Starting Gate: Too Late To Say "Sorry?"

(AP Photo)
It's been a year of apologies, some much more sincere than others. Joe Biden found himself apologizing on the day he announced his candidacy for describing Barack Obama as "clean" and "articulate," comments that came up as recently as yesterday's Democratic debate in Iowa.

More often, the contrition has been delivered with a political punch behind them. When John Edwards decided to publicly apologize for his senate vote authorizing the war in Iraq, it's hard to say he didn't mean it. But it's impossible to say that it didn't have a greater meaning for his campaign. Hillary Clinton refused to flat-out apologize, yet she spent a great deal of time in the spring and summer doing penance for her vote.

Republicans have spent much of the year finding ways to appear regretful for how the Bush administration has executed the war and how the Republican-led Congress failed enough to let Democrats regain power.

Mike Huckabee apologized to Mitt Romney for a quote appearing in Sunday's New York Times Magazine in which he openly mused about Mormon theology. And Clinton reached out to Obama just yesterday to say she was sorry one of her highest-profile New Hampshire supporters had ruminated about the possibility that Republicans might label Obama a drug dealer in a general election matchup.

Huckabee's apology caused waves but has faded since. Still, it served a purpose of reminding evangelical voters why they may have some real suspicion about Mormon beliefs. In the same way, Bill Shaheen's quotes, speculating that Republicans would ask Obama when he last used drugs or whether he ever sold them, served a political purpose by raising the issue in general and hinting to Democratic primary voters that the fresh-faced Obama could be deep-sixed in a down-and-dirty campaign.

Have we gone one apology too far? Will the incident – whether a loose-lipped mistake or a more planned strategy – backfire on the Clinton campaign this time. There are creeping indications it just might. In an editorial today, the New Hampshire Union-Leader lambastes the Clinton campaign, writing: "Shaheen expressed regret for his comments, then resigned, but the idea that Obama might've dealt drugs was out. Everybody knows the Clinton campaign's M.O. is to smear and attack when down. The only question is how low Clinton will go. We suspect we haven't found the answer yet."

In a year when "negative campaigning" looks to be on the outs, this tactic is one of the few remaining ways to get a "message" out about a campaign rival. Take one step too far, however, and a campaign will find that it's finally too late to say "I'm sorry."

"A Lot Of Catch-Up To Do" For Clinton In Iowa: CBS News' Jim Axlerod reports on the Clinton campaign efforts to gin up their Iowa organization, noting that Clinton advisers understand they are under the gun and that the candidate is focused on staying positive. "Expect to see more of this tone starting Sunday in Iowa," when she embarks on a five-day tour, when she and her surrogates will attempt to reach all 99 counties in Iowa," Axelrod reports. "The theme: "Working for change. Working for you." The Clinton campaign knows it has not done its best work so far in Iowa. They hope to hit the "reset" button starting Sunday. In the words of the senior advisor: "We've got a lot of catch-up to do." Check in early and often with From The Road, our blog written by CBS News off-air reporters, correspondents and producers for the latest from the trail.

Snark Central: The Thompson campaign is making a mark on the rhetorical circuit. Usually we don't start to see the real smart-alec's flexing their muscles until ther general election campaign begins, but Thompson's spokespeople are already in fighting form. The latest examples comes from the campaign's deputy campaign manager Karen Hanretty, who issued the following release yesterday:

"In light of Mike Huckabee's heartfelt apology to Mitt Romney for making reference to Romney's religion in the New York Times Magazine, we at the Thompson Campaign would like to offer Huckabee our own heartfelt apologies for some references we've made about his record as Governor of Arkansas."

The release goes on: "We apologize for pointing out that as Governor of Arkansas, Huckabee offered in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. That's something he'd probably just as soon no one talk about. And: "We apologize for pointing out that in 2002 Huckabee wrote Pres. Bush a letter asking him to lift the Cuban embargo. It's easy to see how Huckabee might have missed the finer points of a 40-year embargo. While he obviously knew enough about the embargo to ask that it be lifted, Huckabee clearly didn't know enough to ask that it not be lifted. So for that, we're sorry." There's more but you get the point. Chris Dodd was right, it's going to be a long year.

Around The Track

  • Bill Clinton sends a fund-raising appeal out this morning: "It's one thing to have good intentions, another thing altogether to change the reality of people's lives. Hillary has been changing people's lives for as long as I've known her. She did it in Arkansas when she made major improvements to our schools. She did it in the aftermath of September 11, when she helped first responders get the medical care they needed. She's done it in the U.S. Senate, where she has worked to make sure we fulfill our promises to our troops, veterans, and their families.
  • A new CNN/Opinion Research poll in South Carolina has Huckabee in the lead with 24 percent with Thompson trailing at 17 percent. On the Democratic side, the poll had Clinton leading Obama 42 percent to 34 percent.
  • A Concord Monitor poll Obama edges Clinton by one point, 32 percent to 31 percent with Romney leading Giuliani 31 percent to 18 percent.
  • Iowa may be just 20 days away but Clinton heads to New Hampshire for the weekend and, when she's not there, her surrogates will be.