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Starting Gate: Rupture On The Right?

(CBS/AP)
You don't hear all the much buzz about third party presidential candidates these days. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he will not run but continues to say things and travel places that make everyone think he has not shut the door on the idea. Unity08, a bipartisan effort to field a bipartisan ticket for the general election, has yet to catch fire. Politically speaking, there just doesn't seem to be room for a third party in this already intense and high-stakes election.

While those two examples look to fill a non-existent void in the middle of the political spectrum, it's an ideological candidacy that could be most threatening to the established order, especially the GOP. Recent talk among Christian conservatives about looking for a third-party vehicle could be a harbinger of bad things to come for the eventual Republican nominee.

While most of the conservative angst is discussed in the context of a possible Rudy Giuliani nomination, none of the GOP candidates have sealed the deal with Christian conservatives. Fred Thompson, once considered the answer, has received tough reviews from the likes of James Dobson. Giuliani's past on issues ranging from abortion to gun control leaves conservative activists feeling flat. John McCain has angered them on core issues like campaign finance reform and immigration. And while Mitt Romney, who has run the most traditional GOP campaign has consolidated some conservative support, questions remain.

If social conservatives find themselves with a nominee they're less than thrilled with, what will they do? Many in the party would have us believe that once a nominee is selected, the party will coalesce against what is seen as the larger evil – a potential opponent by the name of Hillary Clinton. But this is a party with a recent history of ideological divide.

Will conservatives wage the fight against Clinton (or Barack Obama or John Edwards), sit home or find a champion of their own? Possibly the biggest danger for the nominee is that they will do all three – and even a marginal loss of reliable votes in the general election would be difficult for any nominee to overcome.

Targeting The Front-Runner: Edwards has two main rivals in his bid for the Democratic nomination – Clinton and Obama. But anyone listening in on the Edwards campaign's Monday conference call came away knowing that the former North Carolina senator has only one person in his sights.

"We don't believe that the Clinton campaign has a deep and abiding interest in having this election campaign being about money and who's going to fight the special interests on behalf of the American people," said Edwards adviser Joe Trippi, who, along with communications director Jonathan Prince, made the point over and over again – they consider Clinton their main target.

While Trippi said Obama should join Edwards in their "call for the Democratic Party to reform itself," he and Prince treated the Illinois senator, who, like Edwards, has railed against special interests and lobbyists, as only a minor distraction. "The sharpest division is between us and Hillary Clinton on this," Trippi said, before referring to Clinton's most-known policy failure. "Americans know that the system's rigged and they know who has control in Washington: It's the lobbyists. That's one of the reasons they believe they don't have health care."

Edwards' decision to zero in on Clinton could certainly change the dynamic of the race. But perhaps not in his favor. After all, the Obama campaign would probably welcome the chance to have some mud thrown at Clinton while keeping its own hands clean, and its positive message intact. Taking shots at Clinton is all the more interesting because the Edwards campaign has vested all its hopes in winning Iowa, a state that, at least historically, doesn't care for negative campaigning.

But if Edwards and Obama are both trying to emerge as the anti-Hillary of the field, there may be no better way to do that than by being, well, anti-Hillary. At least, that's what the Edwards campaign is hoping.

Weapon Of Mass Distraction? You don't hear much about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction anymore. It's probably because four-plus years after the U.S. invasion, those stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that served as one of the primary rationales for the war have yet to be found.

But campaigning in Iowa yesterday, Fred Thompson said there is no doubt that Hussein had them – at least at one time. "We can't forget the fact that although at a particular point in time we never found any WMD down there, he clearly had had WMD. He clearly had had the beginnings of a nuclear program," Thompson said. He was referencing the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s. But is it ever a good idea for a GOP presidential candidate to bring up the topic?

Around The Track

  • Democrats have asked the FEC to investigate whether Giuliani's campaign was involved in any way with the now-defunct effort to split California's 54 electoral votes in the general election. The ballot measure was spearheaded by a Giuliani supporter. The campaign told the AP: "This is completely independent from our campaign and,
    frankly, it is not an initiative that serves our campaign's best interests."
  • Oakland mayor and former congressman Ron Dellums endorsed Clinton, giving her a slight boost among urban and black voters. Dellums: "Her commitment to urban communities and her belief that the federal government must build strong partnerships have earned her my support and endorsement." Maybe Dellums noticed the estimated 14,000 people who showed up for a Clinton rally in his city last Sunday.
  • The American Jewish Committee isn't thrilled with McCain's recent statement that he would "prefer" a Christian president. "To argue that America is a Christian nation, or that persons of a particular faith should by reason of their faith not seek high office, puts the very character of our country at stake," the group said in a statement.
  • In case you haven't noticed, September 30th has come and gone and Larry Craig remains in the Senate.