Pure Horserace: On Equal Footing

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., speaks during the American Association for Justice Presidential Forum Sunday, July 15, 2007, in Chicago.
AP Photo
For the better part of the past six years, national security has been a winning issue for the Republican Party. But thanks to an unpopular war, Democrats are riding a wave of national unease, have regained Congress and energized a party which feels it now holds an advantage on the issue. And today's declassification of a national intelligence estimate warning of an "evolving" terrorist threat at home further demonstrates that fact — while it will provide Republicans with some talking points, it also gives Democrats an equal amount of ammunition.

Barack Obama was quick out of the gate in responding to the new information, giving a preview of what we can expect in coming days in the debates over Iraq and terrorism. "After almost six years, awesome sacrifices by our brave men and women in uniform, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, we are no safer than we were on 9/11," Obama said in a statement sent out by his campaign. "This is a consequence of waging a misguided war in Iraq that should never have been authorized, and failing to seize the opportunity to do lasting harm to the extremist networks that pose a direct threat to our homeland."

Obama is calling for a withdrawal from Iraq, as are his fellow Democratic candidates, but that could prove a difficult argument in light of the report's warnings about potential dangers posed by al Qaeda elements in that war zone. Republicans seeking to hold off congressional action on a withdrawal are certain to seize on that element of the report to argue that the nation can ill-afford to leave the terrorist group in Iraq free to plot and plan after the U.S. leaves or pulls back.

But Democrats can — and will — loudly zero in on the administration's inability to prevent the reconstitution of al Qaeda and, as Obama does, argue that the war in Iraq has contributed to the terrorist threat. Republicans, many of whom have taken to describing the fight against terrorism as a war with "jihadists," will advocate "staying on the offensive," which includes combating terrorists in Iraq. In other words, expect this report to generate more of the same essential argument the parties have been engaged in for the past several years. Just don't expect Republicans to get the bounce they once did from terrorist threats. — Vaughn Ververs

Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Uncertainty is what's keeping the leaky campaign of John McCain afloat these days. Despite the departure of dozens of key advisers, organizers and communications staffers in recent days, both nationally and in key states, the campaign limps along. If John Edwards suffered the same disaster, he'd be finished as a viable candidate, but few are ready to completely write off McCain — just yet.

Part of the reason for that is good spin coming from what's left of the McCain effort. It's still so early, the message goes, with a lot of time to regain some footing. They point to John Kerry's 2004 campaign, during which he went through a staff shakeup (though nowhere close to the magnitude of McCain's) and was left for dead before storming back to win in Iowa and New Hampshire. Voters in those key states don't make up their minds until late in the process, and McCain remains a known quantity, ready to capitalize on his opponents' inevitable stumbles between now and January.

But the underlying reality keeping McCain in the race at the moment is the same one that has existed all year long: Republican dissatisfaction. A new AP poll out today provides still more evidence, showing that 23 percent of GOP respondents are not backing any of their party's presidential candidates. Rudy Giuliani garnered the most support with 21 percent, but that number is down from the same poll earlier this year. Fred Thompson, expected to enter the race within the next several weeks, weighed in at 19 percent, followed by McCain at 15 percent and Mitt Romney at 11 percent.

It's a dramatization of the situation because the poll was conducted nationwide and was conducted among adults, not voters and, more importantly, not likely primary voters. Polls in early states that have screened for likely primary voters show much lower levels of undecided opinion but have also measured relatively high levels of dissatisfaction about the choices being offered.

The fluid situation is both good and bad news for McCain. True, should Giuliani, Thompson and Romney all flame out or somehow become unacceptable to GOP voters, the Arizona senator may be positioned to become the party's default choice. On the other hand, those activists are well-acquainted with McCain, and it could take spectacular meltdowns on the part of the rest of the field to capitalize on those stumbles. — Vaughn Ververs

Mrs. Romney Hits The Road: All three top Democratic candidates have had their spouses play a key role in their campaigns, traveling to crucial states and helping raise money. That hasn't been the case among Republicans, however, until now: Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, is touring South Carolina on the "Women For Mitt" bus tour. Today's stops include Greenville and West Columbia, while Wednesday will bring visits to Mt. Pleasant and Bluffton.

As Romney tries to build on the momentum he's seen lately in early-state polls, his wife could play an increasingly important role, especially since the spouses of his opponents are far less likely to be seen on the stump. Judith Nathan, Rudy Giuliani's wife, may remind voters of the former New York mayor's controversial personal life, which includes three marriages. There is already buzz that Thompson's wife, Jeri Kehn Thompson, could be a liability due to the 24-year age difference between the two.

Ann Romney may also help ease the concerns of southern evangelical voters wary of voting for a Mormon. She and her husband have been together since high school and have raised five children, all of whom are involved in the campaign — a message that's sure to appeal to those who put "family values" high on their priority list. — David Miller

Barack's Big Bucks: While the Obama campaign has been busy touting its fund-raising success among small-dollar donors, it's not turning away those high rollers either. According to the Los Angeles Times Top Of The Ticket blog, the campaign is about to get a big shot in the arm from its most famous backer — Oprah Winfrey. The Times reports that Winfrey is hosting a major September fund-raiser for Obama at which invitees will fork over the maximum $2,300 donation to get in the door. Those who can tap friends and family for a combined $25,000 gain admittance to an exclusive reception with the candidate, and a bundle of $50,000 or more buys a seat at dinner. — Vaughn Ververs

Editor's note: Pure Horserace is a daily update of political news as interpreted by the political observers at CBSNews.com. Click here to sign up for the e-mail version.

By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller