The Washington Post, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with the narrowing field of presidential candidates. As expected, Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the race Wednesday and threw his support to Sen. John McCain. In a surprise move, John Edwards also announced he was stepping aside "so history can blaze its path," as he put it to supporters in New Orleans. The race has now essentially become a two-person contest on each side (yes, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are still officially in the running but no one thinks they stand a chance) as the campaigns make last-minute strategic decisions before Super Tuesday. The Los Angeles Timesleads with the Republican debate in California, which was co-sponsored by the paper, where McCain and Mitt Romney exchanged some heated words about their past statements and their records.
The New York Times goes front-and-center with the latest campaign news but leads with the Federal Reserve's decision to cut its benchmark interest rate by half a percentage point. It was the second large cut in eight days, and the Fed made clear it's willing to keep going. Bad signs kept coming yesterday as the government reported that the economy grew at a 0.6 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, which was lower than most were expecting.
All the papers report that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to announce his support for McCain this morning. As the LAT notes in a separate Page One story, the California governor had previously said he would be staying on the sidelines during primary season but apparently made up his mind after Giuliani decided to drop out of the race. The papers say that Giuliani's endorsement is likely to help McCain because they were both competing for the same moderate Republican voters, while Romney still has to fight with Huckabee for the more conservative side of the party.
For his part, Edwards doesn't appear ready to endorse anybody quite yet, although both Obama and Clinton rushed to praise him and lay claim to his supporters, as well as his fund-raisers. So, who will benefit from his decision to drop out? "The correct answer is: Who knows?" writes Slate's John Dickerson, and all the papers express the same uncertainty. On the one hand, some think Obama might benefit in some of the large, more liberal states like California since "change" was also an integral part of Edwards' campaign. But Clinton could gain rural and blue-collar voters, particularly in the South, who would have otherwise picked Edwards.
The Post poignantly points out that while both parties now essentially have two-person contests, "their political contours are markedly different." Although Clinton and Obama frequently exchange heated words, there aren't any big ideological differences between the two politicians. On the other hand, Republicans "see the prospect of a clear fracture in their coalition" as McCain appears headed for victory without the help of the "party's conservative or religious base."
This division was clearly evident at last night's debate, where Romney and McCain bickered over a number of issues, including taxes and their conservative credentials. But the most heated exchange was about Iraq, as McCain repeated the claim that Romney had previously supported setting timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Romney shot back and called the attack "reprehensible" and an example of "Washington-style" negative campaigning. In a separate piece inside, the NYT says McCain's claim "is misleading." Although it's true that Romney was less adamant about supporting the surge than McCain, he never called for a withdrawal, and when asked whether he would veto a bill that contained a timetable he said yes.
On the same day as the Fed announced lower interest rates, the Senate finance committee passed its own stimulus package with the support of only three Republicans. The WP says that although the new bill did receive the support of the influential ranking Republican on the committee, it's still not clear whether the Democrats will have enough votes to break a threatened filibuster, particularly without Clinton and Obama. Still, voting against the new bill might prove difficult since it would provide checks to seniors and disabled veterans that were left out of the House package.
USAT fronts a look at yet another way that lobbyists are able to still gain favor with lawmakers despite the new restrictions on gifts and trips. Lobbyists, corporations, and unions routinely lend out their Capitol Hill houses and offices "to legally wine and dine members of Congress while helping them raise money." The paper counted more than 400 of these types of events involving 40 percent of Congress last year, and acknowledges that this is probably only a fraction of the total since many aren't disclosed. The fact that lobbyists help lawmakers raise money is hardly new, but some say the new restrictions have made these fund-raising events more prevalent.
In another example of how former President Clinton could bring problems to his wife's candidacy, the NYT fronts a look at a trip he took to Kazakhstan in 2005 with a big donor to his foundation. They both took part in a lavish banquet with the country's president, and the former president expressed support for Kazakhstan's bid to head an international organization that supports democracy. The statement was at odds with the U.S. position on the matter as well as with his wife's previous criticism of the country's human rights record. Soon after the trip, the donor's relatively unknown company signed an agreement with Kazakhstan's state-owned uranium agency that turned it into "one of the world's largest uranium producers."
The papers report inside on an official inquiry into Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon that found "serious failings" by the country's political and military leaders. But it didn't personally blame Israel's embattled prime minister, which probably means he won't be forced to resign as many had predicted.
The Post also notes Israel's Supreme Court sided with the government's plan to carry out "economic warfare" against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The ruling allows the government to begin reducing the amount of electricity it delivers to Gaza next week. Human rights groups argued the move would violate international law, but Israel emphasized it would deliver enough electricity to cover "vital humanitarian needs."
The NYT notes that the Super Bowl ads will be "taking a milder, sweeter approach" after advertisers drew complaints last year. "Maybe it's because people are getting their fill of blood and guts in political advertising," an industry expert said.
The NYT's Nicholas Kristof says that "one sweeping topic has gone curiously unexamined" in the presidential race: "Does it diminish American democracy if we keep the presidency in the same two families that have held it since 1989?" TP realizes Kristof recently came back from a book leave, but does he really think the issue hasn't been discussed?