updated 9/21/2006 10:56:11 AM ET 2006-09-21T14:56:11

WASHINGTON - There are three great things about finishing my book leave, which I just did at Newsweek. First: I turned in a manuscript. Second: coming back to the beat full-time gave me a fresh view of things. Third, I get to resume writing this column. Here’s how I see the political lay of the land after talking to voters near Ground Zero in Manhattan and in Pennsylvania swing districts, and interviewing congresspersons, strategists and insiders here:

  • Republicans are praying to the god of their vaunted “72 hour” turnout machine, but worried that it won’t perform this time as well as it did in the last two cycles. There are little signs of organizational fatigue and ideological ennui. Communications systems aren’t as robust (no PDAs in key precincts, at least not yet); there are concerns that conservatives have lost focus and won’t volunteer in enough numbers to man the phones, send the emails and knock on the doors. “The sense of urgency isn’t there,” said a top staffer in one GOP Senate campaign.
  • It may be what they call on Wall Street a “dead cat bounce” – a false rally – but Republicans are finding some solace in the slight rebound in the president’s poll numbers. The reasons are pretty clear: the news focus on the GWOT (global war on terror) rather than the bloody sand trap of Iraq; the in-your-face prominence of fanatics such as the Iranian president; the 50-cent-a-gallon drop in gasoline prices; and last but certainly not least, the argument between the Pope Benedict and the Islamists. The Republicans will also be sure to point out that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called George W. Bush "the devil" at the U.N. on Wednesday. If American “religious conservatives” need motivation, that could be it.
2006 key races
  • The Democrats are hopeful, but hardly giddy, and it’s not because they are low-balling. They have been through this hopes-dashed movie before. They have a legitimate shot at taking the House, a longer shot at the Senate. In districts west of Philly, it was hard to find even a Republican who had a nice word for George W. Bush; his 42 percent approval rating is still abysmally low. The talk on the streets of Norristown and in the King of Prussia Mall was not so much anger at Bush but something more damaging: ridicule and dismissive humor. Still, I get the sense that the Democrats would rather have the election today than on Nov. 7. They still don’t have a clear alternative on Iraq and they don’t have the money and machinery the GOP does. “My sense is that we’re going to come close, very close, but not quite get over the hump,” a key Democrat in the entertainment business told me.
  • There is great unease in both parties about their presumptive frontrunners for ’08, but the generational patterns are different. Among Republicans, older big-wig insiders – the top-level Bush crowd – is migrating to Sen. John McCain for one simple reason: they think he is their best bet to hold onto power here. But younger staffers in the White House, the agencies and on the Hill – the foot soldiers in the Bush Army – aren’t so jaded and retain an intense dislike for McCain, either for ideological or purely tribal reasons. They trash the senator on everything from his age to his personality to fondness for the media. Among Democrats, it’s the older generation that seems to fear Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton the most; they think she can’t win the country. She rings more sympathetic chords with younger voters, who liked her husband and know the Monica Scandal primarily as an SNL sketch.
  • Anti-McCain Republicans don’t have a single alternative, but seem to be gravitating to Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. The McCain people view him as serious competition: they have been wooing supporters in part by showing them polling match-ups in which McCain defeats Romney. Sen. George Allen of Virginia was last year’s anti-McCainanite, but the bloom – indeed the whole stem – is off of that rose. The Big Unknown: Rudy Giuliani. He’s the only one who can scramble the current outlines of the race, which is: McCain/Romney and a southerner to be named later (Bill Frist, Newt Gingrich, Allen, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas).
  • Anti-Hillary Democrats have grown fond of John Edwards, who earns points for earnestness, for making poverty one of his chief concerns, for persistence and for getting out of Washington ASAP. That’s the Dem Beltway CW right now: Hillary/Edwards at the top of the chart, with Al Gore approaching like a distant meteor.
  • It’s possible that the BIG STORY is none of the above, but rather Sen. Barack Obama. He generates the kind of yearning and excitement not seen in American politics, at least on the Democratic side, since Robert Kennedy strode the earth. I was talking to friends in Kentucky, where he had just visited on a fundraising trip. He drew a cheering rock-star crowd of thousands to a baseball park in Louisville. It’s the same everywhere. Republicans who know him from places such as the Harvard Law School admire him, too. They speak as glowingly about his brains and talent. “He’s got it all,” said one Republican – a top ranking member of the Bush Administration, no less. Sorry I can’t quote him by name.

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