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Starting Gate: Prevent Offense?

(CBS/AP)
Run left, run left, run middle, punt. Unless you're Vince Lombardi's Packers, it's not a winning game plan – especially when playing catch-up late in the third quarter. That's the position all but one of the Democratic presidential candidates find themselves in heading into tonight's debate in New Hampshire. The question everyone is asking is this: who will open up the offense against front-runner Hillary Clinton and take some shots down the field?

A new poll by WMUR-TV and CNN is a reminder of the scoreboard in New Hampshire as the third quarter of 2007 winds down. Clinton has seen her lead expand since summer. In this survey, Clinton leads Barack Obama by over twenty points, 43 percent to 20 percent. In July, Clinton's lead was 36 percent to 27 percent. In the current poll, John Edwards trails with 12 percent and Bill Richardson has slipped a bit, garnering just 6 percent support.

Obama and Edwards have staked out their arguments against Clinton thusly: She represents the status quo; she's beholden to special interests, unable to bring about the change the electorate seems to be clamoring for; she is too divisive to win in a general election, has too much baggage from the 1990s and is an easy target for Republicans. Those lines of attack have done nothing to stop Clinton's growing lead.

"Going after" Clinton has always been a dicey proposition. Going after some of her more obvious vulnerabilities – past scandals, her failed health care push and the visceral reactions she elicits among many – are all-too familiar GOP talking points and risks a backlash among core Democrats. Questions of electability are helped by public comments by Republicans who almost seem to be salivating over the prospect of meeting Clinton in the general election. Yet, there is also a feeling that the opposition may be playing a game against the Clintons who are, after all, nearly undefeated in big game matchups against the GOP.

If New Hampshire was the primary battlefield for the nomination, it would be easier to take the gloves off once in awhile. The Granite State expects much more conflict that their early-state partners in Iowa who have a tradition of punishing what they perceive as attack politics. In 2004, Howard Dean was leading in Iowa before being drawn into a fight with Dick Gephardt and he ended up finishing a disappointing third.

Iowa is shaping up to be a most decisive fight. Should Clinton win, it will be hard to slow her down, let alone stop her in New Hampshire. Should Obama or Edwards manage to win – or even come in a very close second – the dynamics would be much different heading into New Hampshire, South Carolina and the super-duper February 5th primaries. And, according to most recent polls, Iowa remains very much a toss-up between the top three Democrats.

It's a tough landscape to navigate. Obama and Edwards both need to emerge as the anti-Hillary but should be wary of doing so by going after the front-runner too hard and create an opening for the other to surge as a result. Yet if they are counting on a self-created stumble on Clinton's part, they're likely to be sorely disappointed – she has been nothing but mistake-free throughout the campaign and would love nothing more than to run out the clock. Because of that, the offensive fireworks almost have to start at some point in the not-too-distant future. Will it be tonight in New Hampshire?


A Huckabee-Gingrich Alliance? Newt Gingrich has said he will enter the presidential race if his supporters can pledge $30 million support. But an online appearance by Gingrich on Monday suggests that at least one Republican hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, still doesn't see the former House speaker as a threat. Wired magazine reports that Gingrich was a guest blogger as part of Huckabee's "Vertical Day" initiative, an effort to build support for Huckabee's candidacy within the conservative blogging community.

Gingrich took advantage of the platform by calling on people to participate in his online American Solutions workshop, one part of which will include Huckabee himself -- the guitar player will lead a session on music and wellness education in American schools.

The collaboration between the two might be enough to stir speculation of a Gingrich/Huckabee ticket in 2008... if either of them were seen as having a real shot at the nomination. Stay tuned for more on the Huckabee-Gingrich event from CBS News.

Opportunity Calls The apparently short-lived strike by the United Auto Workers union against General Motors provided an undeniable political opportunity for the Democratic presidential candidates during the peak of union endorsement season. Bill Richardson and Barack Obama were first out the gate with statements released Monday evening. Richardson declared that "workers have held up their end of the bargain while employers and the government have failed to do the same. A fair day's work deserves a fair day's pay, decent benefits, and reasonable job security." Obama, meanwhile, called on GM "to come back to the bargaining table so that union members can go back to work."

Hillary Clinton's campaign waited until midday Tuesday to release a statement expressing solidarity with the striking workers -- which may have been the cue for the candidate most identified with organized labor, John Edwards, who not only backed the strike, but also announced plans to hit the picket line Wednesday with workers at a GM plant in Buffalo, N.Y. "

Edwards' announcement came only hours after the Service Employees International Union said it would delay making a presidential endorsement until October -- a decision that had to disappoint the Edwards campaign, since the union's backing might have helped them raise some last-minute cash ahead of the third quarter fundraising deadline. Don't be surprised if SEIU head Andy Stern was forwarded on the e-mail announcing Edwards' plan to join the striking workers.

Around The Track

  • Obama got an Iowa boost, nabbing the endorsement of the state's former Democratic Party chairman Gordon Fischer. Why? Electability, according to Fischer: "The reason I support Senator Obama is because, like all Democrats, I am desperate to win the White House."
  • The Boston Globe reports that Norman Hsu, the convict/fundraiser who has caused Clinton's campaign at least $850,000 worth of headaches, also donated big-time to those who support her. "In at least some cases, Clinton or her aides directly channeled contributions from Hsu and his network to other politicians supportive of her presidential campaign, according to interviews and campaign finance records. There is nothing illegal about one politician steering wealthy contributors to another, but the New York senator's close ties to Hsu have become an embarrassment for her and her campaign."
  • The AP reports that Rudy Giuliani today will announce an endorsement from former California Governor Pete Wilson, who briefly ran for president himself in 1996.
  • The Los Angeles Times has a look at the competition for the support of African American women in South Carolina between Clinton and Obama. Key quote: "Besides the appeal of gender and race, when asked what qualities they were drawn to, all of them said they valued Clinton's experience and Obama's sense of hope, causing a struggle between their hearts and their heads."
  • In the third-straight day of excerpts from "The Evangelical President," Bill Sammon reveals the surprise within the White House on Democratic reaction to the war vis-à-vis the presidential race. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton is quoted saying: "A lot of us probably underestimated the potency of presidential politics in all of this. … The need of every candidate to remain in good stead with the Democratic Party's left wing has pretty dramatically dragged not just the candidates, but the whole party to the left."
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