- Talk about New York Sen. Hillary Clinton‘s (D) primary campaign decline was accelerated by the new Zogby International poll. It shows every major Republican candidate nationally defeating her, while Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D) and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) beat every major Republican candidate. National polls at this stage of the game should not be taken too seriously, but Zogby does indicate decline by Clinton.
- The continued talk about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a third-party candidate was recently joined by speculation about CNN commentator Lou Dobbs as a fourth-party candidate, though Dobbs has stated that he has no interest in running. Dobbs might have more voter appeal than Bloomberg with protectionist, anti-immigrant and anti-globalism rhetoric. The problem is that Dobbs would have no financing, while billionaire Bloomberg could write checks for his.
- The new conventional wisdom is that the improved military situation in Iraq makes the war less of a biting issue for Democrats, who must now look to the failing economy. That could apply to general election campaigning, but the Democratic presidential primary voters will generate lots of anti-war rhetoric by the candidates.
Democrats: An Iowa poll before Thanksgiving showed for the first time Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in first place, raising the prospect of a truly competitive race for the nomination.
- The poll, commissioned by ABC and the Washington Post, surveyed 500 likely Democratic caucus-goers, and showed Obama with 30 percent and Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) with 26 percent — within the +/- 4.5 percent margin of error. Because of the inherent imprecision in polling, and because earlier polls all showed Clinton with a small lead, this shouldn’t be taken to mean Obama is now the front-runner.
- However, Obama has shown steady improvement in his campaign performances, beginning with his rave-reviewed speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner earlier this fall. He is undoubtedly in striking distance in Iowa. Because the media already love him, Obama would gain huge momentum from an early win, which would wipe out his cash and polling deficits in other states. Basically, an Iowa win for Obama would set the stage for a one-on-one battle on level turf.
- Winning Iowa will come down to organization and execution. On that front Hillary has the advantage, and Obama looks a little bit like Howard Dean looked four years ago at this time. The caucuses are always unpredictable because turnout is so low and second choice matters.
- Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) could play a decisive role in Iowa. While he comes in third in most polls, he gains the most when second-place choices are examined. In precincts where minor candidates don’t meet the 15% threshold of "viability" Edwards could do very well. If Edwards can sneak into second place, it will be a huge blow to whoever finishes third.
- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has not surged and shows no signs of doing so. His easy treatment of front-runner Clinton, combined with the entrance of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) — a top tier-candidate — into his state’s Senate race, confirms suspicions he is really running for Vice President.
Republicans: Although former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is surging in the polls, this still looks like it’s a two-man race between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
- Huckabee’s surge is driven by the evangelical Christian vote within the Republican Party — highlighting the risk the party undertook by embracing this voting bloc that is not necessarily a limited-government constituency. While evangelicals have been crucial to electing Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, Mike Huckabee is the first presidential candidate to actually arise from their ranks and share their populism and willingness to use big government. (Even second-tier evangelical candidates in the past, such as Gary Bauer and Pat Robertson, have toed the free-market line).
- Huckabee’s record as governor is one of taxing and spending, and his campaign ideas have included nanny-state proposals such as national smoking bans and big-government intrusions into energy such as a carbon dioxide cap. He also criticized President Bush for vetoing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program expansion — a bill nearly all Republicans considered to be a cynical Democratic ploy.
- The same ABC/Washington Post poll that found Obama leading Clinton in Iowa found Huckabee four points behind Romney, and well ahead of Giuliani and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R). Unless future surveys confirm these findings, it has to be considered possible that these are simply bad polls.
- Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has not made a big splash, but he is quietly campaigning as the moderate of the group. With Giuliani tacking as hard right as his record will allow, McCain has sent out direct mail portraying himself as an Al Gore-type environmentalist. The race to the middle has never worked for an underdog candidate in Republican nomination battles, but with his past success in New Hampshire and Michigan (whose primary is now confirmed on a January date), McCain has a chance to make a splash.
- Representatives Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Ron Paul (Tex.), the candidates with the strongest limited-government and pro-life records, still are not catching on in polls. The enthusiasm of Paul’s base and his fundraising are extraordinary, which could help in Iowa’s caucuses, but they haven’t translated into big poll numbers anywhere. Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and perennial candidate Alan Keyes do not threaten to take any sizable portion of the primary vote.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) surprised nearly everyone when he announced this week he would resign from the Senate by the end of the year. His early departure has sparked a slew of leadership races within the Senate GOP, created something of a mess in Mississippi politics and raised questions and frustration about his decision.
Leadership races: By stepping down from his post as minority whip, Lott has set up a domino effect in the Nos. 2 through 5 leadership posts.
- Minority Whip: Lott’s heir apparent as minority whip is Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Kyl, currently the No. 3 Republican as the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, is in good favor with the party’s conservatives and its establishment. He was close to Lott and worked well with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Combining the support of leadership and the conservatives makes Kyl unbeatable, which drove Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to drop his bid for the spot, which he lost to Lott last year by one vote.
Kyl votes the conservative line on important votes, but, more impressively, he regularly sides with the conservative back-bench reformers such as Senators Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in their quixotic battles against pork and government growth. His ascendance to the No. 2 spot provides hope for dissident fiscal conservatives.
- Conference Chairman: Kyl’s move up the ladder creates a vacancy at conference chair, and this is the one leadership job where a real race is in the offing. Policy Committee Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) is running against Alexander. Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.) is considering a bid, and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) may run, as well.
Hutchison is the favorite in this race. While sometimes aggravating to conservatives, Hutchison has paid her dues in the lower leadership ranks. Also, conservatives would prefer her to fellow moderate Alexander for two reasons: She is slightly more conservative than Alexander, and she may resign in two years to run for governor — thus possibly opening up the spot for a conservative.
- Policy Chairman: Just as Kyl and Hutchison look to move up the ladder one rung, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), currently the vice chairman of the conference (the No. 5 spot), is poised to replace Hutchison at the Policy Committee. Cornyn, like Kyl, has a conservative record and consistently bucks the party’s appropriators and big spenders.
- Conference Vice Chairman: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is the conservative favorite to replace Cornyn in the No. 5 spot. He currently has no clear challengers.
- Conservatives: Burr and Thune, the other conservative senators considering leadership bids, suffer from having been disengaged as first-term senators. Some conservatives have lobbied for DeMint to make a run, but he has passed.
Mississippi Senate: Lott’s announcement came days after his longtime colleague, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) announced he was running for re-election. The vacancy and a special election transform what would have been a boring year in Mississippi politics into an interesting one.
- Gov. Haley Barbour (R) will have 10 days after Lott’s resignation to appoint a replacement. Barbour likely will name a permanent choice who will then run again in the special election.
- The date of the special election — depending on the meaning of Mississippi law — immediately become a hotly contested topic, and it may not yet be settled. While most states hold special U.S. Senate elections at the same time as the next congressional elections (November 2008 in this case), Mississippi law calls for a special election within 90 days in most cases. Democrats have angrily called on Barbour to schedule a special election this winter, which would help Democrats by decoupling the election from the presidential election and Cochran’s certain re-election, while also adding more uncertainty by compressing the time frame. The outgoing secretary of State — a Democrat — has ruled that a close reading of the relevant law requires the election happen in November 2008. Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, but not by veto-proof margins. The November 2008 date will stay unless a court changes it.
- The natural heir to Lott’s Senate seat would have been Rep. Chip Pickering (R), a former Lott staffer. Pickering, however, is retiring from the House, presumably to make more money and spend more time with his family — conditions not satisfied by a Senate job. He would have trouble changing course.
- Next in line could be Rep. Roger Wicker (R), who represents the Northern end of the state, including Ole Miss and Tupelo. The Hill newspaper suggested businessman Jim Barksdale (R) and party-switching outgoing Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck (R) could be the appointees. Barbour certainly will choose whoever he thinks is most likely to hang onto this seat.
- Three Democrats with statewide election success are mentioned as possible challengers next November: former four-term Atty. Gen. Mike Moore (D), former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) and current Atty. Gen. Jim Hood (D). Moore would have huge fundraising potential, making him probably the best Democratic bet in this Republican state.