Hillary and Obama Duke It Out in Vegas, McCain Gains Momentum

Another big week on tap in presidential politics, as the two increasingly contentious Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, do battle in a key Las Vegas debate on Tuesday and the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, while the still fractured Republican field has the Michigan primary on Tuesday and South Carolina and Nevada on Saturday.

The drama of Iowa and New Hampshire the past two weeks left the top two Democrats running pretty even in national polling, with only John Edwards left to challenge them in debates after the rapid withdrawals of the other major candidates. The Republican field hasn't been pared at all, though if Mitt Romney, whose campaign was based on winning Iowa and New Hampshire, doesn't win Michigan, the state he was born in where his father served as governor, that may change. He's in a close race there with John McCain, the New Hampshire victor who is the new leader in national Republican polls.

The new CNN national poll shows the two Democratic frontrunners, Clinton and Obama, the current easy choice over all Republicans except John McCain. McCain is in a statistical dead heat with both Obama and Clinton.

We'll have a clearer idea about Republican leadership in a week, after the primaries in Michigan and South Carolina. The Nevada caucuses are another big showdown for Democrats, but more lightly contested by Republicans, who have traditional turning point South Carolina the same day. After pulling a distant third in Iowa with McCain, Fred Thompson is making his last stand there in the Palmetto State.

Mike Huckabee is a huge factor in South Carolina, and a big factor in Michigan, as he is everywhere now. Rudy Giuliani, after fading in New Hampshire, is waiting for Florida to get his campaign rolling, but seeing his numbers elsewhere diminishing as a result.

But first there is Michigan on Tuesday. Mitt Romney, the Michigan native and son of revered former Michigan Governor George Romney - who ran as the conventional conservative choice in Iowa and the "change" candidate in New Hampshire (saying only he could run against the "inevitable" Democrat, Barack Obama) - is having better success in home state Michigan by making a special pledge to revitalize the state's lagging economy as president. America as a whole is in an economic slowdown; Michigan itself is doing worse. Romney promises to get all the lost jobs back, while McCain says some are simply gone. The latest polls coming out over the weekend alternately have McCain and Romney leading.

As competitive and multi-dimensional as the Republican race is, the Democrats have an arguably more dramatic show going, with increasingly bitter salvos being fired by Clinton, before and after her near death experience last Tuesday, and Obama. But before we get to that, what happened in New Hampshire?

On the Republican side, it was of course a big win for John McCain, whose veteran team of Republican strategists managed expectations well. Mitt Romney, whose campaign was always predicated on winning Iowa and New Hampshire, has now lost both. The Iraq surge advocate and Vietnam War hero McCain was clearly viewed as the most credible commander-in-chief. The media exit poll, incidentally, was correct in foreshadowing McCain's victory. But it was wrong in suggesting an Obama victory. Those are polls of people who have actually voted.

McCain's victory, part of it built upon independents, who were flowing to Barack Obama in all the polls, turned out to be a significant factor in Hillary Clinton's dramatic, and narrow win in the Democratic primary. It may well be that expectations of a sizeable Obama win, in virtually every poll, led more independents to vote for McCain, feeling that the real contest was on the Republican side.

Another big factor appears to be that women voters broke heavily for Hillary, late. Nearly 20% of the Democratic vote was decided in the last 24 hours, and Hillary had an edge there. Did her teary-eyed moment of vulnerability yesterday, played endlessly on television, resonate with the chilly Clinton at last showing her humanity?

Worry about the economy also turned out to have been the single biggest issue in the Democratic primary. The Clintons' furious counter-attack, much of it mounted by the former president, enabled Hillary to win back the big blue collar city of Manchester, which she had held in her hand through most of last year, but lost to Obama over the past few weeks.

Which brings us to Bill Clinton. A great many observers, myself included, thought that he acted in a very unpresidential manner, descending into the murk of the campaign as if he were a primary candidate himself. He was pilloried throughout the media for his behavior on behalf of Hillary. But you know what? It worked.

Bill Clinton was the attack dog of his wife's campaign. For those who think he doesn't want her to win, consider that he damaged his reputation in the furious drive to win a bare plurality victory in a single primary.

His attacks on Obama, his reassurance that he and his wife are on the side of blue collar voters, Hillary's moment of vulnerability, perhaps even the obvious ploy of Hillary calling Bill yesterday while he was giving a speech - a la the episodes with Rudy and Judy Giuliani - in other words, the entire kitchen sink of political tactics they conjured up in a furious effort to close the gap, worked.

As I mentioned, the media exit polls in New Hampshire were accurate on the Republican side. And inaccurate on the Democratic side. John McCain had a six-point edge, and that tracked pretty well with his victory in the Republican primary. But Barack Obama had a five-point edge in the Democratic exit poll. And that did not track with his narrow defeat. Is that a racial factor, as has occurred in past campaigns? Or a problem with polling that only affected the Democratic side?

There's been some speculation that the stories of panic and disarray in Hillary Clinton's campaign were an elaborate fake-out - in the old Soviet doctrine, it's called maskirovka. I don't think so. I'm told that Bill Clinton was bucking up associates late in the day yesterday by telling them it would be closer than everybody thought. The former president stayed at Hillary's election night party until the early morning hours, shaking hands with and chatting up all late hanging well-wishers.

Then around 3 AM, a press release about a morning media conference call with the top Clinton national campaign leaders arrived.In California Senator Dianne Feinstein's view, the key was late decision-making among women voters. "It may well have been that 'moment," Feinstein said, referring to the incident on Monday in which Hillary teared up, voice quavering, a clip played endlessly on television.

Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who was all over New Hampshire working to get out the vote, said that it came down to people making up their minds, and in some cases changing them, in the last day. "I saw and talked to people making their decisions as they walked into the polling place," she said.

So the race rockets forward, in some odd ways. Obama's narrow New Hampshire loss was followed on Thursday by his very high profile endorsement by 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry. After that, a number of major red state/swing state Democrats endorsed not Clinton, but Obama, including Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, Missour Senator Claire McCaskill, South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, and Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, surprising many Clinton supporters, who had expected her comeback girl story from New Hampshire to dominate.

With Obama spending Sunday campaigning in Nevada - and his campaign releasing an economic revitalization plan to attempt to match the one Hillary Clinton put out on Friday (which mirrored earlier announcements) Hillary went on Meet The Press yesterday morning and proceeded to re-inject the Iraq War into the Democratic race. She made two big points, one of them something of a stunner.

Her vote to authorize the Iraq War, she said, was not a vote for war, but merely to allow weapons inspectors to do their job inside Iraq. The Bush Administration had assured her that the purpose of the legislation was not to go to war. Okay then. (And Bill Clinton, as he said recently, was actually against the invasion, though no one noticed at the time.) Actually, the Bush Administration agenda to invade Iraq had been obvious for a very long time.

She also used the occasion as an opportunity to say that Obama - whose campaign is based in part on his opposition to the invasion of Iraq - wasn't really against the war. That although he gave a now famous speech in 2002 opposing the invasion, around the time she was voting to authorize the invasion, he wasn't really against it. Because in 2004, when he delivered his famous keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, he decided not to knock the party's national ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards (who voted along with Hillary to authorize the invasion of Iraq), allowing as how he opposed the invasion from his vantage point, he couldn't criticize Kerry or Edwards because he didn't have their information and couldn't make a call as to how he would vote in their shoes.

My own view of Iraq is totally different from the various partyline arguments back and forth. So for me, this sort of get-me-rewrite politics is fairly amusing.

Perhaps sensing the problem of Hillary's attempt to recast her vote for war as a vote for peace, the Clinton campaign put out a statement attempting to recast Obama as anything but a war opponent, and put on a hastily organized media conference call featuring campaign experts to buttress Hillary's claim ... with about 10 minutes' notice.

While Obama has the edge now in the South Carolina Democratic primary -- which is a week later than the Republicans, on the 26th -- the campaign is now focused on Nevada, where he Clinton, and Edwards have a Tuesday debate in Las Vegas and the Saturday caucuses.

Burned by last minute changes in position following the Clintons' desperation kitchen sink campaign of Monday and Tuesday - and noting how wrong the media exit poll was (Obama by 5 points) - many pollsters are refusing to poll Nevada.

Incidentally, with regard to Nevada, an amusing interlude following last Thursday's Republican debate in South Carolina came when the entire Fox News post-debate panel knowingly discussed Nevada and their view of what's going on there ... as all the while each managed to mispronounce Nevada in the most knowing tones of punditry! Omniscient ignorance, the media ticket for the new century.

Obama won the endorsement of Nevada's biggest union, the culinary workers -- who represent much of the big casino workforces -- which is prompting some backspin from the Clinton camp. A Clinton-friendly teachers union is suing to change the Nevada caucus rules -- which allow at-large caucuses in big casinos on the Vegas Strip (her campaign headed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's son agreed to it when the rules were drawn up last year) -- and as for the candidate herself, Hillary Clinton bashed the caucus process and attempted to lower expectations in the Silver State.

Ain't we got fun?