AFL-CIO Presidential Candidates Forum at the Soldier Field
Kamil Krzaczynski  /  EPA
Democratic hopefuls (L-R) Bill Richardson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich during the AFL-CIO Presidential Candidates Forum at Soldier Field in Chicago on Aug. 7.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 8/8/2007 4:02:01 PM ET 2007-08-08T20:02:01

With two more debates in the rear view mirror this week, it's clear that we've entered a new phase of the campaign where candidates start making allegiances either consciously or sub-consciously. We've seen numerous examples just in the last few days, most prominently at the AFL-CIO debate, but on the Republican side as well.

At Tuesday's AFL-CIO forum (which turned into a debate), the most striking example of this new tribal phenomenon was Joe Biden's hits on both Barack Obama and John Edwards. It was as if Edwards became Patton with Hillary Clinton playing the role of Eisenhower. She kept her hands clean while Biden did the dirty work.

Biden, perhaps out of frustration or self-preservation for a future role in a Clinton administration, turned in a solid audition for the role of Clinton attack dog. He was unrelenting on Edwards. He relished beating him up, at least in part because he feels Edwards is taking away two of what he hoped would be his key constituencies — trial lawyers and labor.

As for Biden's attacks on Obama, he had help from another Washington colleague, Chris Dodd.

For the first time this debate season, Dodd was aggressive against a fellow Democrat. Now, in fairness, Dodd's folks took issue with my initial contention that he was carrying Clinton's water. After all, they contend, he's at 1 percent in the polls, he's going to take any opportunity to attack any of the folks he's chasing. But the fact is, he was and didn't lay a finger on the frontrunner.

For Clinton, the Biden/Dodd double team on Obama and Edwards was a welcome development. It allowed Clinton to stay above the fray. At points, she even egged Dodd on by name-dropping them on key legislation she was working on.

But if there's a downside, the fact that two creatures of the Washington establishment (Dodd and Biden) are taking Clinton's side does put a slight crimp in her argument that she'll bring change, assuming this is as big a change election as many of us think.

In fact, check out the attack Joe Trippi, one of the folks running Edwards' campaign, made last night when he complained the "whole Senate cloakroom" was on the attack.

Is an Obama/Edwards pairing next?
Now, if Clnton has found her secret surrogates in her current primary competitors, does that mean we're going to see Edwards and Obama somehow teaming up?

Maybe. But it will be a tenuous alliance, sort of like Germany and Japan in World War II (or for those offended by that analogy, think the U.S. and Soviet Union in WWII), where eventually, they'll have to turn on each other.

And then, of course, the two are completely distrustful of each other, both believing secretly the other is a phony on some of these issues, like fighting lobbyists.

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Still, Edwards and Obama are going to have to profess to like each other publicly and support each other on many of their "change" proposals. Their alliance is going to be especially important in Iowa and New Hampshire, where neither candidate can count on sweeping the states without taking a significant portion of the other's support.

Conventional wisdom says Edwards and Obama will have an easier time winning over each other's supporters than picking off Clinton's. Why? If a Democrat has already decided to support someone other than Clinton, then the sale for another Clinton alternative will be much easier to make.

But the Democrats aren't the only ones looking to hook up. The Republican candidates seem to be catching alliance fever as well.

The clearest evidence came at last Sunday's debate in Iowa where we saw something publicly that I've been noticing privately for some time: Sam Brownback has decided to be a one-man anti-Romney brigade. What's been odd about Brownback's regular criticism of Romney is that he's been loath to attack the other two active frontrunners, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

One theory I've posited is that Brownback realizes Romney's newfound conservatism will mean he won't be looking for a conservative midwesterner as a potential running mate. But two flawed candidates (in the minds of social conservatives) like Giuliani and McCain would be more apt to consider Brownback in the hopes of ideologically balancing the ticket.

Brownback's probably getting more help this week than you might imagine in his efforts to do well at the Ames straw poll. Both McCain and Giuliani aren't participating, but both campaigns have decent Iowa organizations (or McCain's case, HAD a decent Iowa organization). It's in Giuliani's best interest, for instance, if Brownback sticks around a while and helps dilute Romney's ability to woo social conservatives to his side.

But Brownback's not the only Republican pairing up. Giuliani can't seem to ever come up with a bad thing to say about McCain. I noticed it during the Sunday debate and even live-blogged about the likelihood Giuliani was hinting that he may, in fact, pick McCain as his VP. Then, earlier this week, Giuliani said if he weren't running, he'd be supporting McCain.

Why all this public affection for the Arizona senator? Simple. Giuliani knows Fred Thompson is about to get in and he knows McCain has had close ties with Thompson and the last thing Giuliani wants is any of McCain's support (which is still significant, even if less substantial every day) to gravitate to Thompson. Giuliani would love, for instance, to have McCain eventually stumping for him in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary (assuming McCain can't go on).

The match making on the Republican side is just beginning. Fred Thompson's official entrance into the campaign will probably delay further pairing up until the second and third tier candidates begin to assess just how well Thompson will perform.

But as we have seen this week for the Democrats, once Thompson is in, expect to see the alliances forming on the GOP side during the next set of debates in September. Biden scored big with Clinton in his initial attack dog audition; and Brownback did pretty well for himself (in the eyes of Giuliani) on Sunday. I can’t wait for the next round.

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