Thursday, June 28, 2007

McCain’s ’08 Dilemma: Can He Recapture the Magic He Once Had?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign (which has plenty of smart people and doesn’t need my advice): Try to get back to McCain’s story.

It isn’t news that McCain’s campaign is staggering under the weight of weaker-than- expected fundraising and poll numbers, criticism from conservatives who don’t trust him, the Senator’s immigration and Iraq positions, and the perception that he’s just another politician.

I know plenty of people who a year ago told me that McCain was the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination but now say the Arizona Senator’s White House bid is flat-out dead. They aren’t saying it’s tough for him to win the Republican nomination or that he’s an underdog. They are saying he is finished. Kaput.

They may be right, but I’m not quite willing to say that yet. The Senator will need terrific second-quarter fundraising numbers to reverse that talk, and until we see those numbers, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Too many of us wrote off Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) too early in 2003, and I’d prefer not to repeat that mistake. From my view, it’s better to be a little late jumping on the “McCain is toast” bandwagon than to jump on it and find out that he’s made a phoenix-like recovery.

Anyway, I was reminded the other day about the one thing that’s missing from the national coverage of the 2008 McCain campaign that was so prevalent during the coverage of his 2000 White House bid: His life.

As I watched McCain in Iowa and New Hampshire eight years ago, I was struck by how many veterans were in his audiences, and how real people talked and related to him. They saw him as a true hero. Given the recent media coverage of Paris Hilton and the late Anna Nicole Smith, plenty of Americans might well like to hear about a true hero.

Whatever Rudy Giuliani’s, Mitt Romney’s and Fred Thompson’s strength and appeal — and each certainly has some — McCain stands head and shoulders above them in terms of service to country and personal story.

Giuliani’s image as a crime-busting former U.S. attorney and post-9/11 New York City leader has more resonance than Romney’s Mormon or Olympics storyline or Thompson’s lawyer/Hollywood story, but only McCain is a Vietnam prisoner of war who was tortured and returned home a hero.

During his previous run for president, McCain was defined by his campaign and the national media as an outsider and reformer, which followed naturally from his reputation as a maverick in the Senate, his support for campaign finance reform and fiscal responsibility, and his role as adversary of the Republican establishment’s preferred candidate, George W. Bush.

But this time, McCain has been defined by his positions on two controversial issues, immigration and the Iraq War, as well as his associations with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on campaign finance and immigration, his wooing of major party fundraisers and social conservatives, and his age.

McCain continues to talk about many of the things that he did in 2000, including ethics, wasteful spending and national security. And his Web site includes his bio and photographs from the Vietnam era. But things have changed for McCain, in part because the coverage of him is so unlike what it was and in part because the GOP field is different.

McCain has tried to be the conservative candidate, while Giuliani challenges him for party moderates, as well as those wanting a candidate who projects strong leadership on the war against terror. The mayor and Romney (add to them Thompson soon) are fresher faces, at least in a presidential race, than is McCain, and voters always seem smitten with the new guy, at least for a while.

Eight years ago, McCain was the messenger of change, and he’d certainly like to be so again. But it’s hard to retain that role over so many years, and McCain’s age only makes it more difficult for him to connect to voters as the agent for change.

Four years ago, everyone was talking about military experience and personal character, two of McCain’s great strengths. Now, those McCain assets are largely ignored by the media and candidates.

After re-reading this column, even I’m wondering why I don’t write off the Arizona Senator. Is it merely because I believe that he’s gotten a raw deal by his party? Maybe. Here’s a guy who has spent the past few years giving the McCain seal of approval to dozens of lesser Republican candidates and defending the Bush agenda in Iraq (though certainly not all of the president’s decisions), and yet many in his own party still distrust — no, despise — him.

No. It’s that McCain still has a talented team, the second-best GOP organization in Iowa, considerable strength in New Hampshire (which he won in 2000) and about as many warts as each of the other Republicans in the GOP presidential race. But his campaign obviously isn’t going well now, and there is no guarantee it will recover.

McCain may not be able to reinject his personal story of heroism and service into the national media coverage of his campaign or excite people the way he once did. His military record may be old news to too many people. But his campaign needs to find a way to make John McCain more than just a Washington, D.C., insider and Senator, and his personal story and heroism should be more of an asset now than it is.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 25, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, June 25, 2007

House Retirement Watch: If You Wait, They Will Come

By Stuart Rothenberg

It seems as if every election cycle around this time I start thinking, “Where are all the retirements?” It’s mid-June, six months into the 2008 cycle, and there are only a handful of open House seats.

But is it so unusual that we now have only four House Members — Democrats Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Tom Allen (Maine) and Mark Udall (Colo.) and Republican Duncan Hunter (Calif.) — retiring at the end of their current terms? Allen and Udall are running for Senate seats, while Gutierrez simply is leaving Congress. Hunter, of course, is running for president.

I went back over the past couple of cycles and found that things are a bit slower than they were in 2003 and 2005, but there is an explanation.

The May 20, 2005, issue of the Rothenberg Political Report identified 14 open or likely open House seats. The list included three “pure” retirements — Mike Bilirakis (R-Fla.), Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Major Owens (D-N.Y.) — and 11 Representatives who already were running for, or widely expected to run for, higher office.

The list of political ladder climbers included four who were running for the Senate — Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — and seven who were running for governor: Republicans Butch Otter (Idaho), Jim Nussle (Iowa), Tom Osborne (Neb.), Jim Gibbons (Nev.) and Mark Green (Wis.), and Democrats Jim Davis (Fla.) and Ted Strickland (Ohio).

The lengthy list of gubernatorial hopefuls in the previous cycle, compared with none yet this year, has nothing to do with President Bush, national polls or Congress.

A mere 11 states have gubernatorial elections next year, while 36 had gubernatorial contests in 2006. So far, only two incumbent governors whose terms end next year are not seeking re-election, and both of them (Democrats Ruth Ann Minner in Delaware and Mike Easley in North Carolina) are term-limited. The lack of good gubernatorial opportunities, then, is a significant reason for the fall-off in gubernatorial candidates this cycle.

The difference in House Members running for the Senate (four at this point in the previous cycle compared with only two now) is primarily a function of Senate retirements and opportunities.

By the end of April 2005, four sitting Senators had announced their retirements — Republican Bill Frist (Tenn.), Independent Jim Jeffords (Vt.) and Democrats Mark Dayton (Minn.) and Paul Sarbanes (Md.). Those open seats created opportunities for ambitious House incumbents, which explains some of the House retirements at this point in the previous cycle. This cycle, there is only one Senate retirement so far, Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado.

In the previous presidential election cycle, House retirements also ran a bit heavier, but nothing close to the 2005-’06 midterm cycle numbers.

At this point in 2003, the Rothenberg Political Report showed nine open House seats —of which only eight actually became open, because then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) eventually aborted his Senate bid.

Republican Reps. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mac Collins (Ga.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) were running for the Senate (even though the Georgia Senate seat was then the only one officially open), while four other House incumbents had made it clear they would not seek re-election: Nick Smith (R-Mich.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). Toomey subsequently challenged Sen. Arlen Specter in the GOP primary.

Two other House incumbents announced Senate plans shortly after mid-June. Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) announced at the end of the month that he was running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, while Rep. George Nethercutt (R) entered the Washington Senate contest at the very end of July.

Compared with the past two cycles, then, retirements are slower. But if history is any guide, I expect they will come, despite party efforts to encourage incumbents to seek re-election.

The House has averaged about 32 retirements per cycle over the past three cycles. Even if 2008 has relatively few retirements, we should still see at least 20 House incumbents give up their seats.

Since World War II, the lowest number of House retirements has been 20, in 1956. In the 1960s, House retirements generally ranged from the low 20s to the low 30s, but they increased dramatically during the 1970s and into the early 1980s, when they generally reached at least 40 per cycle. Then they fell, so that in 1984, 1988 and 1990 retirements ranged from 22 to 27 per cycle.

House retirements skyrocketed again in the anti-incumbent mood of the mid-1990s, falling back to the current level, in the low-to-mid 30s, from 1998 to 2006. There were 31 House retirements in 2004 and 2006, and 35 in 2002.

Surprisingly, GOP House retirements have greatly exceeded Democratic retirements over the past three cycles, with 61 House Republicans opting against seeking re-election, while only 35 House Democrats gave up their seats to seek other office or enjoy retirement.

More Republicans than Democrats also were defeated in primary or general election campaigns during the past three cycles (29 Republicans versus only 19 Democrats), giving the GOP some hope that, sooner or later, Democrats will have to worry about defeats and retirements.

But Republicans ought not to expect relief from the retirement trend to begin this cycle. The loss of the House, the party’s national standing and a handful of Republican incumbents with ethics problems are likely to combine to encourage GOP retirements, which is why veterans in potentially competitive districts, such as Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), Ralph Regula (Ohio), Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Tom Davis (Va.) and Bill Young (Fla.), will receive so much attention about their plans.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 21, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, June 22, 2007

New Print Edition: Missouri 6 & Texas 22

The new June 22, 2007 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here's a brief sample of what's in this edition...

Missouri 6: Royal Ruckus
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Democrats insist that voters in the suburbs all across the country are moving in their direction, and they’ll have a chance to test that hypothesis against Cong. Sam Graves (R) in Missouri’s 6th Congressional District.

Even though it’s early in the cycle, Democratic strategists are excited about their recruit and likely nominee, former Kansas City mayor Kay Barnes (D). Barnes just finished her second term as mayor, and the city’s suburbs make up a significant portion of the congressional district.

On its own, the district still leans Republican, but it’s too early to tell whether President Bush and the war in Iraq will continue to drag down GOP incumbents who would normally win rather easily. For the rest of the five-page story, you must subscribe.

Texas 22: Top of the List

The 22nd District of Texas is arguably the best Republican takeover opportunity in the country, but don’t count out Cong. Nick Lampson (D) just yet. In the wake of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) and his trail of troubles, Republicans are still sorting through a field of potential candidates for the right challenger to try and pull this seat back into their column.

A number of the usual names like Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt have taken a pass, but that doesn’t mean the GOP is struggling to find a candidate who can win next November.

The filing deadline isn’t until January, but now that the state’s legislative session is over, there should be some movement in the candidate field. Shelley Sekula Gibbs, who served the remainder of DeLay’s term in Congress last year, is running again, but she certainly won’t have the field to herself.

Meanwhile, Lampson is serving in the majority for the first time and working to solidify himself to avoid a repeat of 2004, when he lost reelection after DeLay’s mid-decade redistricting plan. Staying in office would be the ultimate source of revenge.

Instead of the wind at his back, Lampson will face a strong test with the Republican presidential nominee likely to do very well in the district. For the rest of the story, you must subscribe.

DSCC Could Hit Recruiting Mother Lode

By Stuart Rothenberg

While Democratic strategists have not yet started to count their chickens, there is increasing evidence that two key Democrat Senate recruits are moving toward '08 Senate races.

Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who narrowly lost a 2002 Senate race against Republican John Sununu, has reversed her earlier decision against running next year and, after a heavy recruiting effort by many Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, appears to be leaning toward a re-match with Sununu.

Insiders stress that Shaheen has not made a final decision, but they agree that the betting at the Harvard Institute of Politics, where she is the director, and in savvy political circles in New Hampshire, is that she is now likely to enter the Senate race.

In Nebraska, former Senator (and former Governor) Bob Kerrey also appears to be inching toward entering the state’s Senate contest, assuming that incumbent Senator Chuck Hagel (R) decides not to seek reelection. Kerrey would not challenge Hagel if the Republican decides to seek another term, which many think is not likely.

Kerrey, who is telling friends that his wife has signed off on a Senate race, has already paid for a survey and contacted operatives who worked for him in the past. And he is the keynote speaker at this weekend’s annual Democratic event, the Morrison-Exon Dinner, on June 23. "He wouldn’t go and do the dinner if he wasn’t serious about the Senate," one knowledgeable Democratic insider told me.

Based on early recruiting, Democrats have so far put three GOP Senate seats in play, the open seat in Colorado and seats held by Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Susan Collins (Maine). They are still looking for a top tier candidate against Oregon’s Gordon Smith.

Democratic chances for another mega-year in the Senate would also be enhanced by possible additional Republican Senate retirements in Virginia and Nebraska.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on June 21, 2007.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Handicapping Versus Reporting, Analyzing the Presidential Race

By Stuart Rothenberg

As I’ve watched the first few months of the 2008 presidential race, I’ve been struck by how differently the race can be watched and evaluated.

Most print and television political reporters, along with their editors, are approaching the contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations as if they are color commentators of a baseball game. They evaluate every pitch, comment on every swing and discuss every possible thought that the batter, pitcher and manager may be having.

But if you are more concerned with who wins, or who will make the first cut, it’s far better to regard the two races as akin to an entire baseball season, starting with spring training and ending with a stretch run that really matters.

It’s not that the early games don’t count as much as the later ones, or that something significant can’t happen early on. A freak injury in spring training can have a huge impact on an entire season. But most spring training games don’t matter very much, which is why most baseball fans don’t follow them with any great urgency.

In point of fact, while every pitch is equally important in the sense that a pitch could result in a dramatic development — a home run that could win a game in May during a season ultimately decided by one victory — in reality, all pitches and all games are not of equal importance.

Of course, we can’t be sure which pitch or game mattered until we look back at the end of the season, but an at-bat in April simply doesn’t have the importance of one during a pennant race in the final weeks in September.

For political journalists, there are plenty of reasons to adopt the baseball game approach, which is why most have done so.

One of the jobs of reporters is to document the day’s news, and each and every day something happens during a campaign, even if one of those things is that nothing happens. Creating a record of the day goes to the core of the journalist’s role, so it isn’t surprising that reporters report on every utterance of a candidate on the campaign trail and comment during every debate.

The baseball game approach helps to boost readership and ratings. If everything matters, then readers and viewers need to stay on top of daily developments. Hype the story and, hopefully, you hype the attention that the public gives to the next news piece or article. This is one of the reasons why reporters look to create controversies or magnify disagreements. The baseball game approach makes each pitch (each day) a potential media bonanza.

The baseball game approach also keeps those of us in the reporting and analysis business in business. After all, if each pitch is important, it deserves to be reported, analyzed and argued about. That means reporters have to monitor and write about each pitch, and talking heads have to put each pitch in context and assess the impact of each pitch.

The handicapping approach adopts a longer-term perspective that places less emphasis on daily ups and downs. It places more emphasis on the voters and less on the actions of the candidates. It doesn’t ignore news, but it helps avoiding overreaction and hype.

The biggest news so far of this election year, apart from decisions by politicians such as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) about whether to run, has been the evolving primary schedule and the decision by a couple of Republican frontrunners not to participate in an Iowa GOP fundraising scheme called the Iowa straw poll.

Candidates have made news, some of which they would have rather not made. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) had an embarrassing encounter with questions about his hunting experience, while former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) had to deal with news and jokes about the cost of his haircuts. But while these kinds of news stories certainly help paint pictures of the candidates and ultimately can go a long way in creating the candidates’ public images, most of them have no lasting impact.

We have had a handful of debates already, and they really haven’t changed the political landscape. Yes, Edwards was aggressive in trying to portray Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as late to the anti-war position, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Romney had a dust-up in an early encounter. But few minds were changed by the debates, and more people learned about the debates by reading or listening to post-debate reporting and analysis than by watching the televised events.

Part of the problem, on the Democratic side, is that the top-tier and second-tier candidates all seem to hold the same positions. That means they end up arguing about who opposed the war first or who feels most passionately about it, not about substantive differences. Differences are primarily about style, not substance.

As I’ve noted before, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) looked dead in the water during the summer and fall of 2003, only to resuscitate his campaign in early January in Iowa, when Iowa caucus attendees started to evaluate the candidates with a different eye — an eye toward picking their nominee and the next president of the United States.

To the color commentator, Kerry was a non-factor in the fall of 2003 and had peaked six or eight months earlier. The story was about former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D). But to the handicapper, the race hadn’t really begun because Iowa voters hadn’t taken their most important look at the choices in front of them.

So if you are watching the 2008 race as a handicapper, you have a fundamentally different attitude than does the color commentator. Handicapping is less fun because it pays less attention to the daily goings-on, but it helps avoid being carried away by boomlets and guards against overinterpreting daily developments, many of which are entertaining but ultimately unimportant.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 18, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

2008 Senate Ratings

Here are our latest Senate ratings, including the developments in Wyoming. At this point in the cycle, we only use three broad categories. Later, we will move to our more specific categories such as Clear Advantage, Narrow Advantage, Toss-Up, etc.

  • Coleman (R-MN)
  • Collins (R-ME)
  • CO Open (Allard, R)
  • Johnson (D-SD)
  • Landrieu (D-LA)
  • Smith (R-OR)
  • Sununu (R-NH)
  • Alexander (R-TN)
  • Barrasso (R-WY)
  • Chambliss (R-GA)
  • Cochran (R-MS)
  • Cornyn (R-TX)
  • Craig (R-ID)
  • Dole (R-NC)
  • Domenici (R-NM)
  • Enzi (R-WY)
  • Graham (R-SC)
  • Hagel (R-NE)
  • Inhofe (R-OK)
  • McConnell (R-KY)
  • Roberts (R-KS)
  • Sessions (R-AL)
  • Stevens (R-AK)
  • Warner (R-VA)
  • Baucus (D-MT)
  • Biden (D-DE)
  • Durbin (D-IL)
  • Harkin (D-IA)
  • Kerry (D-MA)
  • Lautenberg (D-NJ)
  • Levin (D-MI)
  • Pryor (D-AR)
  • Reed (D-RI)
  • Rockefeller (D-WV)

Monday, June 18, 2007

For Some Democrats, the Political Picture Doesn’t Look So Rosy

By Stuart Rothenberg

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — While Democratic politicians and activists around the country are upbeat about the party’s near-term political prospects, including the 2008 presidential and Congressional elections, Democrats in Michigan are increasingly concerned about their standing in the state. Some are merely worried about the future. Others are openly pessimistic.

State budget problems have Michigan politicians of all partisan and ideological stripes shaking their heads, wondering exactly when and where the short-term fixes — such as a recent move to delay state contributions to state universities until October (and the next fiscal year) to avoid making the budget deficit look as bad as it is — will end and whose ox the voters will gore next.

Not surprisingly, politicians aren’t keen on raising personal or business taxes, for fear of angering voters or further hurting the state’s business community. Nor are they enthusiastic about cutting spending, since that means axing popular programs and pitting constituencies against each other.

While state government is divided — the governor, Jennifer Granholm, is a Democrat, and Democrats took control of the state House of Representatives in November, but Republicans retained their majority in the state Senate — Michigan voters are more likely to give Democrats a much larger share of the blame for the state’s economic circumstances.

In Michigan, Democrats face the same problem that Republicans do nationally, where President Bush’s party gets the blame for bad news even though Democrats now control Congress. Granholm, who was first elected in 2002 and was re-elected last year after turning back a stiff challenge from conservative businessman Dick DeVos (R), is the face of state government, so she and her party are more on the hook for the condition of the state.

Not all of the state’s economic problems are Granholm’s doing, of course. Even Republicans acknowledge that former Gov. John Engler (R) left the state in a mess when he relinquished his office in 2003, and the current governor isn’t to blame for the American automobile industry’s problems.

But Granholm was slow to grapple with the tough issues facing the state, including jobs, and even those who want her to succeed seem unimpressed with her efforts to lead Michigan.

The governor’s performance and the automobile industry’s serious problems appear to have put the brakes on Michigan’s move from a true swing state to a reliably Democratic bastion, a change that seemed almost inevitable just three or four years ago. While the state hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1988 and has elected just a single Republican to the Senate since 1976 (Spencer Abraham in the Republican tsunami year of 1994), it is Michigan Republicans who are feeling upbeat about the future.

Next year’s elections could be another problem for the GOP nationally, but that won’t put Republican control of the Michigan Senate in jeopardy, since that chamber isn’t up until 2010.

Political insiders already are looking down the road to the 2010 gubernatorial race, when Granholm will be ineligible to run again and when state contests will have a huge impact on the next round of redistricting. Unless the state’s circumstances improve dramatically by then, Democrats could face a tough cycle.

A number of high-profile Republicans already are mentioned for 2010, including DeVos, state Attorney General Mike Cox, Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and a handful of Members of Congress.

DeVos, who ran a strong though unsuccessful campaign in 2006, already seems to be benefitting from “buyer’s remorse,” as state voters wonder whether they made the wrong choice last year.

Knowledgeable insiders say the wealthy businessman — an heir to the Amway fortune — is considering another gubernatorial run.

Cox, who served as a prosecutor in both Oakland and Wayne counties before becoming director of the homicide unit in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, was elected state attorney general in 2006. In 2005, Cox admitted to committing adultery.

Land, though not known as a stirring speaker, is a tireless worker who was first elected secretary of state in 2002. A longtime Republican activist who served as Kent County (Grand Rapids) clerk, she comes from a wealthy family.

Democrats don’t have a natural successor to the governor, though some Michigan pols think Granholm’s husband, Dan Mulhern, who currently hosts a radio talk show, would love the state’s top job. Nobody thinks Lt. Gov. John Cherry Jr. will be the party’s nominee for governor or could win that office, but of course the party has plenty of time to find an appealing candidate for 2010.

National Democrats have been talking optimistically about running serious races against a handful of Michigan’s Republican House incumbents, including Reps. Joe Knollenberg, Thaddeus McCotter, Tim Walberg and even Mike Rogers. Certainly Knollenberg will be in for a tough fight next year. But Democrats cannot afford to ignore their own troubles in this important state, which start with the top officeholder in Michigan.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 14, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, June 15, 2007

2007-08 Gubernatorial Ratings

Here are our latest gubernatorial ratings. We have moved to our pre-election categories. Democrats currently hold 28 governorships compared to 22 for the Republicans. 2007 races are in italics.

  • Open; Blanco (D)
  • Fletcher, (R-KY)
TOSS-UP (1 R, 0 D)
  • Blunt (R-MO)
  • Daniels (R-IN)
  • Gregoire (D-WA)
  • NC Open (Easley, D)
  • Barbour (R-MS)
  • Douglas (R-VT)
  • Hoeven (R-ND)
  • Huntsman (R-UT)
  • Lynch (D-NH)
  • Manchin (D-WV)
  • Schweitzer (D-MT)
  • DE Open (Minner, D)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Iowa Straw Poll: Over Long Before It Really Began

By Stuart Rothenberg

Less than a month ago in this space, I observed that the fast-approaching Iowa straw poll in Ames on Aug. 11 could offer some interesting insights into the Republican race for president. To quote Emily Litela (Gilda Radner) of “Saturday Night Live” fame, “Never mind.”

The recent announcement by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that he would skip the straw poll, followed by the surprising announcement by Arizona Sen. John McCain that he, too, would not actively participate in the straw poll, all but destroys the significance of the event.

Television network executives who were preparing for a political event of significance — a visual event with real people “voting” — will now give only passing mention to the straw poll.

An NBC source told me the network is “completely reassessing” its coverage of the Iowa straw poll, while a source at CBS familiar with that network’s political coverage was more blunt: “Giuliani’s and McCain’s absence from the Iowa straw poll makes it very much less likely that we’ll cover it with the intensity that we would have had they been involved. It’s hard to justify giving significant time to a no-contest event.”

Given those reactions, it’s a safe bet that the television and print coverage of the event will be one-tenth of what it would have been if all the major GOP candidates had competed.

With two of the Big Three Republican contenders (McCain, Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney) already announcing that they will not compete, there is little reason for political reporters to dwell on whether Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee can get more supporters out to Ames in the middle of August.

The straw poll was never going to be as important as the January caucuses, of course, but it was likely to be some sort of early test of campaign organization in a state where organization in January (or whenever the Iowa caucuses actually take place) matters.

Thompson, who is expected to enter the GOP race soon, can now move up his announcement date if he chooses without fear of being asked whether he will participate in the straw poll. His late entry would have given him an out anyway, and some insiders have been speculating that he was delaying his announcement to make it impossible for him to participate in the Ames event.

Giuliani’s decision also isn’t surprising, since Romney and McCain have the two best organizations in the state and a disappointing finish by the New Yorker could have done nothing but add to the impression that he is weak with the GOP base and his appeal has been exaggerated by national poll numbers.

One month ago, one Republican insider who is supporting Romney’s presidential bid told me privately that Giuliani might skip Ames. “Rudy has no organization on the ground in the state,” the observer commented.

McCain’s decision, however, is more of a surprise, and it can’t be comforting to supporters of the Arizona Republican that he has chosen to bail from the straw poll.

McCain has put together an excellent Iowa operation, and his team includes campaign manger Terry Nelson, a very talented Iowan who knows the state’s politics and political mechanics as well as anyone.

Just a month ago, an ally of McCain told me, “We are obviously participating” in the straw poll.

The Republican insider went on to compare 2008 with 2000 by noting that when McCain “didn’t participate in the 1999 straw poll, he was in the single digits nationally,” compared to now, when he has been a top-tier candidate for many months. The implication: This is a very different race; McCain is one of the frontrunners; McCain must participate in Ames.

The decision by the McCain camp, then, constitutes a reversal, an important change in plans that certainly suggests his advisers feared he would underperform in Ames or doesn’t have the financial resources to enable him to compete there without hurting himself elsewhere.

Obviously, it’s better for McCain to duck a fight with Romney than to have one that would have embarrassed the Senator. But either way, McCain looks weaker, raising more questions (questions he doesn’t need) about his long-term prospects.

One thing that the now-catatonic straw poll doesn’t do is undermine the importance of the Iowa caucuses. They remain, along with New Hampshire’s primary, the two biggest tests of the presidential cycle.

Will Republican activists in Iowa punish McCain and Giuliani for not participating in the straw poll? It seems unlikely, as long as the two of them, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, make it clear that the caucuses remain a high priority for them.

For Romney, the Giuliani and McCain decisions about August constitute a quick victory and serve to confirm the former governor’s organizational strength, and momentum, in the state. Of course, the bar for him is now set high in the Hawkeye State, and the presidential contest is a long war, not a single battle. Two months before the big event, the straw vote is now ancient history.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 11, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Illinois 8: Greenberg to Challenge Bean

Wealthy businessman Steve Greenberg (R) is set to announce his candidacy against Cong. Melissa Bean (D) in Illinois's 8th District.

GOP insiders believe the 8th District is one of their top ten opportunities in the country, particularly since Bean won reelection last year with 51% in the Democratic wave. There was a liberal third-party candidate who took 5% as well. In 2004, President Bush won the suburban Chicago district 55%-44%, while Bean was defeating Cong. Phil Crane (R).

Greenberg, 36, had previously been mentioned as a potential challenger to Sen. Dick Durbin (D), but he has his sights set on Congress instead. The Republican specializes in turning around corporations and his family owns the Ben Franklin stores.

Greenberg is also a former minor league hockey player, coming up through the Washington Capitals organization with goalie Olie Kolzig, until an injury shortened his career.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Obama’s Message Crosses the Atlantic

By Nathan L. Gonzales

NAIROBI, Kenya — Across the stream of raw sewage and past the piles of trash, Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) message of hope resonates thousands of miles away. In Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods, the prospect of a President Obama has captured the imagination of the next generation of Kenyans.

The conditions of the school aren’t fit for an American jail, yet the dark and musty rooms are filled with row after row of smiling schoolchildren. These students live in the Mathare Valley, one of Africa’s largest slums and a place where more than one meal a day is a luxury, and when given the option to ask anything about the United States, their answer is almost universal — they want to know more about Obama.

Obama’s father, whose name also was Barack, grew up in the tiny village of Nyangoma-Kogelo in rural Western Kenya. He moved to Hawaii for college, the first African exchange student at the University of Hawaii, where he met the Senator’s mother. He later became a senior economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance but died in a car crash in 1982.

Obama wasn’t raised in Kenya, has visited the country less than a handful of times in his lifetime and wasn’t particularly close to his father since he left the family when Obama was only 2 years old. Like many Americans, Kenyans know very little about what the Illinois Senator stands for, but they do know of his dad.

Regardless of how deep his Kenyan roots go, Obama’s profile in Kenya has steadily increased over the past four years. His election to the Senate in 2004 sparked some interest, but his visit to the region in August and heavy local media coverage sent his name identification in Kenya through the roof.

“I love all of you, my brothers — all of you, my sisters,” Obama told a crowd in Kibera, another Nairobi slum where at least 700,000 people live within a square mile. “I want to make sure everybody in America knows Kibera.”

The Senator, on the trip with his wife and two daughters, took in other Kenyan towns including his father’s village, where he visited his grandmother. The Senator’s policy speech at the University of Nairobi was carried live on television, a rare occurrence.

Obama hadn’t been to Kenya since the early 1990s when he visited to introduce his then-fiancee to the Kenyan side of his family. He also visited his sister in Kenya in 1986.

In the United States, even Democrats are still getting to know Obama. An April 12-15 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed only 25 percent of Democrats said they knew a great deal or good amount about Obama’s positions on the issues. And that number would be much lower when extrapolated to the population as a whole.

Obama’s popularity in Kenya really has nothing to do with what he says or what he stands for. And it also has virtually nothing to do with President Bush. The fascination is certainly personal and not political or partisan. Obama has captured the imagination of the youngest Kenyans.

“Send our greetings to Barack Obama,” shared one polite fifth-grader who quickly piped up, instead of offering a question about the United States. When asked how it would make them feel if Obama was president of the United States, one Form 4 (12th grade) student simply and quickly offered, “Proud.”

Some older Kenyans are more skeptical. “Just because his dad is Kenyan doesn’t make him one of us,” said one 24-year-old Kenyan woman on the impact of Obama on her life.

Tribal politics also are a factor. Obama’s father comes from the Luo tribe, one of Kenya’s largest (out of at least 40) and one also known for its tribal pride. In the eyes of other Kenyans, the Luo tribe doesn’t need any help boasting about its status.

With their own presidential race in December, politics is already on the mind of many Kenyans. President Mwai Kibaki (part of the Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest) has been widely praised during his first five-year term, particularly on the heels of the tumultuous 24-year reign of President Daniel arap Moi. The economy grew by 6.1 percent last year, even though unemployment is still a huge problem (up to 40 percent, according to some sources).

But Kenyans are cautiously optimistic after the 2002 election results in their own country (after a number of rigged elections) and are watching the 2008 race for president in the United States. One social studies teacher at a school in the slums peppered me with questions about Obama’s chances in the race and the advantages of the two-party system. He wanted to make sure he had an accurate reading of Obama’s candidacy to be certain his teachings were on the mark.

Obama’s election would be historic in two countries. But he doesn’t even have to win the presidency to make an impact here in East Africa, because he already has broadened the aspirations of thousands of Kenyan children. If a candidate with Kenyan roots can become president of the United States, anything is possible to these kids.

Obama’s candidacy is giving hope to a group of Democrats looking to turn the page after eight years of George W. Bush, but to a group of people in the slums of Nairobi, Obama is more than politics. He is a brighter tomorrow.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on June 7, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Democratic Leaders on Capitol Hill Are Still Playing Iraq Just Right

By Stuart Rothenberg

Now that the dust has settled on the Congressional vote on the supplemental appropriations bill and on the ruckus that anti-war opponents of the bill kicked up, it’s time to assess the political implications.

First, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill played the issue like a Stradivarius. They forced a vote on a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, putting Republicans on record supporting the status quo and President Bush, but allowed a subsequent vote to “fund the troops.” That gave their own Members from swing districts the opportunity to demonstrate their support for the military.

From a purely political point of view, Democrats had their cake and ate it too. Yes, the war is unpopular, and opposing it is a no-brainer. But the one thing Democrats need to avoid is looking like themselves during the 1970s and 1980s — weak and unwilling to support America’s men and women in uniform. Yes, they’ve spent the past few years speaking the right words on national security and the armed forces, but if they had refused to pass a spending bill, they would have at the very least opened themselves to attack from the GOP.

So, in ignoring the demands of the party’s left, Congressional leaders have kept their party right where they want it — against the war but also against terrorists and for the troops.

Second, some Democrats are openly unhappy that Congress cooperated with the president. Presidential hopeful John Edwards argued that Congressional Democrats should pass the same deadline bill again and again until Bush signed it, and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan announced that she will no longer be the face of the anti-war movement and was distressed that “Democrats caved in to George Bush.”

While a bit more confrontation with the president probably wouldn’t have gotten Congressional Democrats into trouble and would have pleased the party’s left, the Democratic House and Senate leaders wisely played things safe by allowing a bill to pass that Bush could sign.

Why take a chance alienating swing voters when the party already made its point by sending the president a deadline bill that he vetoed?

Anti-war critics of the Democratic Congressional leadership have nowhere else to go, both now and in November 2008.

Liberal bloggers apparently are angry with Democratic Rep. Mark Udall’s vote for the supplemental, but they’ll support him in next year’s open-seat Senate race in Colorado. Similarly, the 2008 Democratic nominee for president will be more appealing to anti-war liberals than the Republican nominee will be, so the Democratic Party risks very little, at least at this point, in disappointing its most ideological, confrontational element.

Third, the vote on the supplemental was far more dangerous for the party’s presidential hopefuls than for the Democrats’ Members of Congress.

House and Senate Democrats are able to deal with Bush’s war, since they have no commander in chief authority and are not viewed by most Americans as the initiators of U.S. foreign policy. The Congressional opposition can score political points merely by complaining about the president’s policies and demanding a change.

Indeed, that’s how the Democrats won their majorities in 2006. The party had no unified agenda on Iraq — the Democratic call for a deadline didn’t spread across the party until after November’s results — and it gained control of both chambers by making the election a referendum on the president and his Iraq policy.

But presidential elections are different. They are to a much greater extent a choice between leaders and visions. Past performance, of course, is a factor, and were Bush running for re-election, the 2008 election would be a referendum on him, as 1992 was a referendum on his father and 1980 was a referendum on then-President Jimmy Carter’s leadership.

Even if voters are unhappy with a failed foreign policy, they are likely to want a president who is perceived as strong and tough when it comes to foreign policy. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will want a unilateralist. Or that they won’t vote for someone who calls for more international cooperation. But they won’t vote for someone who isn’t viewed as willing to fight for U.S. interests.

For Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), both of whom voted against the bill that eventually passed, the fight over the supplemental was (and is likely to return again as) a problem. Clinton spent a long time trying to establish her international credentials for toughness, and her gender probably is an added burden as she tries to fill the commander in chief role. Still, Americans apparently view her as personally tough, which makes it easier for her to convince voters that she’d aggressively defend American interests as president.

Obama has a similar problem, in part because of his lack of international experience. Moreover, his general message of hope and unity doesn’t inevitably lead voters to see him as tough internationally and able to protect Americans from terrorists.

Edwards’ strong position against the war, combined with his recent remarks questioning the phrase “war against terror,” put him in a precarious position as he campaigns for the nation’s top job. He talks angrily about the war, but he still lacks a great deal of international experience. While voters may find him appealing as a leader against Bush’s Iraq policy, the former North Carolina senator may not be nearly as convincing as commander in chief.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 7, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, June 08, 2007

New Print Edition: House Overview

The new June 8, 2007 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google checkout button on the website or send a check.

Here's a brief sample of what's in this edition...

House Outlook For 2008
Stuart Rothenberg

Democrats hold most of cards one-quarter of the way to the 2008 elections: the President’s numbers remain low and voters want change; the generic Presidential ballot gives Democrats a big advantage; the war is still extremely unpopular, and Republicans seem to have no rallying agenda. In addition, Democratic House recruitment and fundraising is off to a good start.

But for the first time in months, there may be a crack or two starting to show in the Democrats’ position...

For the rest of the overview and a state-by-state breakdown of the races, you must subscribe. Just our ratings with no explanation are available here.

2008 House Ratings

Here are our latest House ratings. Any seats not listed are currently considered to be at limited risk for the incumbent party. Democrats currently hold a 233-202 majority in the House.

*UPDATED 8/31 to reflect likely open seat in Virginia 11. Add to list as Toss-Up.
*UPDATED 8/23 to reflect Renzi's announcement. Moved AZ1 to Toss-Up from Lean GOP.
*UPDATED 8/15 to reflect Pryce's announcement. Moved OH 15 to Toss-Up from Lean GOP.
*UPDATED 8/14 to reflect Hastert's announcement. Add to list as GOP Favored.

  • FL 16 (Mahoney, D)
  • TX 22 (Lampson, D)
  • AZ 1 (Open; Renzi, R)
  • OH 15 (Open; Pryce, R)
  • VA 11 (Open; Davis, R)
  • FL 13 (Buchanan, R)
  • CA 11 (McNerney, D)
  • GA 8 (Marshall, D)
  • IL 8 (Bean, D)
  • KS 2 (Boyda, D)
  • NH 1 (Shea-Porter, D)
  • PA 10 (Carney, D)
  • CT 4 (Shays, R)
  • NV 3 (Porter, R)
  • NM 1 (Wilson, R)
  • NY 25 (Walsh, R)
  • NY 29 (Kuhl, R)
  • OH 1 (Chabot, R)
  • OH 2 (Schmidt, R)
  • OH 16 (Regula, R)
  • PA 6 (Gerlach, R)
  • VA 2 (Drake, R)
  • WA 8 (Reichert, R)
  • AZ 5 (Mitchell, D)
  • CT 2 (Courtney, D)
  • GA 12 (Barrow, D)
  • IN 9 (Hill, D)
  • MN 1 (Walz, D)
  • NY 19 (Hall, D)
  • NY 20 (Gillibrand, D)
  • OH 18 (Space, D)
  • PA 4 (Altmire, D)
  • WI 8 (Kagen, D)
  • CA 4 (Doolittle, R)
  • CO 4 (Musgrave, R)
  • FL 8 (Keller, R)
  • IL 6 (Roskam, R)
  • IL 14 (Open; Hastert, R)
  • MI 7 (Walberg, R)
  • MI 9 (Knollenberg, R)
  • MN 6 (Bachmann, R)
  • NJ 7 (Ferguson, R)
  • NY 3 (King, R)
  • NC 8 (Hayes, R)
  • WY AL (Cubin, R)
  • CO 7 (Perlmutter, D)
  • IN 2 (Donnelly, D)
  • KY 3 (Yarmuth, D)
  • ME 1 (Open; Allen, D)
  • PA 7 (Sestak, D)
  • PA 8 (Murphy, D)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Fred, Tommy or Bobby: Which Thom(p)son Will History Remember?

By Stuart Rothenberg

And Fred makes two. Two Republicans named Thompson running for their party’s 2008 presidential nomination, that is.

Bobby Thomson, the third Thom(p)son mentioned in the title of this column, now lives in New Jersey and is 83 years old. He was born Oct. 25, 1923, making him less than a month older than Alaska GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, the former chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

But unlike Fred Thompson, Tommy Thompson or, for that matter, Ted Stevens, Bobby Thomson never can be elected president of the United States. He was born in Scotland, making him constitutionally ineligible for that office.

Each of the three Thom(p)sons has a noteworthy résumé. Tommy began his political career in the Wisconsin state Assembly, but he gained national recognition by serving as governor of Wisconsin for four terms and then as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during President Bush’s first term.

Fred was the minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee before he became an actor (“Die Hard 2,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Law & Order” are among his many acting credits). He returned to Capitol Hill as a Tennessee Senator in 1994, winning the right to fill the last two years of Al Gore’s unexpired term and then winning a full term for himself. But instead of seeking another term, Fred Thompson returned to Hollywood.

Bobby played major league baseball for 15 years, putting together a pretty fair career that included 264 home runs and three selections as an all-star. But the former major league ballplayer never made it to the top of his profession, if that is measured by his years on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Bobby Thomson received votes for the Hall of Fame from 1966 to 1979, but his best showing was 13 votes in 1968, which constituted support from just 4.59 percent of those 283 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who cast Hall of Fame ballots that year — not even within hailing distance of the 75 percent support needed to be voted into the Hall of Fame.

In terms of longevity, Tommy Thompson’s “major league” political career (as governor and cabinet secretary) already has exceeded Bobby’s major league baseball career, with Fred Thompson’s “major league” tenure (the Senate for eight years) being the shortest.

That’s another way of saying that Fred Thompson’s record is relatively thin, though it is longer than Jimmy Carter’s service (four years as governor of Georgia) when he was elected to the White House.

In terms of impact, it’s no contest. Fred was one of 100 Senators, and the one legislative item I remember him for was his support of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance proposal. Tommy certainly impacted the people of Wisconsin and later the nation, as HHS secretary. But the Thom(p)son who had by far and away the greatest impact on people and on history was Bobby.

Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” in the third National League playoff game to determine the league’s representative in the 1951 World Series was the sort of stunning occurrence that causes gasps and turns lives around.

The New York Giants were lucky to be in the playoffs at all. They won 37 of their final 44 games (for a ridiculous .840 winning percentage) to erase a 13-game deficit to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Twenty-four hours before Thomson’s sudden-death home run won the best two-out-of-three playoff series for the Giants, a Brooklyn Dodgers rookie named Clem Labine pitched a 10-0 gem to even the playoffs at a game apiece.

Going into their last at bat, in the bottom of the ninth of the third and final playoff game, the Giants trailed their arch-rivals, the Dodgers, by a seemingly insurmountable three runs. But the Giants won with Thomson’s blast — a home run pulled down the left field line that is not entirely without controversy following the revelation that the Giants, like plenty of other baseball clubs before them, had a way to steal the opposing catcher’s signs and relay the pitch to the batter.

Of the three Thom(p)sons, Bobby currently has the history books to himself. What we’ve been reading over the past few days about Fred Thompson isn’t much more than conjecture.

Is the former Senator energetic enough to win the GOP nomination and the presidency? Can he raise enough money? Will conservatives rally to him? Can he build an organization quickly enough to compete in Iowa? We don’t know the answer to these questions.

Given Fred Thompson’s timing, his lack of a war chest, his lack of key state organizations and his party’s problems, a Fred Thompson presidency looks a little like a New York Giants National League pennant must have looked in the middle of the summer in 1951. Then again, look what happened a little more than 55 years ago in the Polo Grounds.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 4, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, June 04, 2007

For Some Americans, Politics Is More Than a Presidential Debate

GREENVILLE, Miss. — Two things stand out as one drives south on Highway 61. First, the road is flat. Very flat. Don’t even bother looking for a mountain or a hill. Second is the corn. Acres and acres of corn, which gets taller and taller, fuller and fuller as the miles roll by. Though it’s only May, the corn tassels already are poking up from the ears.

No, Auntie Em, with all due respect to L. Frank Baum and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, this isn’t Kansas or Oklahoma. It’s Mississippi, where King Cotton is being challenged by King Corn.

Most national political reporters regard politics primarily as an ideological and partisan struggle for power, but in the Delta it’s mostly about paying the bills and protecting a way of life.

Sure, the Iraq War is on everyone’s mind, but folks in the Mississippi Delta also are paying a great deal of attention to the farm bill and to the ethanol-fueled rising demand for corn.

All of the emphasis in Washington, D.C., on “alternative fuels” and ethanol has driven up the price of corn nationally, convincing some farmers in this rich agricultural region to replace cotton, the long-established local crop, with a variety of corn that can withstand the region’s weather.

In Mississippi, 40 percent of cotton acreage has switched to other crops, most notably corn.

The new crop could mean a quick windfall for those farmers who are growing it, but the change could have a disastrous impact on all those in the region whose livelihood depends on cotton, from those who produce fertilizer and insecticides to those involved with cotton gins and cottonseed oils. Growing cotton requires more labor than growing corn (and is about as twice as expensive), so curtailing cotton production affects entire communities.

While corn is the hot commodity here now, nobody is entirely sure if the region has the facilities to store it or move it. But that doesn’t seem to matter right now to farmers, since agriculture suddenly has become another element of the nation’s energy problem.

“It could be a real mess,” one Delta agriculture insider told me recently about how the region will deal with the logistics of storing and moving the corn crop to market.

For national political reporters, the top political story of the day is the 2008 presidential race, even though most of what happens over the next three or four months won’t determine the party nominees next year. But for Mississippi Delta farmers in Leland and Greenville and Belzoni and Indianola, the 2007 farm bill is an overriding issue of political and personal importance.

It’s not of merely passing importance to the people of the Delta that the 2006 midterm elections, decided primarily on Iraq, President Bush and the GOP’s ethics problems, swept out Republicans and changed the chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture committees.

Sure, Democrats and Republicans often have different views of the role of government and different priorities, but geographic and commodity differences usually are more important considerations than party and ideology as interests fight for dollars and government attention.

Instead of Virginian Bob Goodlatte (R) chairing the House Agriculture Committee and Georgian Saxby Chambliss (R) holding the gavel at the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, an Iowan (Tom Harkin) now chairs the Senate committee and a Minnesotan (Collin Peterson) is his counterpart in the House.

That change means two Southerners are out, while two Midwesterners have taken over key positions. That’s probably not the best of developments for cotton farmers, who may well have to rely increasingly on Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the only Southern Democrat on the Senate Agriculture panel, to protect their interests. (Lincoln certainly will receive support from three Southern Republicans on the committee, including the ranking member, Chambliss.)

“I can’t emphasize the importance of who is holding the gavel and who is holding the pencil. The chairman writes the bill and decides what’s in it and what isn’t,” said one influential insider who worries about the South’s influence in writing the farm bill.

Some Delta residents are wondering whether there will be a farm bill at all before the 2008 elections. Given the calls for new spending on conservation and research, and the lack of new money, it’s even possible that Congress simply could extend the current law, though that would create its share of problems as well.

The Iraq War isn’t popular down here, but patriotism runs deep, as does support for America’s fighting men and women. Informed citizens have followed the controversies that have dogged Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and they are keeping half an eye on November’s gubernatorial race, which everyone seems to think is in the bag for incumbent Gov. Haley Barbour (R).

But for the region’s farmers, there is little doubt about what is most important in the next few months. That is understandable, since federal farm policy will determine how this rural, small-town region will fare over the next few years, and possibly beyond.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 29, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.