Monday Morning Quarterback: Fred's First Debate

Iraq continues to bubble, with the Iraqi government on Sunday declaring Blackwater USA very much in the wrong in last month's big shooting incident in Baghdad -- which is a problem for both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton -- and the presidential campaign spotlight this week is on Fred Thompson, who takes part in his first debate on Tuesday night in Dearborn, Michigan.

After many months of almost diving into the race, while paddling around the shallow end of the pool, the former Tennessee senator and Law & Order star, seen by many on the right as a savior in a field of unaccountably moderate and/or flawed candidates, jumped in full-fledged last month on the Tonight Show. And promptly got a lot of mixed to poor reviews.

As I wrote in a long piece immediately after his appearance, the veteran Hollywood actor appeared more nervous than expected, not at all owning the stage as had Arnold Schwarzenegger when the action movie superstar did the first Tonight Show announcement of a major candidacy at the beginning of the dramatic 2003 recall campaign for the California governorship. Thompson has flashed some charm and projected a sort of genial downbeat thematic conservative message, but policy specifics and sharp rhetoric a la Reagan have been lacking. Not knowing about potential oil drilling in Florida or capital punishment developments in Tennessee are hardly the end of the world on a campaign tour, but in a debate could be very damaging.

This, coupled with respectable but hardly leading fundraising on Thompson's part makes this week's debate a key event. All the other major Republican contenders are flawed. To go through each of their problems -- in the Republican primaries, not the general election -- could seem an exercise akin to pulling off flies' wings.

Rudy Giuliani supported George McGovern for president and Mario Cuomo for governor of New York, and that's before getting to specific questions about policy and wardrobe. Mitt Romney ran to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights when he sought a Massachusetts Senate seat in the '90s, and has changed his stance on guns, abortion, and other key issues. And speaking of Teddy K, John McCain co-authored the big failed immigration bill with the legendary liberal.

So there's a big opening for a "real" Republican. We'll have a good idea after Tuesday night if the big Tennessean is ready to saunter through it.

The Republican race as a whole is in a state of quiet semi-tumult.

The new Wall Street Journal poll shows (pdf file) a continuing lead for Rudy Giuliani. He's at 32% among Republicans nationwide. Fred Thompson, despite his problems, has 23%. John McCain, who has melted down twice already -- first with independents and moderates over Iraq, then with conservatives over immigration -- is still at 15%. Mitt Romney remains mired at 10%. MikeHuckabee hasn't gotten much of a bounce from his second place finish in the overhyped Iowa straw poll of August, which Romney won. He has only 4%.

On the issues, a whopping 48% say they want to see a departure from the ways of President Bush. One-third see national security issues as paramount, by far the highest rated issue. Two-thirds say that global free trade is not working out well. One-third favor a tax hike on the rich to cut the deficit and pay for needed programs. Those latter attitudes mark significant shifts among Republican voters.

While Giuliani has, for the most part, all year long maintained a consistent national lead among Republican voters, confounding the expectations of many experts, the race is quite unsettled in the early contests. Romney has relative leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, though Giuliani is closing in the Granite State. Thompson leads in South Carolina, while Giuliani has the edge in Florida. Nevada has had four different leaders already this year.

Adding to the air of uncertainty is the big advantage Democrats have had all year in fundraising.

For the first time this year, Hillary Clinton bested Barack Obama in fundraising for the upcoming Democratic primaries and caucuses. Her campaign just reported raising $22 million in primary funds during the third quarter of 2007. That edges outObama's fundraising performance in the same period. He raised more than $19 million for the primaries. In a surprise which shows momentum, the New York senator and former first lady's fundraising for the third quarter was actually more than in the second quarter. Fundraising usually drops off over the summer.

The Clinton campaign employed a sort of reverse jujitsu, privately lowballing their expected fundraising numbers. That may not help with an emerging problem, that of increasing press irritation with the candidate and campaign - after a long period of glowing "inevitability" coverage - but it does add an element of drama.

The top two Democrats, Clinton and Obama, raised twice as much as the top two Republicans, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

In funds raised from contributors, Rudy Giuliani shaded Mitt Romney in the third quarter, $11 million to $10 million. Romney, however, put another $8.5 million from his personal fortune into his campaign, making a total of $17 million so far. Giuliani leads in cash on hand, with $16 million to Romney's $9 million. Absent his personal money, Romney's campaign would be broke.

Fred Thompson raised $9.3 million. That's good, but far less than Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney raised in either of their first two quarters of candidacy. Thompson reported having $7 million cash on hand.

While a key debate is nearly upon us and the fundraising numbers are still being sorted out -- we won't know until the middle of the month how much money all the candidates have on hand -- the conundrum of Iraq has presented us with its latest twist. This comes with the Iraqi government on Sunday finding gross misconduct on the part of Blackwater security guards in a September 16th incident in Baghdad. 17 Iraqi civilians were killed by the contractors, according to the Iraqi government investigation.

This is a problem for the Bush White House, obviously, which has seen Blackwater's federal government contracts go from about a million dollars in the Clinton years to hundreds of millions a year now. It's an issue for Romney, who hasBlackwater vice chairman Cofer Black as a key member of his national security team. But, intriguingly, it's also an issue for the Democratic presidential frontrunner.

John Edwards has just attacked Hillary Clinton for her campaign's tie to the controversial Blackwater USA private security solutions firm.

When Blackwater founder and chairman Erik Prince testified before Congress earlier this week, his PR counsel came from the huge Burson Marsteller public relations firm. Hillary Clinton's pollster and chief strategist Mark Penn is the head of Burson Marsteller. The firm said today that it has resigned the Blackwater account.

"We don't want to replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats," said Edwards, campaigning in Iowa. Edwards, stuck in a scrum withObama and Clinton in Iowa -- which he absolutely must win, having parked himself there for much of the past three years -- seems increasingly willing to go on the attack against Hillary. Getting to her left on Iraq is key to that. This looks like a hanging softball over the plate for the clever trial lawyer.