Starting Gate: No Time For Diversions

Events on the world stage don't necessarily translate into the American political process but they can have a big impact. In December of 2003, Howard Dean appeared headed toward an easy walk to the Democratic nomination. That month, U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein, a major development in a war Dean had based his candidacy on opposing. When Dean claimed that Hussein's capture had "not made America safer," a comment that drew criticism from his primary opponents who wondered aloud about the risk of nominating a governor from Vermont with little foreign policy experience and even less restraint.

A month later, voters in Iowa agreed with those criticisms and sent Dean into a tailspin with a third-place finish. Dean's remarks on Hussein weren't the only reasons for his campaign meltdown of course, but events did contribute to it. It's worth looking at how campaigns handled the news of yesterday's assassination of Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto – especially two Iowa front-runners.

Mike Huckabee, who vaulted into a strong lead in the caucus state last month, spent part of the day explaining what he meant when he first responded to news of the crisis. As CBS News' Nancy Cordes reports, Huckabee expressed his "sincere concern and apologies for what has happened in Pakistan" – a statement that led to questions about what exactly he was apologizing for. The Huckabee campaign clarified his remarks, saying that the candidate "intended to extend his deepest sympathies to the people of Pakistan when he used the word 'apologies.'"

And, when voicing his concerns about what may happen in Pakistan as a result, Huckabee indicated that he was worried about whether martial law in the country will be "continuing" despite the fact it has been suspended for almost two weeks. The campaign again responded, saying, "Governor Huckabee firmly believes that emergency rule/martial law in Pakistan, as a practical matter, should not be viewed as having been completely lifted until the restrictions imposed during that period on the press and judges are removed." It's a lot of parsing, perhaps, but in the last week of the campaign, nearly everything a front-runner says will be under a microscope. For a candidate with little foreign policy experience and almost no policy advisors, those words will be even more finely parsed.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, seemed to say all the right things. As he has throughout the campaign, he said that the war in Iraq has diverted the nation's attention to the dangerous situation in Pakistan. "It's an indication that we are in a dangerous world," he said, "right now that we have to apply good judgment in our foreign policy." But Obama advisor David Axelrod took that argument a little further as it applies to Hillary Clinton. "I think people need to judge where these candidates were and what they've said and what they've done on these issues," Axelrod told reporters. "She was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit, was one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda, who may have been players in this event today, so that's a judgment she'll have to defend."

Axelrod later told CBS News' Chief Political Consultant Marc Ambinder that he was "in no way" implying that Clinton's position had anything to do with the assassination. "All I'm implying is [about] the policy that the war in Iraq that Obama said in 2002 was going to distract us from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Al Qaeda, and that they would regenerate themselves and that they would become more powerful and influential. He exercised good judgment. She'll have to explain her position."

Obama himself addressed Axelrod's comments in an appearance on "Larry King Live" last night. "He was asked very specifically about the argument that the Clinton folks were making that somehow this was going to change the dynamic of politics in Iowa," Obama said. "First of all, that shouldn't have been the question. The question should be, how is this going to impact the safety and security of the United States, not how is it going to affect a political campaign in Iowa." He added, "he in no way was suggesting that Hillary Clinton was somehow directly to blame for this situation. That is the kind of, I think, gloss that sometimes emerges out of the heat of campaigns that doesn't make much sense."

Whether it makes sense or not, there are just six days left before Iowans weigh in on this presidential race. A day spent explaining what candidates or advisors meant to say isn't the most efficient use of that time.

Clinton Edges Up In Iowa, Obama In New Hampshire: A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has Clinton with a slight lead among likely Iowa caucus-goers, leading John Edwards 31 percent to 25 percent with Obama at 22 percent. In New Hampshire, Obama leads with 32 percent with Clinton at 30 percent and Edwards at 20 percent.

On the GOP side, Huckabee still leads among likely caucus goers in Iowa with 34 percent while Mitt Romney is at 28 percent, Fred Thompson at 10 percent and John McCain and Rudy Giuliani tied with eight percent. In New Hampshire, Romney leads over McCain 34 percent to 20 percent with Giuliani at 17 percent and Huckabee at 12 percent.

Romeny On The Offensive: The Romney campaign has been fighting a two-front war for weeks now, trying to fend off Huckabee in Iowa and a resurgent McCain in New Hampshire. Before the holiday break, Romney ran an ad in Iowa contrasting in negative terms, Huckabee's record with his own as governor of Massachusetts. Today the Romney campaign begins a New Hampshire ad taking on McCain. You can view the ad here. Script:

"John McCain, an honorable man. But is he the right Republican for the future? McCain opposes repeal of the death tax, and voted against the Bush tax cuts twice. McCain pushed to let every illegal immigrant stay here permanently. Even voted to allow illegals to collect Social Security. And Mitt Romney? Mitt Romney cut taxes and spending as Governor. He opposes amnesty for illegals. Mitt Romney. John McCain. There is a difference."

Meanwhile, McCain is up with a new ad in New Hampshire touting his slew of newspaper endorsements. You can see the ad here. Script:
"After taking a close look, 20 newspapers all across New Hampshire endorse John McCain. Here's what they're saying: McCain campaigns with decency … The right stuff ... To become among our greatest presidents … Principled … Character … Integrity and honor … Impeccable national security credentials … McCain transcends partisanship … Most trustworthy … The man to lead America … All across New Hampshire newspapers agree … The choice is clear. For President: John McCain."

Around The Track

  • The anti-tax Club for Growth, a longtime critic of Huckabee, will begin a major ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire questioning Huckabee's record on taxes as governor of Arkansas.
  • Almost 28,000 South Carolinians have registered to vote in the state's primaries in recent weeks and voters rolls in the early state have risen by over 55,000 since October 1st, according to the AP.
  • Giuliani yesterday defended his use of 9/11 in ads and speeches, saying, ""It's a part of my life that helps define me. It's not the only thing that defines me." Giuliani is running an ad in New Hampshire and Florida that uses images of firefighters at Ground Zero in New York.
  • Can you say "unsettled?" According to a new AP/Yahoo poll, four in 10 Republicans voters have changed their minds on candidate support in the past month – and almost two-thirds say they may well switch again.