Romney v. McCain: The New Hampshire Ad Wars

Mitt Romney continued his "he's a good guy, but..." attack ad series that he began in Iowa against Mike Huckabee with a new "contrast" ad going after John McCain on taxes and immigration in New Hampshire. It begins:

John McCain is an honorable man, but is he the right conservative for the future?

...and ends:

For the future there is a big difference.

Care to guess where Romney's going with the "future" formulation? I like John Dickerson's take:

Taxes and immigration have nothing to do with the future, particularly, but the framing is a not-so-subtle jab at McCain's age. In his closing-argument stump speech, Romney is trying to identify himself with the future. "No one votes for yesterday; they vote for tomorrow," Romney said Thursday in New Hampshire. "Elections are about the future, the future of our families, the future of our country."

Watch it:

John McCain had an impressively rapid response ad ready to go, citing the Union Leader's "The Romney Backlash" and Concord Monitor's "Mitt Romney Should Not Be President" Romney anti-endorsements. For someone who has been as loathe to "go negative" as McCain has been, this ad is a master class in how to attack without seeming to -- use others' words to do it.

Watch it:

So who wins this grudge match? My instinct is McCain. His ad goes right for Romney's throat accusing him of being phony, but the thing is, everyone knows that. It's not exactly news. Romney's ad leaves me a bit cold but does succeed in reminding conservatives of why they don't like McCain (and it gets in that nifty subliminal age rap.) The reason I think McCain might just get the better of Romney by a hair with his ad is that it appeals to a broader group: moderate Republicans and independents who vote in the Republican primary, aka McCain's core constituency. For McCain, this ad isn't about shoring up his conservative credentials (the basis of Romney's attack,) it's about reminding people who the most principled candidate is. McCain further benefits from not having attacked first (it's a response ad) without putting him on defense. Right now Huckabee and Obama are very much on the defensive and it's not an attractive quality in a candidate (I would argue, it may actually be worse than being perceived as a negative campaigner.)

The battle between these ads reveals a major tension that exists between the two candidates fighting for New Hampshire, and I expect, ultimately fighting for the nomination: is it more important to agree with the guy on the issues (Romney) or are integrity and honesty more important in a candidate (McCain.) Right now, the LA Times/Bloomberg poll shows these qualities in a dead heat for 2nd place among likely voters' priorities (10% and 11% respectively.) Interestingly, the top priority listed is "experience/track record" with 16%, which reveals yet another rift in the race: foreign affairs experience would appear to go to McCain while Romney impresses on handling domestic affairs. Romney's continued overall lead in New Hampshire can at least in part be explained by the fact that Americans are more and more concerned about domestic issues as a new AP/Yahoo News poll released on Friday (taken Dec. 14-20) confirmed; the extent to which Benazir Bhutto's assassination will impact this dynamic, of course, is yet to be seen.

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Huckabee Turns Pakistan Crisis Into An Immigration Issue

...and he does it oh so painfully...

Frontpage of NYTimes.com:

Huckabee Sees Pakistan as Reason for Border Fence

Yep, it's as cringe-worthy as it sounds.

Mike Huckabee has had a string of foreign policy gaffes, the most recent of which was his apparent ignorance to the fact that Musharraf had lifted martial law in Pakistan. On the domestic front, Huckabee clearly sees his biggest vulnerability among Republican voters as immigration, since after waxing compassionately at a debate about treating the children of illegal immigrants like human beings, he embraced the endorsement of Jim Gilchrist of the Minutemen and tried to portray himself as tough on immigration.

So, what happens when Mike Huckabee desperately tries to prove he's credible foreign affairs AND tough on illegal immigration all at once?

You get this train wreck:

On Thursday night he told reporters in Orlando, Fla.: "We ought to have an immediate, very clear monitoring of our borders and particularly to make sure if there's any unusual activity of Pakistanis coming into the country."

...we have more Pakistani illegals coming across our border than all other nationalities except those immediately south of the border," he told reporters in Pella. "And in light of what is happening in Pakistan it ought to give us pause as to why are so many illegals coming across these borders." [...]

"The fact is that the immigration issue is not so much about people coming to pick lettuce or make beds, it's about someone coming with a shoulder-fired missile," he said.

Wow. Not only did Huckabee in one fell swoop eclipse Tom Tancredo in the immigrant fear mongering department but he also showed his continued ignorance, as it was revealed later that, as NY Times informs us:

In fact, far more illegal immigrants come from the Philippines, Korea, China and Vietnam, according to recent estimates from the Department of Homeland Security.

How could Huckabee make such a mistake? FoxNews reported that Huckabee cited the CIA as a source but later clarified that it was in fact a Denver Post article.

So not ready for prime time.

Can we stop pretending that this guy has a shot at the nomination, please and focus on the ones most likely to win this thing, Huckabee's current lead in Iowa notwithstanding: Romney and McCain? As I see it, we should all be doing what we can to ensure it's the former.

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On Experience and Electability

Today, we see further evidence of a McCain surge. TPM reports that McCain's online fundraising has increased 500% and, perhaps more importantly:

In another positive development, the source says there's been a rise in the number of people calling the campaign to volunteer their services. Interestingly, the callers are volunteering on the strength of having seen the  mailer that McCain recently dropped in New Hampshire telling of the Christmas inspiration he felt during his days in captivity as a war prisoner in Vietnam.

The mailer features a cross drawn in the sand.

Something is going on here and while it's only just starting to register in the polls

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Huckabee Put On Defense Over 'Christ' Ad

By now, you've probably seen Mike Huckabee's new "Christ" ad. I actually think this ad is quite effective; even though he frames Christmas in overtly religious terms, I don't think it's necessarily alienating to those like me who are proud to be a part of the secular left. I'm actually far more offended by Mitt Romney's anti-secularist rhetoric, leaving out the faithless from the groups of Americans he hopes to lead and then on Meet The Press equating religion and morality as though you can't have the latter without the former. Huckabee comes across not as a crazy cook imposing his views on me but rather expressing his views in a warm and, may I say, politically pitch perfect manner. Of course this is why he's so dangerous, but interestingly, the most pushback Huck is getting for this ad is from an outspoken conservative religious leader.

Catholic League president Bill Donahue said Huckabee went beyond wishing people a joyous holiday. Donahue said he was especially disturbed by the cross-like image created by a white bookcase in the background of the ad, saying he believed it was a subliminal message.

"What he's trying to say to the evangelicals in western Iowa (is): I'm the real thing," Donahue said Tuesday on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends. "You know what, sell yourself on your issues, not on what your religion is."

This is yet another example of Huckabee getting attacked from the right because he threatens their power; he's gotten it from all three legs of that stupid conservative stool Romney's always talking about: the econocons, the neocons and now the theocons. It almost makes me want to come to Huck's defense, the enemy of your enemy and all that. Almost.

As for the white cross subliminal messaging, Donahue may be onto something. I actually didn't notice it the first time (I saw shelves) but watch the ad below, how can it not be intentional?

And as if you needed one more thing to reluctantly like Huckabee for, his response is pretty good too:

"If we are so politically correct in this country that a person can't say enough of the nonsense with the political attack ads could we pause for a few days and say Merry Christmas to each other then we're really, really in trouble as a country," Huckabee said. [...]

Huckabee said the bookshelf is just a bookshelf and shrugged off the controversy: "I will confess this: If you play the spot backwards it says, 'Paul is dead. Paul is dead.'"

As a sidenote, notice that the ad has more than 500,000 views in just one day. I'll be curious to see how the other Republican candidate videos have done; something tells me Huckabee wins the GOP YouTube primary hands down.

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Does Giuliani Even Have A Path To The Nomination Anymore?

Speaking of the spectacular fall of Rudy Giuliani, both the Real Clear Politics and Pollster averages of the national race for the Republican nomination show Mike Huckabee climbing to within 3 points of Rudy Giuliani. Add to this Giuliani's current tie for distant 3rd in Iowa, his falling behind McCain into 3rd place in New Hampshire and his possibly having fallen into 4th place in South Carolina and we just may have a flameout of monumental proportions on our hands. So what's happened to the former front-runner? Two things out of his control and at least two that should have been within it.

First of all, Hillary Clinton began to lose her aura of inevitability. As you can see by looking at the InTrade market trends, Clinton peaked as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination on around Nov. 21, three weeks after the fateful Philadelphia debate. At that time her shares were trading at $72 (equating to 72% chance of winning the nomination.) Now they're trading at $55 a share.

Exactly one week after Clinton's shares began to fall, Giuliani's shares peaked at $46 and since then have dropped to the current price of $37; in that exact same period, Huckabee's shares rose from $8 to $16 a piece. Giuliani made the mistake of largely hanging his nomination hat on the ability to beat Hillary Clinton in November. When the threat of a Hillary Clinton nomination waned, so did most of the rationale for a Giuliani candidacy, which freed up Republican voters to go with their hearts, not with their heads. The result: the Huckabee surge.

Another problem for Giuliani has been the increased level of interest in domestic issues among the electorate and a reduced focus on foreign threats. Surprisingly, there really hasn't been much fearmongering over terrorism in this primary race on the Republican side (Tom Tancredo's ridiculous mall bombing ad notwithstanding.) Giuliani has even downplayed it in his ads, going up late in the cycle with ads that focused on his supposed success turning New York City around; this strategy has been echoed by McCain whose initial focus on his war hero status has given way to a fiscal restraint message. The political zeitgeist has turned on Giuliani in just about every way one could imagine, including from a media perspective. A few weeks ago there was a series of really bad news stories for Rudy, culminating in his less than stellar Meet The Press appearance of a week ago.

Of course, this didn't all have to mean the end of Rudy. As the reputations he'd cultivated as 9/11 hero and the anti-Hillary candidate waned in importance, what remained as the smoke cleared could have been a strong candidate who had a compelling message of why he should be president; he had neither. In addition, his over-reliance on his national lead and his relative neglect of the early states are now biting him in the ass. A few weeks ago I wrote that conventional wisdom had it that Giuliani needed to leave Iowa in 3rd place and New Hampshire in 2nd to have a chance; right now neither of those things appears likely.

And to top it all off is the latest poll out of Florida, which has always been the one state that showed Giuliani way ahead of the pack and, for a while there, holding steady. Not so in the latest Rasmussen Reports survey, which finds Giuliani dropping into 3rd with 19% behind Huckabee with 27% and Romney with 23%. This is the first Florida poll to show Giuliani in anything but first place, and his RCP average is still 13% ahead of Huckabee, but if this at all a sign of things to come for Rudy in Florida, the claim that Giuliani can hold out until Florida and run the table on February 5th, ie that Giuliani's lead would prove to be "momentum-proof," is about to be challenged severely. If Rudy collapses in Florida, any credible claim to a path to the nomination simply disappears.

Can Giuliani turn things around? Not too likely if today's coverage of his flailing campaign in New Hampshire is any indication. Here's The AP's take on his New Hampshire event today:

He's not giving up on New Hampshire yet. He returned for one public event on Monday and told an audience at a town hall meeting he hoped they would give him a boost "right here in New Hampshire, where you've got one heck of an important primary coming up."

"I'll be spending some of my Christmas holiday here in New Hampshire, which I really look forward to. Maybe you'll even get a chance to see me ski," he said. "We'll be here and we'll be working really hard to get your vote."

And here's First Read's:

If the Giuliani campaign was interested in playing down talk that the candidate is struggling in the early nominating states and not taking New Hampshire particularly seriously, it had a funny way of showing it.

Giuliani came to New Hampshire Monday, but had only public event (he also had a retail stop in Barrington but didn't alert the national media). Speaking to employees of Goss International Company, he seemed tentative and spent only half of his normal hour at the town hall (he was running late, campaign officials said, because of weather delays). After taking the last question, Giuliani seemed unclear what to do next, taking a long pause and outstretching his arms before transitioning to ask the attendees for their vote, which he has rarely done on the campaign trail.

All of which is to say that I think Jerome is right on with his prediction that InTrade will have Giuliani's chances of winning the nomination down in the single digits once the early states vote. Along the same lines, the reluctance that InTrade's traders appear to have in expressing as much confidence in a Huckabee nomination as his polling numbers would appear to merit, indicates to me that Romney right now is in the best position to win the nomination, even if he loses Iowa.

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