Pres. Hopefuls Attend Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner

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Saturday's Jefferson-Jackson dinner marks the beginning of the home stretch leading up to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. With actual voting less than 60 days away, six of the major Democratic candidates were on hand, hoping to rally their supporters for the last eight weeks of the campaign.

The Democratic Field, Two Months Before Iowa

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Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speak in Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2007. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speak in Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2007.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
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Iowa may be the make-or-break state for many Democrats, especially John Edwards. hide caption

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More questions about Hillary Clinton's inevitability ... and electability. hide caption

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Virginia's Democrats are on a roll not seen since the days when Sen. Harry Byrd ruled the state. hide caption

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Forty-one years ago today, California elected Ronald Reagan as governor. hide caption

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I know what the polls say less than two months before voters begin the 2008 presidential selection process in Iowa, but we've been around this block before. A week before the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses, I was still picking Howard Dean to win. So yes, Hillary Clinton has a commanding double-digit lead nationally among Dem voters, and Rudy Giuliani has a more modest advantage with Republicans. But let's forget the polls for a second and size up the contenders as they go into the home stretch.

Since what happens in Iowa seems to be more crucial for the Democrats, given the conventional wisdom that if Clinton is to be stopped, it has to happen in the Hawkeye State, let's start with them. We'll deal with Republicans next week.

Hillary Clinton - By all accounts, she had a poor performance in last week's debate in Philadelphia, once again raising questions (see last column) about inevitability and electability. Having it both ways with debate answers is not new for her; what is new is that she is being called on it. Some attribute her positions on Iraq and Iran, which have never satisfied the left-wing base of the party, to her looking ahead to the general election. She is probably better prepared for a loss in Iowa than any of her leading challengers, with so-called firewalls in New Hampshire and beyond. But a loss in Iowa will further fuel articles like The Wall Street Journal's John Harwood must-read ("Poll Suggests Clinton Is Vulnerable") that ran Thursday.

Barack Obama - According to money raised and polling numbers, Obama is still seen as the principal opponent to Clinton. Perhaps because of that, he seems more willing to let John Edwards do the dirty work of roughing up Hillary during the debates. The "rock star" label has faded somewhat, but he remains an inspiring campaigner and prolific fundraiser. His original selling point — that unlike Clinton, Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, he opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning — has also faded, as every Democratic candidate has become a strong opponent of the war. Like Clinton, Obama has question marks (experience, race, etc.), but because of everyone's obsession with all things Hillary, he has managed to escaped the microscope. Let's see if that's still the case if he wins Iowa.

John Edwards - The prototypical "nice guy" during the 2004 campaign, when he campaigned first for the presidential nomination and then the vice presidency as a moderate, Edwards has moved demonstrably to the left and has not hesitated to take on Clinton. He has challenged Clinton on everything from her 2002 vote to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq — a vote that Edwards cast the same way — to her "Clintonesque" statements during the debates. He may have more riding on Iowa than any other candidate, having all but made the state his official residence since 2004 and having won over some key labor unions in the process.

The Rest of the Pack - It's not really fair to lump everyone else in this category, but no other candidate seems to be on the verge of breaking out in any state. Every now and then, a poll will come along citing Bill Richardson as having made gains, but I wonder about that. His debate performances seem to be filled with more cliches and generalities than anyone else on the stage. His plea in last week's debate that the other Democrats stop their "personal attacks" on Clinton led many to surmise that he's running for vice president. Others are convinced that when all is said and done, he will jump into the race for the New Mexico Senate seat being vacated by Republican Pete Domenici. (I'm not one of those.) Joe Biden is getting better debate reviews all the time; while he got a lot of attention with his Giuliani noun/verb quip last week, I was more impressed with his discussion about nuclear weapons vis a vis Iran and Pakistan. Chris Dodd, who brought up the Hillary "electability" question at the debate, was also the only Democrat on the stage who argued against giving driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Between the two of them, Biden and Dodd have more than 65 years' experience in Congress. But their fundraising has not been impressive, and they have not reached double digits in any meaningful primary or caucus polls. Dennis Kucinich continues his bid for the nomination by making the same fight he made four years ago — against the war, the Bush administration, and the Democratic leaders in Congress who he feels has failed to stand up to the White House. One example was his effort this week to bring a resolution to the House floor calling for the impeachment of Vice President Cheney ... a resolution that the Democratic leadership promptly buried. Mike Gravel is no longer welcome at any NBC-sponsored debate which, in effect, ends his campaign; there wasn't much there anyway other than his debate appearances.

HILLARY AND ELECTABILITY: Last week's column posed this question that many have been asking, especially since the Oct. 30 debate in which Hillary Clinton's vulnerability/weaknesses came through. The column also elicited a lot of reaction:

Tim Burdette of Pittsburgh, Pa.: "I tend to define a Democrat as being 'unelectable' when I can't bring myself to vote for that person. I've voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1976, but I will not vote for Mrs. Clinton. She's dealt with two great public issues in the last 15 years, health care and the Iraq War, and she's botched them both. I see no reason to follow one bad hire with another."

Louis Volpe of Stuart, Fla.: "Is Hillary electable?? You got to be kidding if you really believe she has a chance of beating Rudy or Mitt. The White House is the Democrats' to lose and lose they will if they nominate her. She has so much historical baggage that will be used against her it would take a fleet of movers to transport it all. Add to this the antipathy many hold against her and you have the makings of a rout."

Penney Kolb of Granville, W.Va.: "Is Hillary electable? Heck yes! The people who took over the Republican Party are so thoroughly discredited that there are countless voters who won't vote Republican period. And if the best they can come up with is the testosterone-laden Rudy Giuliani, scores more of voters will march away."

Deborah Chasteen of Athens, Ga.: "I am a long-time Democratic voter, and as a female I am disgusted with Clinton's implication that her gender is the issue behind my extreme distaste for her candidacy."

Dave Martin of Tucson, Ariz.: "Clinton is indeed very electable, but the question is is she re-electable? I think not. Hillary Clinton, however ambitious or intelligent she is, will be hoisted by her own petard during her administration. Unfortunately, she lacks the gravitas of Bill and can't slough off negative comments like Bush II."

Jay Herman of Washington, D.C.: "Hillary Clinton's progress is not 'unimpeded' and the media are not helping other candidates by giving her all the publicity. It is a disgrace to see a credible news organization calling the race over with two months to go until Iowa and three months until Super Tuesday. How about you cover the primary SEASON when it's the season and the election when it's the election?"

Susan Zenier of Moscow, Idaho: "Why doesn't some poll ask voters if they are part of the 50 percent who say that they will not vote for Hillary Clinton? I am one of them, and while I live in a red state, I have friends from New York to Seattle who feel the same way. Nor will I vote Republican."

Don Venardos of Thousand Oaks, Calif.: "Where does this '50 percent of the country won't vote for Hillary' number come from? I can definitely see 50 percent of Republicans, but the entire country? I don't particularly like Senator Clinton, but I think it is Rudy Giuliani who is the unelectable one. Has anyone noticed that the majority of the country is opposed to the war? It is the Republicans that should be worried about electability."

Susan Murphy of Alexandria, Va.: "My problem is not that she's too liberal or too conservative. She's too calculating. I look at her and I see no sincerity, just ambition."

Jim Terr of Santa Fe, N.M.: "What do you think of the theory, floated briefly on some blogs, that the only way Edwards or Obama could knock Hillary out might be for each to declare that if they were nominated, they'd select the other as a running mate? I don't have a huge problem with Hillary, but if I did, I'd think this would present an attractive alternative, since I like 'em both."

Noemi Levine of Berkeley, Calif.: "I don't understand Ron Dellums, my former congressman (and I'll never have a better one) endorsing Hillary. Not because he should have endorsed Obama, but because (1) she's a warmonger, & (2) why is he doing endorsing anyone at this point?"

Marc DeFrancis of Arlington, Va.: "I'm one of those predictable neo-New Deal liberals who believes both Obama and Clinton are on the right track on most issues. But deciding between the two leaves me torn. I think Hillary would be an effective president, but I am uneasy with the whole idea of White House dynasties. I was uncomfortable with a son of the first President Bush occupying the presidency and for the same reason wonder how good it could be for our democracy for us to get used to this 'presidential legacy scholarship' for relatives of former presidents."

David Lindquist of Overland Park, Kan.: "Isn't it too early to put much into polls? Remember Howard Dean? Don't lose sight of the fact that no one has voted yet."

ELECTION RESULTS:

GOVERNOR:

Kentucky: Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) was unseated after one term by former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) by a 59-41 percent margin.

Mississippi: Gov. Haley Barbour (R) easily held off a challenge from attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr. by 16 percentage points.

CONGRESS:

Ohio 5th Congressional District: Necessitated by the death of Rep. Paul Gillmor (R). The GOP nomination in this decidedly Republican district went to state Rep. Bob Latta, who lost to Gillmor by just 27 votes in the open 1988 primary. The Democratic nominee is Robin Weirauch, who lost to Gillmor in '06.

MAYOR:

Philadelphia: Former city council member Michael Nutter (D) succeeds term-limited Mayor John Street, a fellow African-American.

Houston: Mayor Bill White (D) won a third two-year term over minor opposition.

Baltimore: Sheila Dixon (D), who became mayor when fellow Democrat Martin O'Malley was elected governor in 2006, easily won, becoming the first black woman in the city to do so.

Indianapolis: Republican Greg Ballard won an upset victory, ousting Mayor Bart Peterson (D).

San Francisco: First-term Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat in a nonpartisan position, easily won re-election against a field of political unknowns that included my personal favorite, Grasshopper Kaplan.

Pittsburgh: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl (D), all of 27 years of age, won a full first term.

Columbus, Ohio: Mayor Michael Coleman (D), who had toyed with a gubernatorial bid last year, won a third term.

STATE LEGISLATURE:

Virginia: Democrats needed a net gain of four seats to win control the state Senate, and that's what they got. Republicans lost seats but still retained their majority in the House of Delegates.

New Jersey: Democrats kept control of both houses.

ODDS AND ENDS: Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, writes, "If you are going to tell people to read John Fund's Wall Street Journal piece on Mike Huckabee (see last week's column), then you should also tell them to read Huckabee's response.

Regarding the e-mail published last week criticizing Louisiana Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal's (R) conversion to Catholicism as a "shifting with the political wind," Jerry Skurnik of New York City notes that the conversion took place when Jindal was a teenager, "so it does not seem to be a political decision."

And our revelation that Hillary Clinton would be the oldest Democratic presidential nominee since Harry Truman in 1948 sent a lot of junkies to the record books. The Hotline notes that she would be the oldest Dem nominee in any open White House race since Samuel Tilden (62) in 1876.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Nov. 10 - Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson Dinner, Des Moines.

Nov. 13 - Ken Rudin's birthday (send campaign buttons, not cards).

Nov. 15 - Democratic presidential candidate debate, Las Vegas (CNN).

Nov. 28 - CNN/YouTube Republican presidential candidate debate, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Dec. 3 - Republican candidate debate, Des Moines (NPR/Iowa Public Radio).

Dec. 4 - Democratic candidate debate, Des Moines (NPR/Iowa Public Radio). Also, Republican candidate debate in Iowa (Fox News).

A NEW TIME FOR THE TOTN "JUNKIE" SEGMENT: Starting this week, the "Political Junkie" segment that has been heard every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, is now (uh-oh) even longer, beginning at 2 p.m. ET and running until 40 minutes after the hour. If your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Two years after President Johnson's landslide victory, Republicans mount a major comeback in the midterm elections, picking up 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate. One big GOP winner: Ronald Reagan, elected governor of California by a million votes over Democratic incumbent Pat Brown (Nov. 8, 1966).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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