Noam Scheiber

Senior Editor

Jonathan Martin has a piece up this weekend based on an interview he did Friday with Mitt Romney. What's striking, as Martin notes, is how much Romney has gone from upbeat "overdog" to sober, near-fatalistic underdog: “If it were essential to me to win, if to put bread on the table I had to win this election, if to feel good about myself I had to win this election I might be more anxious about this,” he said. “But instead I’m happy to describe to the people of Iowa who I am, and they can look at me in my totality and decide if I can help this country.

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As Mike says, no one seems to want to concede that their candidate is even in the running for the DMR endorsement. While corresponding with one campaign aide last night, I felt like I was more likely to win the endorsement than his boss. One reason, as Mike says, is expectations-setting. I got the impression another reason was that no one wanted to "jinx" something they didn't yet have in hand--or, perhaps less superstitiously, somehow antagonize the Register editorial board by seeming too presumptuous.

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It’s a long-shot, I know. But consider the following: 1.) The Register’s own David Yepsen raved about Biden’s performance in the paper's debate yesterday. Given the Register’s self-importance—it aggressively promotes its debate as the leading event in the run-up to the caucuses—it wouldn’t shock me if it decided to go with the debate’s (Yepsen-appointed) winner. 2.) Local papers like the Register tend to fancy themselves guardians of civility and substantive inquiry—the opposite of the muckety-mucks in the national media who obsess over polls and other horse-race ephemera.

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Okay, okay. So it was a completely lame debate: Another inexplicable decision to take meaty topics off the table. Very few questions designed to elicit confrontation.  Extremely confining time limits. And all of this humorlessly enforced by a controlling, schoolmarmish moderator. Oh, and there was also the ludicrous presence of Alan Keyes, who managed to make the cut even though Dennis Kucinich has been barred from today’s Democratic installment. Having said that, the debate did do one thing: It nicely illuminated the central divide among the GOP front-runners.

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Marc Ambinder makes a good point about Hillary and Edwards in today's debate: "Clinton and Edwards repeatedly wove their answers into a larger argument, and Obama generally kept his answers to his answers." Edwards began or ended (sometimes both) practically every response with a line about the powerful, greedy interests blocking reform in Washington, which only he, a lifelong fighter, would have the gumption to defeat.

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Indianola, Iowa  I don't have a ton to add to Mike's debate analysis. The one thing I will say is that when I first heard the new version of the Clinton pitch Mike mentioned--"Some people believe you get [change] by demanding it. Some people believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change"--I thought it was a winning distillation of the Clinton message. But, having just come back from an Edwards event in Indianola, I'm beginning to rethink that a bit. Edwards basically turned the line around on her--arguing that the only way to get change is to demand it.

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Des Moines, Iowa  At an event for some medical students and faculty at Des Moines University this afternoon, Huckabee went on a long riff about how you need to change cultural norms to bring about changes in behavior. It included the following: Then the crash dummies came along, and they really helped us to see you know it might be a good idea to wear a seatbelt. Now every state except New Hampshire has a primary seatbelt law. New Hampshire's the only one that doesn't. Of course, their motto is "live free or die." ...

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A couple more GOP debate observations that didn’t quite fit my narrative:   Giuliani and McCain seemed either unusually subdued (Giuliani) or a little lost (McCain). I couldn’t tell if that’s because they both realize they’re going nowhere in Iowa, or because they were blind-sided by the arbitrary exclusion of immigration and Iraq from the proceedings—issues Rudy and McCain like to talk about, respectively. Whatever the case, they felt like nonentities.   Fred Thompson, like Frank said, seemed to find his mojo from time to time. Way too little, way too late.

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Okay, okay. So it was a completely lame debate: Another inexplicable decision to take meaty topics off the table. Very few questions designed to elicit confrontation.  Extremely confining time limits. And all of this humorlessly enforced by a controlling, schoolmarmish moderator. Oh, and there was also the ludicrous presence of Alan Keyes, who managed to make the cut even though Dennis Kucinich has been barred from today’s Democratic installment. Having said that, the debate did do one thing: It nicely illuminated the central divide among the GOP front-runners.

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I agree with David Yepsen, Fred Thompson surprised me most with his performance today. He was funny, and, for once, his terseness actually worked. If today were my first encounter with this political cycle, I would assume he was a front runner. A few other debate thoughts: --Huckabee is notoriously Thompson-esque in his debate prep, eschewing the briefing books and pre-game discussion of strategy. But I thought he seemed pretty well prepped today. Unlike his colleagues, he seemed to understand that he was attempting to sway an audience in Iowa.

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