Pure Horserace: Playing To Type

Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is shown during an interview with an Associated Press reporter in Grand Rapids, Mich., Thursday, May 10, 2007.
AP Photo/Adam Bird
It's never too early to begin typecasting the presidential candidates. Every politician needs a caricature — or, more to the point, every successful candidate is certain to get one whether he or she wants it or not. It's how the late-night comedians make their living, after all: From the stumbles of Gerald Ford to the mumbles of George W., this is just a fact of American political life.

The cast of characters for 2008 is starting to take shape — and for the campaigns, labels are a delicate problem. Being assigned one, even if it's less than positive, means a candidate is making progress. It doesn't matter what they're saying about you as long as they're talking about you, the thinking goes. And it can provide dramatic opportunities to break out of character — think Nixon going to China in contrast to his anti-communist crusades or Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment as a repudiation of his pandering reputation.

It also means a lot of headaches when those caricatures begin to really take hold and your every move is seen through that prism. Today brings two examples of the kind of problems campaigns can run into.

John McCain's pointed response to critics of the Senate's immigration bill has sparked a new round of discussion about his temperament. In a conference call with bloggers yesterday, the Arizona senator was asked about Mitt Romney's contention that the bill, co-sponsored by McCain, amounted to amnesty, and he responded with a sharp jab. After contending that Romney's position on the issue had changed, McCain added, "Maybe his solution will be to get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn."

For another politician, the remark might have come off as a smart retort designed to remind bloggers — and GOP primary voters — of Romney's past. The former Massachusetts governor earlier this year claimed to be a lifelong hunter, only to later acknowledge he's never had a hunting license and only hunted "small varmints." The Boston Globe also reported last year that Romney had hired a lawn-care service which employed some illegal immigrants, including some from Guatemala.

But no matter how clever the retort may have been, it is the messenger — not the message — that's garnering attention. To make matters worse for McCain, the remarks came days after it was reported that McCain had shouted an obscenity at a Senate colleague during final negations on the immigration bill. That led to a story in this morning's Los Angeles Times chronicling the history of McCain's "legendary temper."

On the Democratic side, John Edwards is facing a similar problem after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he received $55,000 last year from the University of California-Davis to speak about — poverty. It's safe to say most of the current candidates have given paid speeches before. Prior to becoming a candidate, Rudy Giuliani was commanding $100,000 for his appearances. But it's Edwards, not Giuliani, who consistently talks of the urgent need to address the economic inequalities in America. It's Edwards, not Giuliani, who coined the populist phrase, "two Americas." And so it's Edwards who will raise eyebrows for taking money to talk about poverty.

While it's not unusual to take payment for travel and speeches, the story plays into the storyline which has dogged Edwards all year. He has been criticized for the size of the North Carolina home he built after the 2004 presidential campaign and for paying $400 for a haircut out of campaign funds. Edwards responds by pointing out that he was raised poor, that he has earned his wealth through hard work and is fighting to provide the same opportunity to all. But the haircut jokes have already taken hold, both on late night television and on the GOP debate circuit.

Let the type-casting continue. — Vaughn Ververs

The Only Poll That Really Matters… If you're already tired of polls of dubious significance on the presidential race and are craving something that will actually be decisive, turn your attention today to Kentucky, where primary elections are being held. The day's top race is the Republican gubernatorial primary, where incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher faces a challenge from Rep. Anne Northup and businessman Billy Harper.

Fletcher has endured a rocky first term, hitting bottom when he and 28 other officials in his administration were charged with crimes related to state hiring practices. His approval rating sunk, and rivals in both parties smelled blood. But he has proven resilient. Polls taken in the two weeks leading up to today's primary have shown Fletcher inching above the 40 percent threshold that would allow him to avoid a runoff. And his overall approval ratings have come close to 50 percent.

Still, even if Fletcher gets 50 percent of the primary vote, that means half of Republican voters aren't happy with him — underscoring his vulnerability in the November general election. However, Democrats have had little time to revel in that fact, as their race appears likely to enter a runoff. The top two candidates in that contest are businessman Bruce Lunsford and former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear. Interestingly, Lunsford's running mate, state Attorney General Greg Stumbo, was responsible for the original investigation into Fletcher's administration.

But perhaps even more fascinating is the long-shot campaign of Democrat Otis "Bull Man" Hensley, who has traveled across the state atop an enormous fiberglass bull and, on his Web site, promises that if he's elected, he'll "hold the biggest pig roast ever in front of the Capitol. But to attend, you have to wear a straw hat or overalls." — David Miller

A GOP Cure For The Blues? Rudy Giuliani has spent the past couple of days in his home state, gobbling up endorsements from New York Republican leaders and, according to The Associated Press, reminding GOP primary voters of his potential appeal outside of the party's traditional red-state base. "My view of this race for president is that the Republican Party should not go into this election, as we have in the past, having to write off New York, Connecticut, New Jersey," Giuliani said today.

Like his strength in national polls, it's another expression of one of Giuliani's major assets — his broad appeal. But it also demonstrates a major question mark about his candidacy: In an ideologically divided environment, do GOP primary voters want someone who could compete for the majority of votes in places like New York, Connecticut and New Jersey? — Vaughn Ververs

Brawlin' Baptists: Former President Jimmy Carter has backed down from his claim, made in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, that President Bush's administration "has been the worst in history." But that apparently wasn't good enough for Republican Mike Huckabee.

According to The Associated Press, the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister has announced his plan to skip a Baptist conference scheduled for January 2008 and organized by Carter, who Huckabee says "violated an unspoken code that you don't make personal attacks on others who currently hold the job."

It must have been the "worst in history" line that got to Huckabee, since Carter has been publicly critical of Bush since the Iraq war started. Another interesting note: The conference is scheduled for Jan. 30, 2008, one day after the South Carolina primary and six days before the onslaught of Feb. 5 contests. If Huckabee plans on staying in this contest for the long haul, would he really have time for the conference anyway? — David Miller

By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller