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Starting Gate: Extreme Buyer's Remorse?

3518388What if GOP primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina could turn back the clock to, say January of the year 2000? Would they follow their counterparts in New Hampshire and vote for John McCain?

It's something that most political observers may have secretly bought into a year ago, when McCain was putting together a front-runners type campaign. Saddled with a president who has experienced near-record low approval ratings, an unpopular war and few seemingly viable alternatives, the GOP would surely signal that some level of buyer's remorse by nominating McCain this time around right?

For the past six months, McCain has experienced the exact opposite of the coronation that once seemed likely. Buffeted by his strong public support for an immigration reform bill which would have provided a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, GOP activists suddenly began to remember why they rejected his candidacy in 2000. Mavericks are wonderful and have their place, it seems, just not in the Republican Party's presidential nominating process.

Simply put, McCain has rubbed too many activists the wrong way over too many years to be a true front-runner. Many Republicans are still furious for the campaign finance reform law which bears his name. They remain suspicious about the media's apparent soft spot for the Arizona senator and, even though he has tried to mend fences, that footage of him calling certain Christian conservative leaders "agents of intolerance" is still out there.

That McCain is finding himself back in the conversation now is no mistake, however. After being forced to dump all those high-priced consultants and a top-heavy strategy which ran his campaign into the ground, McCain has returned to his 2000 form. And he's gotten some serious help. Mike Huckabee's rise in Iowa and Rudy Giuliani's attacks have stunted Mitt Romney in both the first two early contests. While Giuliani continues to be the national front-runner, he's had a tough stretch in the press and his prospects for a primary win are hazy at best until Florida's February 29th contest, and by then the race may look much different to voters there.

So McCain, bolstered by improving poll numbers in New Hampshire, the endorsement of that state's biggest newspaper and an extremely fluid field, find himself right back in the thick of things. In Iowa, he remains mired in single digits, tied with Ron Paul, and even in New Hampshire his own personal surge is threatened by the presumption that many independents – so crucial to his 2000 victory there – will be swayed toward voting in the Democratic primary (or by Paul). He may yet be the beneficiary of buyer's remorse, but it will almost certainly have to be the most extreme kind.

Putting Iowa's Rep To The Test: CBSNews.com's David Miller observes:

In presidential primary politics, there are few universal truths, but one that's generally bandied about is that while New Hampshire voters like rough 'n' tumble politics, Iowans prefer to see the kinder, gentler side of their candidates.

But you'd be hard-pressed to find evidence of that in the Hawkeye State this week. With Hillary Clinton all but admitting she's decided to go on the offensive against Barack Obama, and tensions between Romney and Huckabee rapidly escalating, the race in Iowa in both parties is now descending into the muck.

This means one of two things: Either Iowa's reputation for clean politics is undeserved, or the candidates who are employing negative tactics -- or benefiting from those used by outsiders -- will find themselves on the wrong end of the results on caucus night.

History provides a recent example of the effects of negative campaigning in Iowa, and it doesn't bode well for presidential hopefuls who can't stay above the fray. One month before the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses, that race was seen as a two-way battle between Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean. They ended up finishing in third and fourth place, respectively -- with many pundits attributing their fall to the negative back-and-forth between the two candidates.

One of the men who benefited from their fall, besides eventual nominee John Kerry, was John Edwards -- and if his remarks on Monday are any indication, he may be hoping his previous experience aids him on Jan. 3, 2008. As we noted yesterday, Edwards told a Mason City crowd that Clinton's attempt to prove Obama had long-held presidential ambitions by bringing up an essay he wrote in kindergarten may be one step too far: "I think it's fine to talk about, you know, our records and about issues," CBS News' Aaron Lewis reported Edwards saying. "But I think we probably ought to stop maybe at age fourteen."

While Edwards may have the history of the 2004 race on his side, the history of the 2008 campaign suggests events may not repeat themselves. Until recently, Edwards was throwing barbs toward Clinton himself. Plus, Obama still has fairly high likability ratings and, so far, hasn't resorted to bringing up Clinton's preschool drawings. In other words, there's a different dynamic at play.

But if you're seeking a parallel of the 2004 Democratic race, look no further than the Republicans. You've got four viable candidates -- Romney, Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- with the top two starting to go at each other. Giuliani's moderate views on social issues introduce a variable that could make an impact, but this contest still could be the real test of whether Iowans still like their politicians to fight cleanly.

Clinton Back Up In Iowa? From CBS News' Fernando Suarez, on the trail with the Clinton campaign:

No sooner had a Des Moines Register poll Clinton trailing Obama settled into the campaign conversation than a new Associated Press/Pew Research Poll and an Iowa University Hawkeye Poll appeared showing Clinton ahead … again. Well, what most of us covering presidential candidates have come to learn is that polls come and go, with one candidate up today and another up tomorrow. And it really doesn't matter who's up or who's down, eventually we'll know the winner and we'll report it. But for the campaign, constantly fluctuating polls do matter making it extremely frustrating for them to know whether or not their message is being absorbed by voters, inevitably leaving the campaign searching for different ways to break through.

In her latest strategy, Clinton has taken to attacking Obama. During a speech in Clear Lake, Iowa on Monday, Clinton defended her attacks against her opponents saying for months she had been on the receiving end of most of those attacks, including questions about her record and her character.

"A couple of my leading opponents, directly and through surrogates, have spent months criticizing me without having to answer any of their own questions," Clinton said, "They've been attacking my character – as I've said repeatedly, I really would prefer to attack the problems of the country and let my opponents run their own campaigns. But I have to set the record straight."

Clinton was speaking at the Surf Ballroom near Mason City, Iowa, famously known as the final place 50's rocker Buddy Holly played before his fateful flight on a snowy February night. The event was billed by the campaign as a "Take a Buddy to Caucus" event, but the former First Lady wasted little time turning her organizational speech into an open forum for attacking Obama. The focus of her attack was primarily to discredit his campaign message of "hope" and "change" saying, "After eight years of incompetence, they don't want false hopes, they want real results." Clinton went on to say, "How did running for President become a qualification to BE President? Well this is not a job you can learn about from a book."

For months Clinton has run her campaign as a true frontrunner, rarely addressing her opponents and trying to rise above the fray. But at this point in the campaign, she has had no other choice but to engage them directly, primarily because her lead is shrinking and polls show her in a statistical dead heat with Senator Obama and former Senator John Edwards. The view of Clinton as the inevitable nominee appears to be fading. But with one month left in the caucus season, it's anybody's campaign and not being viewed as the frontrunner may have its benefits, like the freedom to attack your opponent more directly.

Tightening Time: A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows the race tightening up at the national level. Clinton leads Obama among Democrats by 15 points, 39 percent to 34 percent but that's a far cry from her 48 percent to 21 percent lead she had in the same poll one month ago. On the Republican side, Giuliani leads Huckabee 25 percent to 16 percent with Fred Thompson and McCain both at 15 percent and Romney at 12 percent. Giuliani's support is down from 28 percent in the last survey.

Around The Track

  • A progressive activist group, Democratic Courage, is unveiling a new Web ad this morning aimed at raising questions about Clinton's electability. The ad uses Clinton's one-time suggestion that every child should be given $5,000 at birth and Giuliani's criticism of the idea in an attempt to demonstrate the divisive nature of Clinton's candidacy. The group is asking for donations which it says will go toward putting the ad on the air in Iowa.
  • Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who campaigned for President Bush in 2004, will hit the stump on behalf of McCain.
  • Huckabee is calling for an end to phone calls being made by an outside group seeking to organize supporters around his campaign, but which has also been accused of including negative attacks on rival Republicans. "We don't want this kind of campaigning because it violates the spirit of our campaign," Huckabee said according to the AP. "I don't want to become president because I disabled the other candidates, I want to become president because I am the best candidate."
  • Yet more debates have been announced, these to be held in California in the days leading up to the February 5th Super-Duper Tuesday. Republicans will debate on January 30th, Democrats on the 31st. One thing is almost certain – they'll need fewer podiums.