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There is an extreme

There is an extreme mood of expectation about this Democratic primary debate tonight. 'The debate' -- and there's always one post-Iowa New Hampshire debate -- is always a big deal for the campaigns and reporters up here. I was up here four years ago, when there was one between Gore and Bradley. But this is a little different. Journalists always have an incentive for saying races are wide open, even when they're not. But this one is truly wide open.

It's not just that it's wide open, whatever that might mean. But the dynamic also seems very fluid. John Kerry has rocketed into the lead here. But that support is clearly soft. It could either solidify with a solid performance or be blunted or even reversed. And the same of course applies to the other candidates.

We haven't yet seen a debate in which Kerry was even close to being the frontrunner. So it'll be interesting to see how the other candidates choose to take up the fight against him.

Early this evening I spoke to Dick Bennett of ARG, the outfit that's been running a daily tracking poll here for a few weeks) and he sees the distinct possibility, perhaps even the probability, of a deterioration for Dean in New Hampshire as bad or perhaps even worse than the one he experienced in Iowa.

Between Clark and Kerry, says Bennett, the gender breakdown (with women favoring Kerry over Clark) remains salient. And the events of the last few days have hurt Dean disproportionately among women. His big strength now, says Bennett, is with young men.

(Bennett says he'll have new numbers out late this evening.)

I would not have imagined that the fall could be nearly that steep. But my own gut sense of the race right now is similar to what Bennett is getting from his numbers. I think Dean is in very bad shape. The issue isn't so much, or isn't exclusively, the loss in Iowa or the whole business with his speech. Rather, I have the sense that he's neutered himself in the final stretch. He obviously took a big punch Monday night. But after the concession speech which, rightly or wrongly, got so much attention, he came into New Hampshire presenting himself, sans red meat, as the successful governor of a small state with success in balancing budgets and expanding health care reform.

That's not a bad message. But it's also not a particularly exciting one, and not at all one that seems energizing enough to turn around the bad momentum he's had all week. They clearly felt they had to make that turn on Tuesday, giving the run of bad press they'd been getting. But I sense it's painted them into a corner.

To get away from being the exciting, offensive candidate, they've made him into the anodyne, boring candidate, just at the moment when he needs a real second wind.

(Along these lines, look at the latest data from the Iowa Electronic Future Markets, where you can invest -- or rather gamble -- on future political outcomes.)

One other thing. Last night Wes Clark had a conference call with a slew of former Gephardt staffers from Iowa, making the pitch that they should sign on to his campaign to head off to various post-New Hampshire states and start organizing for him. The campaign netted about twenty-five of them last night, or roughly a quarter of the folks that Gephardt had working for him in the state.

I had heard from some quarters that the issue might have been money. Another campaign had made a strong pitch for these folks, but simply didn't have the resources the Clark campaign was able to mobilize, and thus lost out. But after talking to various people involved in and knowledgeable the situation my sense is more that Clark's campaign -- not taken up so much with the final fury of campaigning in Iowa -- was more ready to reach out to these folks as soon as the last tears on their cheeks had dried. And that seems to have made the difference.

On Tuesday night, the leaders could be grouped closely enough together that first, second and third place finishers could each really still be viable. So lots of attention, albeit behind the scenes, will be going into shoring up organization and support in post-NH states.

This story in todays

This story in today's Boston Globe should <$NoAd$>knock everything else off the front page. It's an amazing story, a huge scandal. Read the lede ....

Republican staff members of the US Senate Judiciary Commitee infiltrated opposition computer files for a year, monitoring secret strategy memos and periodically passing on copies to the media, Senate officials told The Globe.

From the spring of 2002 until at least April 2003, members of the GOP committee staff exploited a computer glitch that allowed them to access restricted Democratic communications without a password. Trolling through hundreds of memos, they were able to read talking points and accounts of private meetings discussing which judicial nominees Democrats would fight -- and with what tactics.

The office of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle has already launched an investigation into how excerpts from 15 Democratic memos showed up in the pages of the conservative-leaning newspapers and were posted to a website last November.

With the help of forensic computer experts from General Dynamics and the US Secret Service, his office has interviewed about 120 people to date and seized more than half a dozen computers -- including four Judiciary servers, one server from the office of Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, and several desktop hard drives.

But the scope of both the intrusions and the likely disclosures is now known to have been far more extensive than the November incident, staffers and others familiar with the investigation say.

So the law-breaking and dirty tricks were systematic and of long standing. And I suspect it's much more widespread than even what is described in this article. It's creeping DeLayism. No rules -- only power.

As you may have

As you may have seen already, Drudge has a hit on John Edwards this morning, fresh -- no doubt -- from RNC oppo research. The claim is that Edwards now says no to putting Social Security funds in the stock market whereas in 1998 he supported the idea.

I sometimes wonder what point there is in trying to knock down this stuff from such an unreliable source. But so many in the media run with his arguments. So let me just briefly address this.

Investing any Social Security funds in the stock market looks like much less of a good idea today in the post-bubble world than it did in 1998. And any money -- even the small amount Edwards seems to have supported -- invested then probably would not have done so well over the next few years. So that's a reasonable point of criticism against Edwards.

But Republicans' point here is a charge of inconsistency or flip-flopping. They can't really be attacking the idea of putting Social Security money into the stock market, after all, since it's central to their policy.

But there's a basic point here that Drudge (or rather his liaison at the RNC or the White House or whomever) is intentionally obscuring. The debate over Social Security is about whether risk is pooled or whether it's individualized. Are there guarantees? Or do you invest your money and take your chances on your own? As one friend of mine said a while back, if it's not Social, it's not Security.

What Edwards was supporting in 1998 was taking a small portion of aggregate funds and investing them in the market, not creating individual accounts. And for those who are big Social Security policy wonks that makes all the difference in the world.

In any case, this is a detailed policy argument, over which people of course disagree. But the relevant point for the moment is that what the GOP operatives are trying to point to as a flip-flop here is really a matter of comparing apples and oranges. Not that that's stopped them before, of course, but ...

ARGs Dick Bennett seems

ARG's Dick Bennett seems to think that Dean is falling quickly into third place in New Hampshire. Today's numbers are Kerry 27%, Dean 22%, Clark 19%. But a further breakdown of the numbers, provided on ARG's site, shows steeper deterioration for Dean and some uptick for Clark.

As noted in the

As noted in the earlier post, we went tonight (this was written Wednesday evening) to see a John Edwards town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A few days ago I saw James Carville say that Edwards was the best stump speaker he’d ever seen, even better than Clinton, or something to that effect. So I wanted to see what all the commotion was about.

I had a mix of reactions and opinions. Or, really, I had an arc of opinions over time.

For most of the time Edwards was doing his presentation, putting on his show, I hadn’t the slightest question what Carville was talking about. While I was watching, in the moment, that is, I also didn’t have much question that Edwards would be the eventual nominee. He’s that good.

His comfort level with a crowd, his ability to roll with and into their moods and reactions, and his ability to craft his talk into a resonant story (a narrative, as we used to say) is simply light years beyond what Kerry or Clark can manage. (Dean is sort of in a whole different category --- he tries for something different.) He’s down-to-earth, gesticulating all over the place, with folksy aphorisms and punch lines all put in the right spots, but in an unforced, uncontrived matter.

He’s funny and folksy, in a campaign sort of way.

With most politicians in these sorts of settings I watch and see the disjuncture between what they are doing and what they should be doing, what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s something like their discomfort quotient, or perhaps the way you can see into their grasping for what the right way is to connect with the crowd or a given voter. With Edwards there’s none of that. He’s a natural. His ease seems total --- and you can easily see the echoes of years of working juries in the court room.

When you hear his talk about ‘the two Americas’ (with one living in perpetual insecurity and another ‘having whatever they need whenever they need it’) you think: Yes, he explains it all exactly right, in a way that would cut right into the president’s deepest political vulnerabilities.

When I watch these guys one of the things I also watch for, either semi-consciously or quite deliberately, is, how will the Republicans go after this guy --- either on substance or on tone and demeanor and life story? With some of the contenders it is painfully obvious. But watching Edwards I had a pretty clear sense that he’d scare the president’s political advisors --- a lot. They talk up the trial thing. They make that clear. But I’ve never thought that would get them much traction.

And yet, an hour or so later, after his presentation and after and Q& A, I had a bit of a hard time remembering quite what I was so dazzled by. It put me in the mind of one of those old clichés about light Asian food: filling at the time, but a few hours later you’re hungry again.

These are just quick impressions from observing one event. I wanted to write a post which conveyed --- in as unmediated a fashion as possible --- my immediate impressions of watching Edwards work a room for the first time. The above isn’t intended as a blanket judgment about a whole campaign and a whole candidate. But in this one case I did have the experience of being truly wowed and then, later, feeling that the whole thing was somehow a bit thin.

Im dumbfounded. The Washington

I'm dumbfounded. The Washington Post's Dan Balz refers to 'bloggers' and their role in political coverage in his headline campaign story in Thursday's paper.

Alex and I are

Alex and I are here at the VFW Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for what's billed as John Edwards 100th Town Hall Meeting. In other words, we're here to see if Edwards is really the all-out, all-time master of the universe when it comes to working a crowd with his homespun, personal touch, stump-speech speaking style. You know, mixing his personal story with policy chat. So far the one thing I can see is that at an Edwards event everyone is pretty like Edwards. Maybe it's all the Lands End, L.L. Bean clothes?

Late Update: Some people misunderstood this post. It seems pretty clear to me. But lest there be any confusion, 'pretty like Edwards' means 'attractive like Edwards', not that they look a lot like Edwards.

I keep hearing that

I keep hearing that Kerry has stolen John Edwards talk of there being 'two Americas.' Maybe so, but Edwards got it from Benjamin Disraeli.

Heres the story Id

Here's the story I'd like to see someone write.

Who really has what level of organization in what state?

Monday night Eli Segal, Clark's campaign chairman, told a group of us that Clark, unlike Kerry, had organizations and lots of support in the states that come right after New Hampshire. Is that true? Or, to put it a different way, does he have a lot more than Kerry? And how about Dean? He's been pouring money into post-New Hampshire states for a while. Where is he in Arizona and the rest of those states? And how about Edwards, who's always banked a lot on hitting his stride in the South?

One hears a lot of general comments about this stuff. But I haven't seen any solid reported pieces in a while that bring it all together.

This becomes increasingly important because the candidate who comes out of New Hampshire strong may face others who've done a lot more work on the ground in those states than he has. If it's Kerry, is Segal right? Will he lack money and organization on the ground to fight against what still might be a crowded field? Consider for instance that we could see Kerry winning but with Dean, Clark and Edwards all near him in vote totals.

Another issue here is money. Clearly Dean and Clark have the most on hand. But I've always thought that the Internet funding model which Dean spearheaded and Clark picked up, changes the dynamic in a fundamental way. In the past the problem was always that longshot candidates would do well in New Hampshire and come out of the state with tons of momentum. But they just didn't have the time to translate newfound support into political giving and they got worn down over the following weeks by better funded and better organized candidates. That happened to Hart in 1984 and to an extent to McCain in 2000.

With Internet fund-raising I don't think it works quite that way any more. I think it creates a much more frictionless universe of political giving where a big rush of support could be quickly harvested in the form of political cash.

One of the challenges

One of the challenges of covering any campaign, especially when you’re on the ground and in a small geographical area like New Hampshire, is not allowing yourself to get too distracted or overly influenced by the buzz and the hype of momentum. Of course, there’s an extra complication: much of the buzz or the hype is real. Or perhaps, better to say, perception (X is on fire, Y’s campaign is collapsing) becomes the reality if enough people perceive it as such.

Let me bring this down from abstraction and Latinate words. Since Monday night, everything has been Kerry and Dean. Kerry’s rise and Dean’s fall. Clark suddenly seems like an out of the way story. And that perception is heightened by a small drop in the polls for him.

Is there any reality to this? Is Clark any less likely to do well here than he was a week ago? In the echo chamber we’re it’s not easy to tell.

My sense at the moment is that Clark really has his work cut out for him. It’s not because he’s done anything wrong exactly as that Kerry has just charged right into the main selling points of his campaign.

Last night at Kerry’s event (the ‘chili feed’ I discussed last night) Kerry’s chat was drenched with military references. (I think the first thing he said was to ask if there were any vets in the audience.)

So he’s got the military stuff and the foreign policy credentials. Or at least that’s his argument. And suddenly coming out of Iowa he seems to have the electability issue on his side (one of Clark’s main issues) --- or at least that’s the spin the Kerry campaign is pushing.

(On Kerry's resurgence and a possible pitfall, see my new column in today's edition of The Hill.)

My sense of this campaign is that there are really two and a half dynamics at work now here in New Hampshire.

The big fight is between Clark and Kerry. They’re after the same voters. And their pitch to the voters here is similar. Those voters are moderate-ish Democrats, people for whom the electability pitch is an important one, people who warm, for various reasons, to the candidates’ military credentials. So that’s the big fight.

Dean is in another category. His main issue is himself. If he can hold on to who he has right now and get back some of the people who’ve left him then he can probably win. And at this point I don’t think he needs to win big. He just needs to win. To show he can take a punch and that Iowa wasn’t a fatal blow. (Remember a number of guys who became president lost Iowa and even came in third.) But I don’t have the sense --- and this is just a gut sense --- that the folks Kerry and Clark will be fighting over are the ones Dean’s after or really can get, at least not for the most part.

The half dynamic is Edwards, who might slip through to a high showing if Kerry, Clark and Dean bloody each other sufficiently in the next week. I’m going to an Edwards event this evening so maybe then I’ll know more.

(One more note about Edwards. He's already been to South Carolina and back since arriving in New Hampshire yesterday morning.)

As I was writing the above, I was sitting in an auditorium at the University of New Hampshire, where Clark was giving a speech on what he would do in Iraq. The bullet points of the speech were: a) the deadline for turnover is a bad idea in that it encourages all the players to game that deadline against us, b) he wants to abolish the CPA and create some sort of new international organization to manage the rebuilding and return to sovereignty in Iraq, and c) under his plan, John Abizaid, the head of Centcom, would report to the NATO Council.

On the personal level, his constant refrain was that he’s done whatever it is that’s needed at various levels of the process. He’s built coalitions, fought wars, worked with diplomats, etc.

Now a few observations about Clark’s speech.

There wasn’t any applause through the entire thing. Not until the end. The issue though wasn’t so much that the audience was nonplused as that Clark didn’t really give them a chance. This was a pretty dense policy speech. And the few lines that seemed like they might have been written as applause lines Clark plowed right through.

The first few minutes seemed a bit tight. It was ably delivered, if a bit rapid. But then maybe about seven or eight minutes in he started to hit his stride. His interest level in what he was saying seemed to bump up. He was a bit looser. And though he was still delivering a prepared speech you could tell that these were more his words, stuff he’d thought about and wrestled with.

And then it hit me. He’s a lot less interested in this campaign than he is with the war-fighting, coalition-building, international relations stuff. This is what animates him. He cares more about his issues than the campaign.

Is that a good thing politically or a bad thing? I think you can play it both ways. Certainly, as I’ve presented it here, it’s a good thing: the candidate who cares more about solving problems than being a politician. But in practice it’s not necessarily so clear. Politics is about interaction with people and audiences. The politicians who do well are generally those who relish it.

If you remember, Monday night I told you that on his “voter calls” at Clark HQ he seemed to be talking to the people on the other end of the line about stuff in the Balkans, things he did the Army and so forth.

So there’s a thread here that you can see when you watch his campaign.