It’s the warmup for two of the biggest political showdowns in history when next week’s Super-Duper Super Tuesday happens. This week, we’ve got John McCain and Mitt Romney duking it out in the only major contest of the week: the Florida Republican primary as Hillary & Bill Clinton trying to deal with their whipping in South Carolina at the hands of Barack Obama – the new best friend of the Kennedy clan.
First, a brand new Florida tracking poll. The Zogby tracking poll for Reuters http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1438 has John McCain slightly ahead of Mitt Romney, 33% to 30%, with Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee far back at 14% and 11%, perspectively. At this point, the impact of Rudy Giuliani in the race is to make it more difficult for John McCain to win. And who thought we’d be saying that six months ago?
This week the Democrats and Republicans have their pre-Super Tuesday debates in California. On Wednesday, the Republicans debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, a distant suburb of Los Angeles. On Thursday, the Democrats debate in Los Angeles. At the end of the week, Republicans hold caucuses in Maine. On the Republican side, we will begin to see if the troubled incumbent party chooses a war hero with appeal to independents, or a recent former moderate-turned-hard right conservative. But the more dramatic storyline is in the Democratic race, at the moment, and it is a close call, with a resurgent Barack Obama looking to hammer Hillary again. Or, another way of putting it, the Kennedys vs. the Clintons.
As I’ve already reported, and as the political world now knows — Senator Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving brother and child of ultra-Democratic icon JFK — are rallying today with Barack and Michelle Obama at the American University in Washington, D.C. The Kennedys, not to put too fine a point on it, like and are impressed by Obama. And sources close to them say, are frankly appalled by the behavior of the Clintons. Which they regard as cheap, race-baiting, calculatingly vicious nonsense. And that would be the good part.
Caroline Kennedy, author of an impassioned essay in yesterday’s New York Times entitled “A President Like My Father,” who I’ve met and talked with, is a private person who doesn’t run around making endorsements, so the fact that she is stepping forward is striking in itself. But her uncle is a political pro, and he will be campaigning throughout much of the country, and particularly the West, focusing on labor and Latino voters for Obama. Which, fortunately for the Democratic icon, not to mention Obama, happen to be areas of vulnerability for the freshman Illinois senator in a Democratic contest.
Former President Bill Clinton’s strategy — which he made crystalline in its clarity when he and his wife were were blown out in South Carolina, by denigrating Obama’s historically big South Carolina primary win by saying Jesse Jackson won there, too (in low-turnout caucuses, the part he neglected to mention) — is to cast Obama as “the black candidate.” Though he would deny that is his aim. While he may be fooling some voters, using his sustaining credibility as a former president, he is fooling no one among the ranks of operatives and knowledgeable reporters.
But the Kennedys get at that strategy. They are champions of labor, and of Latinos. Ted Kennedy has been the foremost Senate advocate for organized labor. And his brother Bobby did more than any other Anglo politician — with the possible exception of Jerry Brown, who is presently neutral — for Latinos. I’ve seen pictures of John and Robert Kennedy in the labor camp shacks of Latino workers. But none of Bill or Hillary Clinton.
And so yesterday, Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of the Democrats’ version of Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, published an impassioned essay in the New York Times entitled “A President Like My Father.” I’ve met and talked with JFK’s daughter, who is private, dignified, and not at all given to issuing endorsements, not to mention going out of her way to trade on her father’s legendary name. This is unusual for her. As she put it:
Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible. We have that kind of opportunity with Senator Obama. It isn’t that the other candidates are not experienced or knowledgeable. But this year, that may not be enough. We need a change in the leadership of this country – just as we did in 1960.
Her endorsement is already resonating with opinion leaders, many of whom had already soured on Bill and Hillary Clinton. The disdain for their tactics, for example, from everyone on yesterday morning’s Meet The Press panel, was palpable.
Today Caroline Kennedy and her uncle Ted do a rally with Barack and Michelle Obama at the American University in Washington. Which happens to have been the site of a JFK speech about a potential breakthrough in the Cold War. Which never came to pass, since he was assassinated not long after.
Incidentally, in this frankly non-intellectual, yet self-consciously intellectualized, hyperpartisan era, in which the redhots of both parties are remarkably ignorant of one another, I know a lot of key operatives in both the major parties, Democrats and Republicans. Who is the Democrat Republicans fear most? Barack Obama. Who is the Republican Democrats fear most? John McCain.
Republicans I know like the idea of running against Hillary Clinton, as it stirs up their base and she has remarkably high negatives, though they also respect the Clintons’ political combat skills. Democrats I know like the idea of running against Mitt Romney, who they view as a flip-flopper who has adopted views to win a primary that are too conservative for a general election, though they recognize that he is smart and smooth and personally well-funded, if hardly on a Michael Bloomberg level.
This week, we will get a better idea of how the contest in both parties plays out.
Will Obama get a big boost from his huge win in South Carolina? Will the backing of the Kennedys help him overcome the entrenched power of the Clinton machine?
On the Republican side, if McCain wins in Florida, he is the frontrunner. His new leads in polls of major Super-Duper Tuesday states such as California, New York, and New Jersey will then become more concrete, though megabucks Romney can always fight on.
If Romney wins Florida, the contest goes back to a muddle.