Nine Days That Will Shape the Race
If you are lucky enough to be heading off on vacation this weekend, don't bother to read further. If you aren't one of the lucky ones, here's a primer on an extraordinarily busy week of presidential politics ahead.
Over the next nine days there will be three Democratic candidate forums, a Republican debate and the world-famous Republican straw poll in Ames. Hardly a candidate in either field doesn't have something to accomplish between now and when the tents come down on the Iowa State University campus.
Start with the Democrats, who will gather in Chicago on Saturday afternoon for a 90-minute forum at the second annual YearlyKos convention of the blogosphere.
This is not going to be Hillary Clinton country. The New York senator has had a contentious relationship, at best, with the bloggers on the left, who distrust her because of her vote for the Iraq war and because of her husband's centrist ideology.
Clinton sometimes has found a way to defuse -- though not necessarily charm -- her opponents on the left, employing some of the most anti-Bush rhetoric among the Democratic candidates.
The question for her is how much she feels the need to tamp down her blog critics and how much room she wants to preserve for positioning herself as a general election candidate. The Clinton camp usually leaves nothing to chance, so the calibration will be important to watch.
Chicago is Barack Obama's town, but he can't expect any deference to be paid by his rivals. They have been pummeling him for two weeks over a series of foreign policy statements made in debate, in a speech and in an Associated Press interview.
Obama has irritated some bloggers this week with hawkish rhetoric about going after terrorists inside Pakistan. He's drawn criticism from rivals for musing out loud about nuclear options -- and then trying to rewrite his words on the fly. Will he take the opportunity to try to make the record clear -- and double down and defend everything he's had to say as proof that would be a fresh and welcome change from the past?
On Tuesday, the Democratic scene shifts to Soldier Field, where 10,000 or so union members and their families will gather for a Democratic debate, moderated by MSNBC's Keith Olberman.
The forum at Soldier Field will be John Edwards's moment. Nobody has worked harder to court labor unions than the former North Carolina senator and nobody needs their endorsements more than he does. He continues to run strong in Iowa but he'll need a boost this fall to stay in the fight with Clinton and Obama as their millions of dollars begin to swamp his more modestly financed campaign.
But Edwards will face competition at Soldier Field -- and not just from Clinton and Obama. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden have longstanding ties to the labor movement and speak their language and Bill Richardson will be pitching hard as well. If Edwards tries too hard, he could find one of the others eclipsing him on Tuesday night.
The final gathering of the Democrats next week will be in Los Angeles when the Human Rights Campaign and Logo co-sponsor a forum for the candidates. Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg will moderate the forum and singer Melissa Ethridge will be one of three questioners.
The candidates will appear sequentially -- Clinton is scheduled last -- and most people may have to catch up with it after it ends. But it will be carried live on the Logo cable network..
Gays and lesbians represent an important constituency in the Democratic Party and the most interesting question is whether candidates fully embrace the gay community's agenda and how they talk about their views about gay issues have changed over the years.
The Republicans will spend their week in Iowa, starting on Sunday morning with a debate on a special 90-minute edition of ABC's "This Week." George Stephanopoulos will moderate the debate, which begins at 9 a.m. EDT.
The candidates will spend the rest of the week drumming up support for the straw poll, although three of the top four candidates in the GOP field will be missing in action in Ames. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain said they wouldn't compete in the straw poll -- presumably because they were afraid of the consequences of a poor showing. Fred Thompson isn't yet a candidate.
That puts Mitt Romney on the spot. One of his advisers recently dubbed Romney the GOP frontrunner, and he's been leading recent GOP polls in the Iowa. With Giuliani, McCain and Thompson not competing in Ames, he will be expected to win going away -- and there are some of his supporters who worry that they've let expectations get out of control.
Sunday's debate will be the first for McCain since his campaign blew up a month ago. He's trying to resurrect his candidacy but Iowa has not been terribly hospitable. His performance on the stage in Des Moines this weekend will offer some important insights into his energy level, his determination and into whether having been singed by the immigration debate, he has begun to change his message.
Giuliani has been spending more time in New Hampshire, and the question is how hard he intends to try and sell the Iowa audience on the idea that he'll be a serious competitor in next year's caucuses.
The GOP candidates with the most to prove next week are the also-rans: Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson, Sam Brownback and others. Thompson has made clear that his campaign needs a victory in the straw poll, so he's already established expectations for himself. A loss next Saturday likely will drive him out of the race.
Huckabee and Brownback have been in a nasty fight, trying to become the candidate of the Christian right. It's not likely both can survive the results in Ames.
Look for updates through the week -- or enjoy your time off. We'll be here for you.
-- Dan Balz
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