'Hamsters' on the front page

The Wall Street Journal puts Blue Hampshire on Page One.

A moody snapshot

The above chart, accompanying this USA Today story, tracks the October mood of Americans according to Gallup polling since 1981. Reports Susan Page: "History indicates that the downbeat mood is likely to present a persistent challenge for Bush's successor, whoever it is. Electing a new president, even from an opposition party, doesn't automatically lift the nation's spirits. Satisfaction with the country's direction dipped to an all-time low of 12% in 1979, contributing to President Carter's defeat and Ronald Reagan's election the next year. But not until December 1984 did a majority of Americans express satisfaction again. Similarly, satisfaction dropped to historic lows in 1992, contributing to the elder Bush's ouster and Bill Clinton's election. Not until January 1998 did the percentage of those satisfied top 50% again."

The editors of Politico look at similar data and conclude: "The anti-Washington mood in the country — aimed at both a Republican president and a Democrat-controlled Congress — has reached breathtaking levels." That's bad news for Democrats counting on angry voters to help them: Accordingly, "interviews with lawmakers and top party operatives make clear that the Democratic House and Senate caucuses are divided into two camps. One group views the numbers with concern. The other group views them with panic."

Ron Paul's 'Time'

Joel Stein takes Time readers inside the "Ron Paul Revolution." A few excerpts:

"It sometimes seems as if someone is playing a cruel practical joke on Ron Paul. He goes to a college and delivers the same speech he's given for the past 30 years of his political career, the one espousing the Austrian school of economics. Only now the audience is packed with hundreds of kids in RON PAUL REVOLUTION T shirts who go nuts — giving standing ovations when he drones on about getting rid of the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard. . . .

"The libertarian's traction is most apparent on the Internet, where his presence far outstrips that of any candidate from either party. His name is the most searched, his YouTube videos the most watched, his campaign the topic of songs by at least 14 bands. 'The last thing I would listen to is rap,' Paul says. 'But there's something going on when there's a rap song about the Fed.'. . .

"His message, even if packaged in obscure economic lectures, is that there is something very corrupt, very Halliburton-Blackwatery going on with our military-industrial complex, and that can attract some pretty weird followers. At the Iowa State event, a student stood outside in a tricornered hat and Revolutionary War–era suit, ringing a bell. Representative Tom Tancredo, another long-shot GOP candidate, tells me that after a debate in New Hampshire, one of his staffers walked up to a guy in a shark costume and asked him if he was a Ron Paul supporter. 'No. They're all nuts,' replied the shark. 'I'm just a guy in a shark suit.' "

Capital Beat extra: mouthing off

The claws came out last night, when Democratic presidential candidates debated in Philadelphia. But the worst spat was not between Democrats vying for attention in a crowded field, but rather between a Democratic senator who trails in the polls and the Republican national frontrunner.

Joe Biden drew laughter and applause when he ridiculed Rudy Giuliani during the debate at Drexel University. In response to Giuliani's comments that no Democratic candidate has enough executive experience to lead, Biden called Giuliani "the most underqualified man since George W. Bush to seek the presidency."

"There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11," Biden said.

Giuliani's communications director, Katie Levinson, issued a scathing response. "Senator Biden has never run anything but his mouth," she said. "Such a desperate attack from Senator Biden is to be expected considering I -- Katie Levinson -- have a better chance of becoming President than he does."

UPDATE: After accusing Giuliani of trying to "drag this race into the mud," Biden wished Giuliani a Happy Halloween, poking fun at him for cross-dressing at New York City fundraisers and Saturday Night Live skits. "Rudy, if the dress fits, wear it," said Biden for President campaign manager Luis Navarro.

Meanwhile, during a visit to Bickford's Family Restaurant in Nashua yesterday, Giuliani taunted Biden for plagiarizing a speech during his 1988 run for president. "Joe was reading that comment," Giuliani said, according to Newsday. "You've gotta ask him, who wrote it for him?"

- Joelle Farrell

Follow the money

The Wall Street Journal has some great maps and charts here showing how the leading candidates have allocated their money and their face-time in the early primary and caucus states. There are also summaries of polling in New Hampshire and Iowa. The accompanying story is here.

Not ready to chuck Huck

First came the wave of Mike Huckabee enthusiasm. Next came the backlash. Now comes this cautionary note from Tony Blankley:

"It is absurd to consign Mr. Huckabee to some ideologically dangerous, non-democratic, political zombie graveyard. Free-market, low-tax conservatives may point with alarm at his policies if they wish. But what is it in the conservative drinking water recently which gives rise to such bilious language and such excluding ways of thinking?

"It would behoove those of us who have been for some decades now conservative Washington voices to exercise a little modesty and humility when it comes to defining what will constitute the new winning, principled conservatism for the next generation. National conservatism has won more elections than it has lost in the last quarter century. But in the absence of a completely dysfunctional Democratic Party, we are not likely to continue to do so in the future with exactly the same talking points and programs we have held in the past."

Mike Pride wrote about Huckabee in New Hampshire here.

Democratic debate: the big night?

Brian Williams wasted no time giving Barack Obama the chance to back up his New York Times interview in which he said it was time to highlight the differences between him and Hillary Clinton. He spotlighted NAFTA, torture and the vote to authorize the war in Iraq and said Clinton has changed her views on those subjects. Obama said that might be politically savvy but that it undermined the ability of the Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Republicans. She responded by saying the Republican candidates don't seem to have gotten the memo that she's voting or sounding like them. And she stressed that she is working to prevent a rush to war in Iran. No question, she came out better in this first exchange.

By the second and third questions, Clinton's voice has gotten a little more strained, which is surprising. She knew exactly what was coming tonight, and yet she sounds put off by the piling-on. Such is the burden of the frontrunner.

Wow. John Edwards takes a shot at Clinton by saying she voted for a resolution that reads as if it was written by the neocons. At a Democratic debate, them's fighting words. Edwards's gloves are off, for real. Obama -- Rocky allusion or no -- has to now decide whether to let Edwards do the dirty work -- but then risk not being part of the night's main storyline.

Obama says America is acting like the weakest country in the world and needs to act like the strongest country in the world. I don't know exactly what that means, but it's at least a decent-sounding line.

Dennis Kucinich proves liberals can run against the media, too.

Clinton says she really is against the war but isn't against the troops. I suspect that sentiment will read better than it sounded.

Edwards vows to get combat troops out of Iraq -- period -- after saying Clinton will not. He's much clearer on the how-to-draw-distinctions thing than Obama is.

Edwards adds: We need to be in "tell-the-truth mode," not primary campaign or general election mode.

Clinton: I intend to end the war in a responsible manner. This is antiwar-lite with a dose of take-your-medicine thrown in. I don't think there is such a thing as a Goldilocks answer on the war -- not too supportive, not too critical, but just right. I think people who have strong feelings on the war want either John McCain or Dennis Kucinich/Ron Paul.

Clinton: The Republicans' obsession with me means they think I'll be an effective president. Or they really want you to be their opponent.

Tim Russert asks about documents from the Clinton White House pertaining to the former first lady's role. She's in no mood to speed the "process."

Obama finally scores a point: This is an example of not turning the page. Government needs to be open. Americans need to know how their money is being spent. Right now, Americans don't feel like their government is working for them. And the reason Republicans are focused on you, Hillary, is because you're the type of politician they're comfortable with.

Edwards makes my point: They want to run against you. Plus he says something about lobbyists. And if you want the status quo, then Senator Clinton is your candidate.

Clinton: The Supreme Court handed the presidency to George Bush. ("Get over it," Antonin Scalia yells across the room.)

Obama, asked about experience, focuses on bringing people together when (other) people said it couldn't be done. Also he's stood up to special interests, passing tough ethics reform. And he opposed the war (when he wasn't a national figure). He gave a better answer on executive experience when we interviewed him and he talked about running an up-from-nothing campaign that's raised money on par with the Clinton machine.

Richardson says the non-Clintons are getting too personal with their criticism. He said the same thing to us this morning at the Monitor. I'm starting to wonder if he's decided there's long-term benefit in defending her from Edwards and Obama.

Joe Biden shows up, one hour in: I'm not running against Sen. Clinton -- I'd love to run against Rudy Giuliani, whose sentences all have three words: a noun, a verb and 9/11. The crowd shows up -- and laughs. Biden says maybe I've been around too long. The MSNBC producers consider whether that means they can cut him off.

One reason Edwards is animated tonight: The NH SEIU just endorsed him.

Obama: We have to talk straight on Social Security. We're all against privatization on this stage. There's a problem, long term, but not a crisis. Best option is to lift the cap on the payroll tax, perhaps with an exemption for the middle class. I'm not fearful to have a debate on this with Rudy. (Rudy isn't fearful either.)

Clinton says she doesn't want to impose a trillion-dollar tax on middle-class families. So much for the politics of hope.

Obama: I trust the American people to know I'm not Osama bin Laden. (The beard is the giveaway.) And I don't care what Mitt Romney says. Or what he says this week. (A Republican campaign other than Romney's just copied that into an email.)

It's 10:25 now, the World Series games were still in the 4th inning or so at this time of night, meaning New Englanders are tired. The 30-second speed round is going to need real zingers to make it through the bleariness now. If Obama doesn't have a good canned line he can reel off, he's going to suffer several days of negative reviews. An Iowa poll with Edwards rising would compound the damage.

Russert brings up Charlie Rangel's mother of all tax reforms (see here and here). Clinton: I don't agree with all the details, and Tim, you can't pin me down on a 4% surtax. I will say bad things about the AMT.

Obama: 10,000-page tax code is loaded with loopholes. He wants to restore fairness for working mothers and seniors. No good canned line on this shelf.

Other live-blog takes on the debate here (from Monitor alum Jenn Skalka) and here.

Comcast just ran an ad aimed at ... the campaigns? Advertise on cable, and we'll help you micro-target (and spend all that money you've raised).

It's too late to make the 11 o'clock news, but Chris Dodd probably made the Hardball recap with his one-on-one with Clinton on illegal immigration and driver's licenses. Edwards noticed and says Clinton just said two opposite things. Obama says me, too: I can't tell if she was for it or against it. Hey, a Hail Mary pass with almost no time on the clock. Still too convoluted for the news highlights about to start, but perhaps worth a late boost in the final versions of the morning newspapers.

Snap bottom line: Edwards made the most "news"; Obama will by and large be faulted for not delivering the goods (and what was up with that Romney Halloween joke?); and Clinton, if uninspiring, did nothing to undermine her look of inevitability as the Democratic nominee. And her non-answer on immigration did nothing to upset the Republican appetite for running against her.

UPDATE: The New York Times has posted video and written transcripts here. The Obama campaign wants you to see this clip, in which pollster Frank Luntz's focus group was very impressed with Obama's performance.

Capital Beat extra: The Gravel investment grows

Gregory Chase, the 27-year-old hedge fund manager from Nashua who's also Mike Gravel's biggest backer in New Hampshire, was already willing to pay a lot for his one-man pro-Gravel media campaign. Today, he upped the ante, big time.

We wrote last week about Chase's effort to drum up support for Gravel by buying ads in the state's major newspapers until primary day. The ads urge readers to take a fresh look at Gravel, the former Alaska senator who's finished dead last in nearly every Democratic primary poll. Chase also offered $1 million to NBC, which decided to leave Gravel out of the debate it's hosting in Philadelphia tonight.

Chase said he had already spent more than $100,000 for his effort, which he's waging without the consultation of Gravel's official campaign. But the price tag took a big jump today, after Chase purchased advertising in the largest newspapers in the country: USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, among others. Those ads cost an additional $250,000, Chase told us by phone from Philadelphia, where he was planning to hear Gravel speak at a café while his opponents debated nearby at Drexel University.

Chase was also busy putting up Gravel signs and handing out fliers in the neighborhood. Though he'll be in the same room as Gravel, Chase told us he wouldn't speak to the candidate, to ensure he doesn't break campaign finance laws that forbid collusion between campaigns and independent spenders.
"I'll be there, though I won't make an effort to talk with him," Chase said.

- Daniel Barrick

Not Bush vs. Not Clinton

Hands down, the most concise analysis of the 2006 elections was Cliff May's in a blog post that read, in its entirety:

The Democrats said: “Had enough?"
The Republicans said: “It could be worse!”
The voters said: “Let’s find out.”

I was reminded of this reading Michael Barone's latest column, which finds both parties lacking a compelling narrative for the presidential campaign. (By contrast, he describes how both Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan had convincing visions "of where we are in history and where we should be headed next.") Barone concludes:

Neither party is presenting a narrative, as the Roosevelts and Reagan did, that takes due note of America's great strengths and achievements. Each seems to take the course, easier in a time of polarized politics, of lambasting the opposition. The Democrats suggest that all our troubles can be laid at the door of George W. Bush. The Republicans, noting Bush's low job ratings, complain about the disasters that will ensue if Hillary Clinton is elected. All these may be defensible as campaign tactics. But it is not a pudding that can successfully govern.

Forget governing, let's just focus on the politics. If Barone is right -- and if the basic narrative of the campaign remains (for another year? good grief!) "Had enough of Bush?" vs. "Clinton could be worse!" -- it's certainly possible that voters will again answer: "Let's find out."

On the other hand, the Republican candidate will not be Bush -- and Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson could probably capitalize on that difference more than Rudy Giuliani or John McCain. So whereas in 2006, the Democrats could effectively say, "Vote for us to send a message to/rebuke Bush," voters in 2008 will be replacing Bush one way or the other.

And there will be, of course, one Democratic presidential candidate (as opposed to only the bunch of House and Senate candidates you get in an off year). So it will be easier for the Republicans to personify their negative campaign -- "Clinton would be worse" -- than it was in 2006. (This is also true if the nominee is Barack Obama -- and we can argue all day about whether he would be easier or harder to demonize.)

I end up thinking the eventual nominees of both parties would be wise to take Barone's advice (heck, that's true a lot of the time) -- both from the point of view of improving their chances to win and in case they do. In addition to being a recipe for one of the most dispiriting campaigns in history, "Not Bush vs. Not Hillary" is a sucker's bet for both sides. Here's hoping both parties settle on a candidate with a compelling narrative of "where we are in history and where we should be headed next." That's what a presidential election ought to be.

Capital Beat extra: Fred, in person

Fred Thompson made his second trip to the Granite State today since announcing his candidacy last month, when he said he would be here "early and often." Thompson said he has spent the last seven weeks fundraising across the country so he could pay for radio and television advertising. He said New Hampshire should retain its first-in-the-nation primary forever and insisted he would visit the state more in the coming weeks.

"The real issue is what's the situation on election day," he told reporters after he filed papers with Secretary of State Bill Gardner to add his name to the New Hampshire primary ballot. "By that time I will have been in New Hampshire a lot, I will have shown New Hampshire the same respect that I'm showing these other states."

"But every time you're somewhere, that means you're not somewhere else," he added.

Earlier in the day, he spoke with employees at Northeast Delta Dental in Concord, where he said he would not support a federal bill allowing civil unions for same-sex couples.

- Kate Davidson

Capital Beat extra: Gregg, Romney make it official

Sen. Judd Gregg endorsed Mitt Romney for president today, saying at a noontime rally in downtown Concord that the former Massachusetts governor is a fiscal conservative and an outsider equipped to clean up Washington. Afterward Romney, flanked by his wife, Ann, and Gregg, went to the secretary of state's office to officially sign up for the New Hampshire primary.

The endorsement was far from shocking. Tom Rath, a senior Gregg adviser, is a consultant to Romney's campaign. Still, Gregg, New Hampshire's senior senator, is the biggest endorsement in New Hampshire's Republican firmament this year. Sen. John Sununu has said he will not endorse, and Democrats hold both House seats and the governor's seat.

Romney's run an early-state campaign, often saying that wins in Iowa and New Hampshire will propel him forward. The theory puts a positive spin on polls: He consistently leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire but trails former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in national polls that have Romney in single digits.

- Lauren R. Dorgan

Fred Thompson: entitled to a bit of praise

Fox News rebroadcast the last GOP debate yesterday, and I happened to catch this exchange (full transcript here) between Fred Thompson and moderator Brit Hume:

HUME: Senator Thompson, I want to go to the issue that you mentioned in passing just a couple of minutes ago, the solvency of Medicare and Social Security. You said those programs were threatened with bankruptcy. They indeed are, as countless economists have advised us. If they were to be kept in their present form, it is argued that they could swamp the private economy with unacceptable levels of taxation or would force severe benefit cuts. You have stepped out on this, suggesting that we could change the indexing method for the growth of benefits in Social Security. You have said that we couldn't really afford the prescription drug bill that was passed under President Bush. You have talked about the possibility that high-income Medicare beneficiaries would have to accept less benefits. This is a hard area, as the president's adventure on this has shown. Are you prepared to say, tonight, that you would propose these things and make them part of your campaign?

THOMPSON: Yes. As I think that you have stated them, yes. I don't want to be bound to your exact words, but the principles that you've outlined are absolutely correct. It's based on the notion that there's no reason to run for the presidency of the United States if you can't tell the truth. It's a difficult thing politically, but the fact of the matter is we're bankrupting the next generation. We're spending the money of our grandkids and those yet to be born. They don't have a seat at the table. Our present mandatory spending cycle leaves us in an unsustainable position. The comptroller tells us that, the Government Accountability Office -- everybody that looks at it says it's unsustainable. Can you imagine something that's unsustainable and threatens our economy for our grandchildren and those yet to be born not being discussed more on the campaign trail?

I've just set out a couple of things that I think will avoid future generational warfare, where we have to fight over a lot higher taxes or big benefit cuts. If we do some responsible things now we don't have to do that. And the indexing of benefits in the future, from wages to prices, is one way to do that. Current retirees -- or for those near retirement wouldn't be affected. And those retiring in the future would get the same benefits in real dollars as those retiring now, but not more.

Hume wasted no time invoking the potential risk of such an answer, turning to Rudy Giuliani and saying that what Thompson said "will open him to accusations that he's trying to cut Social Security benefits. He will be accused of being willing to diminish or take away the prescription drug benefit that many now have come to depend on. He has suggested that Medicare beneficiaries might have to suffer loss of benefits." Giuliani went on to talk about the importance of private accounts but passed on the chance to take a shot at Thompson.

Hume then turned to Mitt Romney, asking: "Are you prepared to be as bold as Senator Thompson has been in making an -- in addressing these extremely politically sensitive entitlement programs?" To which Romney replied: "I'm prepared to be entirely bold, but I'm not prepared to cut benefits for low-income Americans."

Now, clearly, Thompson did not say anything that amounted to cutting benefits for low-income Americans. Just as clearly, however, he's left himself vulnerable, now or later, to age-old fear-mongering on the issue of entitlements.

It shouldn't need saying that Thompson has hardly signed up for anything radical -- you could probably find 20 Robert Samuelson columns making similar, commonsense points (here, for instance). Yet such are the gotcha games when it comes to talking about entitlements that Hume wasn't out on a limb in saying that Thompson was. I give Thompson credit for taking even this small step toward reality-based campaigning.

UPDATE: Incidentally, although he endorsed Romney for president today, Judd Gregg knows Thompson is right to promote serious debate about entitlement spending.

A new phase of the campaign?

Barack Obama, in a New York Times interview: "I am not interested in tearing into Hillary Clinton, just for the sake of tearing into her. As I said before, I think she is an admirable person, I think she's a capable senator, I think there's overlap between some of her ideas and mine. The case I'm making is not that she's a terrible person or would be a terrible president, the case I'm making is that I would be better at those things that the country needs right now. I will more effectively bring the country together, I will more effectively overcome the special interests and I will more provide a clearer vision for the country about where we need to go."

The interview turned into this front-page story: "In an interview on Friday that appeared timed by his campaign to signal the change of course, Mr. Obama said 'now is the time' for him to distinguish himself from Mrs. Clinton. While he said that he was not out to 'kneecap the front-runner, because I don’t think that’s what the country is looking for,' he said she was deliberately obscuring her positions for political gain and was less likely than he was to win back the White House for Democrats. Asked if Mrs. Clinton had been fully truthful with voters about what she would do as president, Mr. Obama replied, 'No.' "

A big investment

You may have read about the 27-year-old hedge fund manager spending up a storm on Mike Gravel. Apparently, he's willing to throw some cash -- $25,000, to be exact -- your way, too, if you win the Gravel Video Contest he's running at YouTube.

Telling left from right

Rutgers historian David Greenberg on Rudy Giuliani: "To a New Yorker, the idea of Rudy as a liberal or even a moderate is unreal, topsy-turvy -- like describing George McGovern as a hawk or Pat Buchanan as a Zionist."

A related piece appeared last week in the Washington Monthly: "Which candidate is most likely to not only embrace the powers that Bush has claimed, but to seize more? . . . It's simple: Rudy Giuliani."

We've pointed several times before to Rick Brookhiser's characterization of Rudy: "the politician who is both extremely liberal and extremely conservative. This is a very different thing from being a 'moderate' (which is almost always code for trending liberal). On social issues he stands with Barney Frank. On security issues he stands with Douglas MacArthur."

That's actually not that far from the ideological mapping suggested (albeit much more negatively) by Frank Rich, who says Giuliani really is anathema to social conservatives. Rich sees Rudy's standing in the polls as proof "that the political clout ritualistically ascribed to Mr. Perkins, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Gary Bauer of American Values and their ilk is a sham. . . . Should Rudy Giuliani end up doing a victory dance at the Republican convention, it will be on their graves."