Pure Horserace: Welcome To The Race

Prospective Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, of Tennessee, center, addresses the media after speaking at a South Carolina Republican Party fundraiser, Wednesday, June 27, 2007, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick)
Fred Thompson is not yet formally running for president, but his current "testing the waters" status has been enough to subject him to the same treatment official candidates endure. And now, after an initial phase of glowing publicity, that includes criticism of Thompson's professional and personal lives.

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times reported that when Thompson was a lobbyist in the early 1990s, he lobbied the first Bush administration on behalf of an abortion-rights group, asking the White House to relax a rule that barred federally-funded clinics from abortion counseling. Though the claim is backed up with documentation and several quotes from named officials, Thompson's campaign has denied their candidate did any such work.

And on the East Coast, on Sunday, The New York Times carried a story focusing on a question that has already been the subject of many blog postings — is America ready for a "trophy wife" first lady? The woman in question is Jeri Kehn Thompson, who married the actor and former senator in 2002, is 24 years his junior, and, as the Times notes, has "youthfulness, [a] permanent tan and bleached blond hair." The story also quotes a political scientist who says Republican women may be turned off by an "ick factor" when they see Thompson, 64, with his younger wife.

The two stories could not be about more different issues, but the effect they could have — raising alarms with social conservatives — is the same. While remarriage has not been an impediment to Republicans seeing the presidency, America hasn't seen a major presidential candidate married to a significantly younger woman who is, fairly or not, more known for fashion statements than her years of work in the Republican Party. But until Jeri Kehn Thompson assumes a more public role in her husband's campaign — she has said little to the press so far — gauging her ultimate impact remains difficult.

Thompson's lobbying to relax anti-abortion rules, however, could have a more immediate and negative effect on his campaign. Much of the movement to draft Thompson into the race was driven by frustration among Republicans that there was no truly conservative candidate in the top tier. If Thompson's lobbying work contradicts his claim that he opposes abortion, it could upset some conservatives without a preferred candidate, and leave Thompson unable to break out from the GOP pack.

However, the effect of both issues also depends largely on how Thompson's nascent campaign handles them. So far, Thompson's only remarks about the L.A. Times story came when he was asked about it at a gathering of Young Republicans in Florida: "I'd just say the flies get bigger in the summertime. I guess the flies are buzzing."

That kind of response — which failed to address the claims of the story and could be seen as flippant — will probably not be good enough to last Thompson throughout the campaign. Now that the media's approach to Thompson is shifting, Thompson may have to be ready for a similar shift in how he handles such negative publicity. — David Miller

Independent Daze: A new survey focused on political independents indicates a significant shift among the vital group of swing voters toward the Democratic party. The poll, conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, found that even in the reliably GOP state of Virginia, independents could tip the 2008 balance. The poll found that 60 percent of self-identified independents have an unfavorable view of the GOP while 55 percent had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party.

Democrats have made inroads in Virginia in recent years, winning the governor's seat in back-to-back elections and providing one of the most heralded upsets of the 2006 elections when James Webb defeated incumbent Senator (and then-presidential hopeful) George Allen. But, as the Post notes, the state has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since it went for Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

And independents could play a major role in picking the nominees of both parties. In New Hampshire, where over 40 percent of the electorate are independents, their participation is vital. When John McCain won the state's primary in 2000, he did so despite losing a majority of Republican votes because most independents chose to vote in the Republican primary (independents can vote in either). Bill Bradley, who had courted the independent vote, was effectively shut out of the contest because all the "action" seemed to be on the other side.

If the independent trend toward Democrats holds next January, most are expected to vote in the Democratic primary, which could come at McCain's expense and to the benefit of a candidate perceived as more conservative. Who would benefit on the Democratic side is less clear but conventional wisdom holds that the competition would be fierce between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for this critical block of voters. — Vaughn Ververs

Second In Money, First In The Polls: Hillary Clinton's campaign, after a week of headlines about losing to Barack Obama in second-quarter fundraising, appears to be making an effort to convince observers that Clinton's bid for the presidency is as strong as ever, and getting stronger.

Today, Clinton's chief strategist and pollster, Mark Penn, sent out a lengthy memo quoting a wide variety of polls that seeks to shoot down some of the questions being asked about Clinton's campaign. Too many people absolutely refuse to vote for her? Not so, according to a Newsweek poll. The top candidate in early polls never ends up winning the nomination? Not when they've had a lead this big, Penn says, even though he has to go back to 1984 for an example. Can't win a general election, especially against a moderate Republican? Not according to numerous polls that show Clinton beating Rudy Giuliani.

The memo might come across as a little defensive, but one message that can be gleaned from it is that the Clinton campaign thinks it will take a lot more than a $10 million fundraising edge to knock them out the front-runner spot. — David Miller

Everyone Who's Anyone Is On The List: Earlier this year, when Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined John McCain on the campaign trail, it spurred a flurry of speculation about the possibility of a McCain-Pawlenty ticket. Not too many folks are spending time considering who the Arizona senator might choose, but there is no lack of "Veep" talk going on.

The latest name to hit the list, according to The Associated Press: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. In Florida to address a convention of young Republicans, Mitt Romney said it was far too early to be thinking about choosing a running mate, then went on to praise a few prominent Florida pols, including Crist. That sent questions Crist's way, who called the speculation "silly talk." Considering the fact that Florida's primary is scheduled for Jan. 29 — a week before the huge Feb. 5 date — and its vital role in the general election, Crist can probably expect a lot more silliness before all is said and done. — 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 David Miller and Vaughn Ververs