Karl Rove, Hillary Clinton, Democratic Debate

While the Democrats were debating in Des Moines, the president's chief political advisor was making a farewell tour of the Sunday morning talk shows. Karl Rove continued his very critical stance against Hillary Clinton, raising questions of whether he fears her, or is trying to make a martyr of her.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And while the Democrats were debating in Des Moines, the president's chief political adviser was making a farewell tour of the Sunday morning talk shows.

For more on the debate and Karl Rove's departure, we're joined now by NPR's Washington editor Ron Elving and our political editor Ken Rudin.

Welcome to both of you.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning.

RON ELVING: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, since we're talking about the debate, let's start with that. And I'll start with you, Ken. What did you make of yesterday's debate?

RUDIN: Well, I think several things struck me, but most interesting to me was the fact that George Stephanopoulos introduced the candidates not alphabetically or by height, but by their polling numbers in Iowa. And we're talking about five months before the Iowa caucuses. Five days before the Iowa caucuses four years ago, Howard Dean was the front-runner, and he wound up finishing third. So I think it was a mistake to focus on the front-runners and the polls. And I guess we haven't learned that lesson yet.

Also, we you talk about Hillary Clinton as the ostensible front-runner, I thought many of the candidates did very well. They made very good cases for their candidacies.

ELVING: I thought the most impressive thing about this was the degree to which these Democrats held off from really going after each other. They did not want to take the bait to land any punches on each other, and they did a good deal of laughing at each other's jokes.

MONTAGNE: Now Karl Rove had a busy morning. He was up at least as early as those candidates. And he had a lot to say about Hillary Clinton.

ELVING: You know, I doubt Karl is going to get to do the trifecta like this again anytime soon, so he took this opportunity to pursue his main agenda of the moment, which seemed to be trashing Hillary Clinton. You know, you have to wonder with a guy like Rove, what is he up to in doing this? Is he running her down because he fears her as a Democratic nominee in 2008, or is he trying to make a martyr of her so as to boost her into the nomination in 2008 because he fears one of her rivals more?

MONTAGNE: Ooh, Machiavellian possibility.

ELVING: Always with Karl.

MONTAGNE: Ken, one thing Karl Rove did not dwell on was the Republican candidates for president when he hit all those talk shows. What role, if any, will he play in those - any of those campaigns?

RUDIN: Well, it's still early to talk about Karl Rove and the Republicans in 2008. I think he still remains toxic right now, not only with the Democrats and not only with much of the media, but I think a lot of Republicans, given the fact that the war is unpopular, President Bush's numbers are unpopular and low. But if Karl Rove was the architect of 2000, 2002 and 2004 victories, he was also the architect of the defeat of 2006. And right now I think the Republican candidates are not looking to hire Karl Rove right away.

MONTAGNE: And then one recent development in the Republican race has been the feud between Rudy Giuliani, who's the national front-runner now, and Mitt Romney, who's been leading in Iowa and New Hampshire. What's going on there, Ron?

ELVING: Some natural friction between the two guys who have got the most momentum in the race on the Republican side, Renee. But, you know, Rudy Giuliani's third marriage alienated him from his wife and children. That's not a big surprise. And lately he's been kind of testy in answering questions about it. He says he wants people to leave his family alone and he'll leave theirs alone.

So Mitt Romney, of course, takes advantage of that situation by bringing all of his exemplary-looking family with his first wife and his five famously strapping sons up on the stage with him. And then he starts calling up some of the family members from his extended family, his brother's families. I don't think he's actually started calling up any families of randomly chosen people from the audience yet, but I think we get the general point.

MONTAGNE: And then, Ken, there's the guy who's right up there in the polls but he hasn't even announced. He hasn't officially joined the fray - Fred Thompson.

RUDIN: Well, Renee, my problem with Fred Thompson is not that it's too late to get in the race, even though I think it's very possible that Iowa and New Hampshire may have its contest in October. One, I do think that he missed an opportunity to take advantage of the distrust among conservatives for Mitt Romney. There was a lot of that going on the last couple of months, and I think if he'd gotten in a little earlier, he could have made a little stay. But Fred Thompson has to have something to say. In some ways, he reminds me of the guy behind the curtain at "The Wizard of Oz."

You know, he's a good actor, he makes a nice speech, but he needs to say more than there's problems in Washington that he can figure out. And I think Fred Thompson is going to have to say something very interesting. We're talking about a possibility that he announces his candidacy shortly after Labor Day, but there's a debate on September 5th. We're not sure if he's ready for that yet. It may be even later in the month before he announces. But again, he's going to have to have something to say.

MONTAGNE: Got to end there, but you can hear the weekly podcast. It's all politics at npr.org/politics from NPR's Washington editor Ron Elving and our political editor Ken Rudin.

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