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What about Bill?

   MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa - The old champ, thinner and grayer than we remember him, was back in the ring here Monday, and it's clear he hasn't lost his knockout punch.

   Bill Clinton can really give a speech. The trouble is, as he campaigns for his wife's presidential bid, some of the thoughts he's conjuring up might not necessarily be the ones he intended.

   For example, when asked what she thought of Clinton's impassioned plea for his wife's candidacy at a rally in this tiny western Iowa town, Judy Kyle, 46, said: "He reminds me a lot of Barack Obama - the same charisma."

   And upon further questioning, it came clear that for as much as she liked Clinton's charisma, Kyle wasn't so sure about his character, or about how much he might help Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if she's elected president.

   You'll hear such things more often than you'd think from Iowa Democrats. Granted, the majority of them seem to think very highly of Bill Clinton - but a very passionate minority just isn't so sure.

   So what does this mean for Hillary? What do you think?

   --- Jerry Zremski

Hillary gets back on topic

   PELLA, Iowa -- For 11 months now, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has stood in front of various blue signs where her first name stood out more than anything else, with the words "for president" in much smaller script.

   But on Wednesday, eight days before the Iowa caucuses, she stood before an American flag here and in Cumming, Iowa, delivering a message that her Democratic opponents can't quite muster in the same way.

   To paraphrase, she said: I know what it is to be commander in chief.

   Of course she does. After all, she is married to a commander in chief. And now her presidential campaign has reverted to its original message: one person, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is uniquely experienced and uniquely qualified to lead the nation.

   Gone are the sharp attacks on her chief rival, Barak Obama.

   Gone is the subsequent attempt to reverse course and emphasize what those who know Clinton well always say: that she is warm and funny and altogether wonderful.

   So we are back where we started, with the candidate who tells us she is ready to change, ready to lead. A week from today, Iowa Democrats will decide if it is true. What do you think?

-- Jerry Zremski

Will the Democratic debate repeat Wednesday's frustrating session?

  JOHNSTON, Iowa … The pressure she faces today couldn't be any greater.

   Critics on both the left and right savaged her last debate performance. On the left, Eric Kleefeld of Talking Points Memo called her the event's "clear loser."

   On the right, Michelle Malkin dubbed her "schoolmarm," and Dean Barnett of the Weekly Standard likened her to "a latter-day Nurse Ratched."

   No, I'm not talking about a certain senator from New York that bloggers on the far right and far left tend to love to hate.

   No, the woman in the bloggers' bull's-eye is Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Des Moines Register, former managing editor at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and moderator of Wednesday's frighteningly dull yet simultaneously chaotic GOP presidential debate here.

  Washburn will be at it again today, moderating the last debate between the six leading Democratic presidential candidates before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. And we can only hope that she and the Register learned a little something overnight about how to stage a debate that matters.

   In many ways, Wednesday's GOP debate seemed designed to fail.

   "From the outset, Washburn announced that the candidates would not be discussing either Iraq or immigration. Swell! It's the biggest debate of the season, so let's take the two biggest issues off the table," Barnett groused.

   Worse yet, the candidates endured countless pedantic questions about fiscal policy and other serious issues … and given only 30 seconds to answer each one.

   And to top it all off, they had to fight for air time with the hyperventilating fringe candidate Alan Keyes, whom Washburn allowed to demolish that 30-second limit time and again.

   "Appalling," said Jim Geraghty of National Review Online. "Extraordinarily frustrating. Alternately an uncontrolled circus and a banal snore-fest."

   In Washburn's defense, I will say this much. As a long-time print reporter who this year is serving as president of the National Press Club, I've learned how difficult it is to control events where the cameras are running and the interview subjects are, well, talkative. Television pros are trained to handle these situations and, truth be told, print journalists like us are not.

   But that defense probably won't fly with Iowa voters, who must have been deeply frustrated with what several longtime observers in the press room dubbed the worst debate they'd ever seen.

   There's only one blessing going into today's Democratic debate.

   Alan Keyes won't be on the stage … and the Democratic Alan Keyes, Mike Gravel, won't be there, either.

   But I will be, blogging live from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

  -- Jerry Zremski

Reaction mixed on Romney's faith speech

          Pat Buchanan loved the speech Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made Thursday morning about faith and governance. Although it was billed as a way Romney would explain the role of his Mormon religion might, or might not, play should he enter the White House, the former Massachusetts governor mentioned the word "Mormon" only once.

          Buchanan, a conservative Catholic and former speech writer for President Reagan, was a commentator on MSNBC after Romney gave his address at the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum at College Station, Texas.

   "I don't know how he could have done it better," Buchanan said. "I mean, I was very moved."

      Network moderator Chris Matthews, also a Catholic but a former Democratic Party officeholder, enthused that America "heard greatness this morning." Rush Limbaugh said it was Romney's answer to those who have been demeaning him because of his Mormon faith.

          Romney told his audiences in Texas and on television that "no authorities of my church or any other church for that matter will ever influence (me) on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs. And it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

        However, Romney appeared to try making the case that belief in God motivated the founders of the nation, and that God is enshrined in the Constitution itself. God is not mentioned in the Constitution, nor in the Preamble.

        Romney shrank from making such a speech for a long time because Catholic and evangelical theologians have reservations about some of the traditions and beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the formal name of the Mormon church based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

        Among these concerns are differences in the nature of Christ, the authenticity of the four Gospels, the role of minorities in the Mormon Church, original sin, and such major events in the Christian story as the Ascension of Jesus after his Resurrection. Mormons believe, for example, that Jesus visited the Americas after he was raised from the dead.

           These concerns could play a role in the outcome of the Republican presidential caucuses in January in Iowa, an evangelical and Protestant stronghold, where his poll numbers are declining and the standing of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister, are rising.

      Among those who didn't like the address was the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The founders, Lynn said, meant for the government and religion to be "totally separate."

          Lynn said he is offended that Romney thinks that federal judges should issue rulings based on religious faith.

         The senior editor of the Christian Broadcast Network, David Brody, said the speech was "sweeping, lofty and presidential."

          The Manchester Guardian reported that Jerry Zandstra, a Michigan anti-abortion activist and pastor, said he has "no problems with him being a Mormon. It's his positions that are ever-shifting and problematic."

          Zandstra said Romney now says he opposes abortion, but while running for governor in Massachusetts he said: "I believe women should have the right to make their own choice." Romney got praise but no endorsement from the spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land. He called Romney's speech "eloquent."

       Peter Montgomery, the vice president of People for the American Way, a liberal organization, said Romney's aim is "to try to convince religious right voters that they should care less about the theology of Mormonism and more about his pledge to support religious right policy priorities down the line: Criminalization of abortion, opposition to equality for gay people (and) dismantling the wall separating church and state -- and judges who agree."

        What do you think? Was it like John F. Kennedy's speech before Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, in 1960 in which he pledged total separation of church and state? Kennedy, a Catholic, promised that his decisions as president would not be influenced in any way by his church.

--Douglas Turner          

         

       

The NPR debate and the Iran vote

President Bush isn't the only leader who is under pressure because of the latest intelligence estimate on Iran. Weeks ago, Bush suggested that a nuclear weapons program promoted by Iran could trigger "World War III."

Now it's revealed in the latest national intelligence estimate that Iran stopped its nuclear bomb program in 2003. Bush reacted on Tuesday by declaring that Iran is still dangerous because it continues to produce enriched uranium, a key ingredient for an n-bomb.

At a National Public Radio debate in Iowa on the same day, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was challenged by rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, and by the NPR moderator, to defend her vote in September to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guards a "terrorist" organization.

The September resolution, approved 76-22, was sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-D, of Connecticut, and Republican Sen. Jon Kyle of Arizona.

Two months before the Senate vote, Lieberman said "although no one desires a conflict with Iran, the fact is that the Iranian government by its actions has declared war on us." Lieberman urged the U.S. to keep "open the possibility of using military force against the terrorist infrastructure inside Iran."

In the NPR debate, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina noted that Clinton is the only Democratic presidential candidate who voted for Lieberman-Kyle, which Edwards warned could give license to Bush to take military action against Iran.

"What I believe," Edwards said,"is that this president, who, just a few weeks ago, was talking about World War III, he, the vice president, the neocons have been on a march to possible war with Iran for a long time."

Clinton defended her vote saying,"having designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, we've actually seen some changes in their behavior. The Iranians were supplying weapons that killed Americans. They were supplying technical assistance from the Qods Force (a section of the
Revolutionary Guards) which is their special operations element," she said.

Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said "there's no evidence -- none, zero -- that this declaration caused any change in action on the part of the Iranian government."

Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois, who missed the September vote, drew parallels to the administration's Iraq War buildup in 2002.

"This saber-rattling was a repetition of Iraq, a war I opposed, and that we needed to oppose George Bush again," Obama said. "We can't keep on giving him the benefit of the doubt, knowing the ways in which they manipulate intelligence."

NPR moderator Steve Inskeep aimed sharp questions at Clinton because of her Iran vote:

INSKEEP: "Sen. Clinton, as some of your opponents have noted, in September you voted on a resolution involving the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which, among other things, called them proliferators of mass destruction. In view of this latest intelligence estimate, which says Iran's nuclear program was stopped in 2003, do you believe that's still true?"

SEN. CLINTON: "Well, there were other purposes for that resolution. It does label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, and there is evidence that they do support Hamas and Hezbollah, as Senator Obama just said, and in addition have, until recently, been supplying weapons and technical advisers to various factions within Iraq."

INSKEEP: "Forgive me, are the Revolutionary Guards proliferators of mass destruction?"

SEN. CLINTON: "Well, many of us believe that."

Who is right on this one?

-- Douglas Turner

What was CNN thinking?

   Joe Scarborough, MSNBC's morning man, called it a Clinton setup, and said CNN was hiding something.

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, was referring to the YouTube question and personal appearance at CNN's Republican candidates' forum on Wednesday night of a questioner who had signed on as a member of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender task force of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.

The man is Keith Kerr, a retired brigadier general in the Army National Guard, who revealed after his retirement that he is gay. Kerr appeared on CNN in 2003 advocating that the Defense Department scrap its "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the uniformed services.

In June, the Clinton campaign announced Kerr as one of dozens of members of her GLBT group in widely distributed e-mails.

In the YouTube video that CNN selected for the debate, Kerr asked the GOP candidates if they would reverse the policy agreed to during the Clinton administration. None said they would.

Then the moderator, Anderson Cooper, called on Kerr, who had been given a seat in the front of
the auditorium, to respond in person. Kerr was handed a microphone, said he wasn't satisfied with the answers, and began a speech urging his point of view on the candidates and the viewing audience that was interrupted by an apparent line malfunction.

After the episode, Cooper and CNN were deluged with e-mails and phone calls asking whether Kerr's affiliation with the Clinton campaign was known beforehand.

Cooper and CNN said they didn't know. CNN voiced regrets about the incident. But conservatives maintained that among the nearly three dozen YouTube videos picked from the 5,000 submitted, two or more were done by persons linked to the Democratic presidential campaigns of Barak Obama and John Edwards.

The kindest thing a professional journalist can say about the episode is that it was "clumsy." But is Scarbough's view entirely unreasonable? CNN's responses don't reflect the transparency the network claims it wants from those seeking public office.

Exactly who picked Kerr's YouTube video? How did he, among all the questioners, wind up with a
good seat in the hall? And why was he allowed to lecture the candidates?

The event was eerily reminiscent of CNN's "Town Hall" program in 2000 at the University at Buffalo where then Senate candidate Hillary Clinton appeared. Instead of moderator Wolf Blitzer posing the questions, CNN said it was asking questions submitted by people in the auditorium.

However, behind the scenes CNN and UB selected who would be admitted to the hall, and asked that questions be submitted 24 hours in advance. Among those excluded were staffers of UB's student newspaper, The Spectrum.

For future presidential forums, wouldn't it be best to scrap this phony town hall format once and for all, and let the moderator ask the questions and take the heat for what the public or candidates don't like?

--- Douglas Turner

   

The crowd stays home from the GOP debate

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- I came here Wednesday not just to cover a debate between the  Republican presidential candidates, but also to talk to the GOP voters whom I expected to swarm outside the waterfront concert hall where the eight contenders were set to spar.

   After all, that's what you will usually find outside a debate site: partisans who love politics and love their candidates. Before a Democratic candidates debate in Las Vegas two weeks ago, for example, the Barack Obama crowd was so big and unruly that it made me miss the turn into the media parking lot.

   That being the case, I couldn't be more surprised to see the number of people gathered outside the GOP debate site.

   Several dozen, many of them homeless, protested the Iraq War.

   A smaller crowd rallied for Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian icon who's in the single digits in the polls.

   Two lonely people marched by carrying a sign backing the candidacy of Rep. Duncan Hunter --  who, frankly, many Americans might confuse with a cake mix.

   And that was it. I didn't find any massive crowd filling the streets to root for front-runner Rudy Giuliani or any of the major candidates who are nipping at his heels.

   Maybe, somehow, I missed them during my two separate 20-minute treks through the heat and humidity of a Gulf Coast evening, but I can't imagine how.

   More likely, the Republican candidates came to town -- and the Republicans stayed home.

   If the same thing happens a year from now, the GOP would be in trouble.

   But is it in trouble now? What do you think?

-- Jerry Zremski

Working women for Clinton

   From the moment Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton started campaigning for the presidency in January, I noticed something different about the crowds at her rallies.

   Inevitably, a big majority of every crowd was female, and at just about every event, I meet women who have never been to a campaign rally before. Some had never even voted.

   It looked like a trend, and the polling data proved it to be. A Pew Research Center poll last month showed Clinton with a 20 point lead among women against Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani -- a gender gap so vast that it could make Clinton president.

   I went to Las Vegas earlier this month, not just to cover the latest Democratic debate, but also to meet more of the women who are propelling Clinton's candidacy … and to write about them.

   And in doing so, I came to wonder if they are the counterweight to the 45 percent or so of Americans who say they have an unfavorable impression of the New York senator.

   After all, being "polarizing" means that plenty of people out there really like you, too. And after following the campaign for nearly a year, it's clear to me that for Clinton, it's the nurses and home-care workers and single moms who have made her the odds-on favorite to be the next president.

   Most of them don't blog and don't call in to talk radio and don't appear on cable TV's shout shows, but if you go to Clinton's campaign events, you'll meet them.

   And sometime in the next year, we'll learn whether they'll be the core of a mostly silent majority that wants one particular woman in the White House.

--Jerry Zremski

Obama nudges ahead of Hillary in Iowa

       A new poll by ABCNews/Washington Post released today shows that Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois has slipped ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York among Iowa Democrats.

       The state's Democrats plan to hold their caucuses Jan. 3, a neighborhood style process that influences voting among presidential convention delegates next summer. Iowa is the nation's first Democratic showdown, and the survey suggests that Clinton's nomination is not inevitable.

       Among those who say they are "absolutely certain" to attend one of the caucues, Obama leads Clinton 28 percent to 26 percent, a margin well within the sampling error of plus or minus 5 percent.

            However, among all Democrats polled, Obama led Clinton 30 percent to 26 percent, with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina polling 22 percent. In July, Clinton was ahead of Obama by single digits among all Democrats surveyed.

          The survey of 500 likely caucus attendees was done Nov. 14 through 18, which means it was done before and after the Democrats' forum in Las Vegas, where media experts said Clinton easily outperformed Obama and Edwards.

           In this latest sampling, respondents said that candidates with new ideas mattered more than those with experience and forcefulness. Where Clinton leads Obama nationally among women, Iowa women favored Obama narrowly over Clinton, 32 to 31 percent.

          When asked "who best understands people like you," 33 percent said Obama, while 24 percent responded that Clinton does. Obama led Clinton 30 to 18 percent among those who were asked who is "honest and trustworthy."

---Douglas Turner

          

         

Other Democrats let Clinton off the hook on license issue

  LAS VEGAS, Nev. … It got pretty hot here in the desert Thursday night, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton came prepared.

   "This pantsuit, it's asbestos tonight," she said.

   What Clinton didn't say was that she was also carrying a flamethrower.

   What's more, she used it.

   In what seemed like the 2,578th debate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination (but was really only the eighth), Clinton fired back at the opponents who had been firing at her for the past two weeks.

   She accused former Sen. John Edwards of "slinging mud" that was "right out of the Republican playbook."

   And she attacked Sen. Barack Obama for offering a health care plan that leaves 15 million people uncovered … pointedly noting that that's about the number of people in Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, the first four states where people will vote for their presidential favorites.

   And afterwards, the pundits … who love to see third-degree burns at such affairs … raved about Clinton's performance.

   Yet one question remained. Why did the moderator, Buffalo's own Wolf Blitzer, and the other candidates let Clinton off the hook on the question that burned her so badly in the previous  debate?

   After two weeks of contradictions and vagaries, Clinton was again asked if she favored  driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

   She said "No" … and nobody challenged her to say anything more.

   So what do you think? What would have happened if Clinton had been seriously challenged on that question?

   Would she have come away with a few burns of her own?

--Jerry Zremski

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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

rmccarthy@buffnews.com


Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

tprecious@buffnews.com


Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri | jterreri@buffnews.com


Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski | jzremski@buffnews.com

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