Hillary Stumbles, Rudy And Fred Struggle

The week ahead in presidential politics sees the Democrats heading west to roll the dice in another debate, this time in Las Vegas. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are dealing with scandals surrounding close political associates, giving Mitt Romney, who already leads in early states, an edge, and John McCain fresh ammo to get back in the race.

Meanwhile on this Veterans Day weekend -- with this presidential race in which only McCain among the top tier candidates in either party is a vet -- crises in politico-military affairs continue to bubble dangerously in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, with the prices of oil and gold held aloft by huge risk premiums. Though the Turkish situation has calmed some, if for no other reason than the weather, which increasingly makes a large-scale Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq to subdue Kurdish separatist guerillas using it as safe haven a less likely prospect.

As we headed into Veterans Day weekend, there were some signs that Hillary Clinton's supposedly inevitable, front-running campaign was starting to fade.

Despite the repeated intervention of her popular husband, former President Bill Clinton, she's back into a dead heat in Iowa. Now her trendline in New Hampshire, which she's always viewed as her firewall against a possible loss in Iowa, appears to be heading down.

Clearly her performance in the last debate, week before last in Philadelphia, which was actually pretty strong till her gaffe at the end on drivers license for illegal immigrants, has changed the dynamics.

Actually, her performance in the debate a month before that was problematic for her as well, as I wrote at the time. It showcased a pattern of slipping questions and a classic frontrunner smugness.

It was only because her campaign so cleverly spun the third quarter fundraising results - misleading people, including me, into thinking she had done much less well than she had - that the problems exposed in that debate performance did not establish a new narrative for the campaign.

After first incongruously seeking to recoup from last week's debate by complaining that the men were ganging up on her, Clinton is now saying she's fine with all that. But she doesn't seem very convincing.

The truth is that her opponents weren't her problem in the Philadelphia debate. She created her own problems, largely in how she handled questions from the aggressive Tim Russert. While John Edwards did the best, he didn't cause many problems for her. Nor did Barack Obama, who was definitely off his game.

It was actually Chris Dodd who forcefully objected to Clinton's apparently changing views on the drivers license question. Only then did Edwards make his move.

Since then, they've both made major moves on Clinton. And Obama, by most assessments, scored very well at this past weekend's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, which featured speeches by all the candidates except for Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who have no campaigns to speak of in the first-in-the-nation contest.

One good thing going for Hillary in Thursday night's debate in Vegas is that it's being cablecast by CNN. Tim Russert won't be there, since he's an NBC guy. The Clintons usually do well on CNN, so this time Obama and Edwards may have to make their own luck.

But it seems they already are. In addition to Iowa being very much in play for either an Obama or an Edwards victory, Hillary is coming back to earth in New Hampshire.

The Granite State has always been her firewall against an Iowa loss. After being in a very tight race with Obama earlier this year, she had opened up a big lead there. Now that lead has been cut in half, to about 10 points, in two recent polls. That's a lot of movement in a short period of time. But that's what can happen in primaries, when voters are focused in.

The national numbers haven't shown that sort of movement, though Hillary is down several points. But most voters still aren't paying much attention. That will change dramatically as each contest gets closer for each state's voters.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is picking up the pace of his advertising in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire to extend this edge there, while John McCain takes aim at Giuliani and, to a lesser extent, Thompson, for their travails with close associates caught up in scandal.

Campaigning at the end of last week in Nevada, Rudy Giuliani called the indictment of his longtime friend and close associate, ex-New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, on multiple federal corruption charges, "very serious and very sad." Kerik was pushed successfully by Giuliani for appointment by President Bush to be the US secretary of homeland security. Then charges emerged of Kerik's longtime ties to Mafia figures, his use of a luxury apartment donated for 9/11 rescue workers as "love shack" with a prominent conservative publisher, his employment of an illegal nanny, and on and on. His appointment to the Bush Cabinet was rescinded before the Senate could vote him down.

This is a deeply serious problem for Giuliani's candidacy, since he is the one who elevated Kerik, a New York cop when he met him, first to the position of the mayor's driver and bodyguard, then to the posts of New York corrections commissioner and New York police commissioner. Those two posts placed Kerik, respectively, in charge of New York's extensive jail system and of the New York Police Department. After Giuliani left office following his star turn on 9/11, Kerik became his business partner in Giuliani's highly lucrative consulting empire.

Fred Thompson's old friend Philip Martin, with a couple of convictions for drug dealing in his past, has resigned from Thompson's presidential campaign, in which he served as one of four founding finance chairmen. Thompson will no longer fly around on Martin's plane, as he's done throughout the year. In addition to his drug dealer past, Thompson's old friend was trailed from state to state by a string of lawsuits by unhappy investors and business associates, as well as massive tax liens.

McCain is showing some movement in New Hampshire, which he won in 2000 over George W. Bush. But it won't be easy for the one-time frontrunner for 2008 to resurrect his campaign again, after seeing it hammered first among independents and moderates for his pro-Iraq War stance, then by conservatives for his co-sponsorship of the failed immigration bill.

As for Romney, Giuliani and Thompson's troubles come at a good time for him. He has strong leads in Iowa -- where Mike Huckabee has supplanted the top tier candidates as the current runner-up -- and New Hampshire. While Giuliani out-raised him in the third quarter, Romney is super-rich and can easily match whatever he raises. But he has a problem, too, beyond having embraced much more socially liberal positions in past campaigns than he is in this one. And that's his religion, Mormonism, which polling shows to be a serious problem for many Christian Republicans.

I'm told he's thinking of addressing the issue head-on, as John F. Kennedy did with his Catholicism in 1960. But others in the campaign are wary, worried that it will draw further attention.