The GOP primary picture is not getting much clearer, but a Giuliani-Romney battle could be ahead.

  1. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), a few weeks into his official run, has yet to impress. The quiet rumbles early in Thompson’s unofficial campaign were that Thompson lacked the energy and the work ethic necessary to run a presidential campaign. Those whispers have now surfaced and become something of reputation. Thompson’s schedule has been lighter than his rivals’ and conservative activists have reported frustration in trying to meet with him — a frustration they haven’t had with other GOP candidates. It was mostly on this score that Christian conservative leader James Dobson harshly criticized Thompson — for lacking "zeal" and "fire."

  2. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) may have concluded that Thompson is a flop, thus spurring him towards a run. Gingrich had made it clear he would not run if Thompson appeared a viable late entry. Now, Gingrich has indicated he wants to jump in if he can secure a pledge of $30 million.

  3. Two recent Michigan polls have shown former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leading in the state where his father was governor. Romney also dominated the straw poll in Mackinac, although that result was partly due to the activists he organized to go up there. In Mackinac, perhaps the most surprising result was a solid second-place finish by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), showing he may still have luster left in the state he won in 2000. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) finished third, continuing the string of solid straw-poll showings he owes to a very motivated — if very small — base of support.

  4. The candidate performing the best right now may be former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani seized on the MoveOn.org ad attacking Gen. David Petraeus. He is on the rise in Iowa polls, and outpolls everyone but Thompson in South Carolina. Giuliani’s greatest asset may be the front-loaded primary schedule, because he also leads in Florida and California.

  5. Unless we see a surge by Thompson, Gingrich, McCain or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Romney could win Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada — the first three contests. That could propel him into first place in the national polls and improve his position in Florida and South Carolina (where he currently trails in polls). Romney could enter Super Tuesday February 5 as the frontrunner.

Senate

Alaska: Sen. Ted Stevens (R) has the misfortune of getting caught up in a bribery scandal a year before he is up for re-election, and it seems unlikely that he will face his standard walk to re-election.

This week, Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who rose to the governorship last year by knocking off incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) in a crowded primary, called on Stevens to be more forthcoming about his role in the federal investigation that involves him, his son and some companies. To date, Stevens has come across as arrogant and defiant while suspicion around him has grown, and Palin told newspapers: "Alaskans are getting more anxious to hear any information that he can provide regarding his innocence."

The free-market Club for Growth recently conducted a poll pitting Palin against Stevens that showed Palin winning easily. Palin, however, has not indicated she would run, especially considering she is less than one year into her governorship. A handful of other Republicans are considering primary challenges to Stevens, and a few Democrats are lining up to run, as well.

Unless Republicans nominate Stevens and he gets arrested a few days before the general election, the GOP should hold onto this seat. But just how things will shake out still very much depends on the FBI investigation. Likely Republican Retention.

New Hampshire: Sen. John Sununu (R) won his seat in one of the closest contests of 2002, and now he faces a rematch against former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D). Republicans in New Hampshire and nationwide had a very good year in ’02, but they look set to have a very bad year in 2008.

Nowhere is President Bush more of a millstone around his party’s neck than in the Granite State. The 2006 election was the worst thrashing the state’s GOP has ever suffered, leaving both House seats and the governorship to Democrats alongside legislative losses in Concord.

In Sununu’s favor is that he is still fairly popular personally, and his record only provides a few openings for Shaheen. Most notably, Sununu’s support for his party’s war in Iraq is a major handicap. In 2002, he was able to beat Shaheen by tying her candidacy to her attempt as governor to institute a statewide sales tax. That tack may not be as effective six years later.

Shaheen ran a good campaign in 2002, despite coming up short. If Shaheen can do as well in 2008, she will win. However, the early polls showing a Democratic walkover are misleading, and the Bush factor may fade away as the election approaches and the candidates are forced to take on one another.

Sununu is a smart politician and well liked, which gives him a chance in this race, but Shaheen is definitely the favorite. Leaning Democratic Takeover.

House

Illinois-11: Rep. Jerry Weller (R), another Republican under a cloud of scandal and suspicion of corruption, will retire from Congress at the end of this term. Weller is married to a Guatemalan lawmaker and says the long-distance relationship was becoming a strain.

This district stretches West from Chicago’s South Side, including Joliet and Ottawa, and reaches South to Bloomington. It was a near tie in the 2000 elections, but Bush carried it by seven points in 2004. It is wedged between the districts of retiring Representatives Dennis Hastert (R) and Ray LaHood (R), and politically it lies between them — slightly more Democratic than Hastert’s 14th District and slightly more Republican than LaHood’s 18th.

While the district leans slightly Republican, the shadow of Weller’s corruption could give Democrats an edge. Early Democratic candidates include Kankakee Community College President Jerry Weber (D). The Republican field is still nascent. Depending on the nominees, this could go either way, but unless Weller’s shadow departs quickly, this one looks like the Democrats’ strongest chance in Illinois. Leaning Democratic Takeover.

Illinois-18: The entrance of former basketball coach Dick Versace (D) brings to a near tossup the race for the Peoria-based seat left open by the retirement Rep. Ray LaHood (R).
Versace was the head basketball coach in the 1980s at Bradley University in Peoria, the golden era of the program. He later coached the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, worked as an on-air commentator and served as the head coach of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. The other Democrat in the rate is retired Navy Captain Chuck Giger (D).

The Republican field features 26-year-old State Rep. Aaron Schock (R), Peoria businessman Jim McConoughey (R) and former Peoria City Councilman John Morris (R). Rep. LaHood’s son, Darin LaHood (R), took a pass and is instead challenging the incumbent state’s attorney.

Versace’s wide name recognition combines with a likely strong Democratic year in Illinois to wipe out the generic advantage a Republican has in this district, which Bush won by 5.5 points in 2004 and which has been in Republican hands for 70 years (including former Minority Leader Bob Michel). Versace has media experience, but as a political rookie, possibly facing more seasoned (although much younger) opponents, he faces many likely pitfalls. This one could swing the other way if Versace proves to be a strong candidate, but right now it is still tilting towards the Republicans. Leaning Republican Retention.

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Written By

Mr. Novak was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, a political newsletter he founded in 1967 with Rowland Evans. He passed away August 19, 2009. Read tributes to Robert Novak and his legendary work, as well as memories from Novak alumni and the Human Events family.

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