Why Mitt Romney is courting Latino votes that don't count.

A campaign blog.
Sept. 24 2007 11:24 AM

Mitt Romney's Puerto Rico Fever

Why Mitt Romney is courting Latino votes that don't count.

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Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney's Puerto Rico Fever: Mitt Romney is going offshore to help distance himself from the GOP's struggles with Latino voters. Romney sent out a press release Wednesday announcing the formation of a Puerto Rico steering committee. Candidates put steering committees together all the time, especially in states that they feel will have a big impact in the presidential race. But Puerto Rico isn't a state. Its citizens can't even vote in the general presidential election. (The island does hold the third-to-last Republican primary on May 31, 2008, and sends a small number of delegates to the Republican National Convention.) It's safe to say Isle of Enchantment voters aren't going to be the kingpins of '08.

But Romney doesn't need Puerto Ricans to vote for him—he needs Puerto Rican-Americans to rally behind him and spread the word. Romney's press office isn't shy about the move. The spokesperson I talked to paid lip service to courting votes in Puerto Rico but intimated that the steering committee's true goal was to shore up support on the mainland, specifically in Florida (13.3 percent of residents are Hispanic). Romney probably wouldn't mind if Puerto Ricans voted for him, but he's going to the island in order to build buzz among émigrés in the contiguous 48.

And what about the rest of America's territorial buddies? Dennis Kucinich has already gone to Hawaii to campaign. Why not stop in the Virgin Islands next? John McCain is probably the most likely to form an Iraqi steering committee to court the meager number of Iraqi refugees living in America. (Clarification, Sept. 24, 2007: We meant to imply Hawaii was an island state, not a territory.  Because Kucinich has already left the mainland to campaign, the implication was that the Virgin Islands are not out of reach.)

While the candidates are at it, why not try and start as many immigrant-based steering groups as possible? The headlines write themselves: "Israelis for Obama!" (That may already be happening.) "Giuliani courts Englanders at home and abroad!" (Wait, that's happening already, too.)

Maybe Romney isn't a trendsetter after all.

Posted by Chadwick Matlin,Sept. 21, 4:58 p.m. ET (link)

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Rudy Giuliani. Click image to expand.

Shot in the Dark:"It's nice to be here in England," Rudy Giuliani joked as he took the stage at the National Rifle Association's "Celebration of American Values" forum. The crack got a laugh, but it was an odd thing for someone with a history of supporting gun control to say to an audience of gun lovers. England is the last place you want them to be thinking about.

Thus began the former mayor's half-hour attempt to fudge, massage, and generally play down his record of restricting gun ownership in New York City. Instead, he painted himself as Giuliani the crime-fighter. His goal as president, he said, would be "putting criminals behind bars when they commit crimes with guns or any other way." Which, of course, wouldn't affect anyone in the room.

He kept emphasizing that he would merely enforce laws already on the books. That means keeping the current laws on waiting periods and gun shows, while letting state and local law enforcement work out the details for themselves. One thing he didn't mention, however, was the Assault Weapons Ban of 1995, which he vigorously supported at the time. The NRA was polite enough not to ask about it during the Q&A.

Giuliani knows he's walking a thin line. "People commit crimes, not guns," he said at one point. But he also pointed out that "if you don't have reasonable safety, you can't have other rights." So what's it going to be? Safety or guns?

So far, his answer seems to be, Why can't it be both? Whether or not Giuliani gets the support of gun owners depends largely on whether they buy this act. Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, he's saying, is as important to the country's safety as protecting its borders and capturing terrorists. As long as he can convince people that restricting guns for criminals doesn't mean restricting guns for law-abiding NRA members, he's in the clear.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 21, 2:45 p.m. ET (link)

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Petty Warfare: If one second-tier candidate attacks another second-tier candidate, does anyone hear it?

Sen. Joe Biden's camp sent out a press release today criticizing Gov. Bill Richardson for his "changing positions" on Biden's troop withdrawal plan. Noting Richardson's statement yesterday claiming he was the "only Democratic candidate with a concrete plan to end the war," Team Biden asks us to recall last month's Democratic debate in Iowa, where Richardson said, "I believe Joe Biden's plan has potential." Before that, Richardson had said that Biden's federation proposal for Iraq "may be ultimately the right solution." But I'm sure you knew all that already.

Does sniping between the campaign's bottom feeders actually benefit anyone? Yes, but certainly not Biden or Richardson. Whereas Hillary makes herself seem more inevitable by trading barbs with the White House, these guys are helping thin out the competition by driving themselves into the margins. As the election approaches, long-shot candidates can shift the debate by attacking the front-runners in ways that the second- and third-place guys—both potential VP's—can't. Note to the Biden camp: Cancel the Mike Gravel attack ads and save your ammo for the big dogs.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 20, 3:28 p.m. ET (link)

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The Mahmoud Effect: The chance to blast a leader like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a freebie for the presidential candidates. When word spread yesterday that the Iranian president wanted to go to Ground Zero and lay a wreath for the victims of 9/11, candidates of both parties denounced the idea. Mitt Romney called the request "shockingly audacious," Hillary deemed it "unacceptable," and Rudy Giuliani urged that "[u]nder no circumstances" should Ahmadinejad be allowed to visit the site. Whoever responds fastest and most angrily wins!

But the candidates have had less to say about the announcement that Ahmadinejad will speak at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum on Monday. It's a surprising move for the university, given that Columbia President Lee Bollinger retracted an invitation to Ahmadinejad to speak at the same event last year. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was slated to speak in 2005, that event was canceled, too. What has changed since then? This time, Bollinger said, he'll introduce the Iranian president with "a series of sharp challenges" about his Holocaust denial, calls for the destruction of Israel, and suppression of civil society. Ahmadinejad will also have to agree to a question-and-answer session.

Sen. John McCain has so far been the only candidate to respond: "A man who is directing the maiming and killing of Americans troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university."

So, does McCain hope that Ahmadinejad gets the reception he did at Columbia? When the senator was asked to speak there at graduation last year, students petitioned to disinvite him because he had just recently given a speech at Liberty University. He went anyway.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 20, 12:47 p.m. ET (link)

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Cut the Fat: Bill Richardson wants to make America less fat. "As president, fighting obesity will be one of my top priorities," he said today at the Obesity Society's Public Policy Conference in Washington. Limiting obesity, and therefore diseases like diabetes, is part of his universal health-care plan. But it seems a little strange to hear calls for slimming down from the plumpest candidate in the field.

Or is it? Richardson has long struggled with his weight, which in some ways makes him more qualified to discuss obesity. He lost a reported 30 pounds before entering the race—not quite Mike Huckabee's 110-pound drop but still respectable—and campaign spokesman Tom Reynolds says Richardson "continues" to slim down. But the campaign has yet to tout his declining girth as a qualification. Instead, he cites his accomplishments combating childhood obesity—regulating vending machines in schools and requiring physical education—and says he can get adults to tighten their belts, too. Richardson "puts his money where his mouth is," says Reynolds. Apt phrasing, as it were.

Of course, whether or not the nation would elect an obese candidate—especially with the scars of William Howard Taft's bathtub incident still fresh—is unclear. Richardson's camp dismisses the problem. "We think our position on the issues is going to matter," said Reynolds.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 19, 5:35 p.m. ET (link)

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Rudy Giuliani. Click image to expand.
Rudy and Judith Giuliani address the media outside 10 Downing Street

Rudy Giuliani: Anglophile? A good way to get elected president is to act like you're already president. At least that seems to be what Rudy Giuliani is thinking as he takes a trip across the pond, where he meets today with British leaders Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Margaret Thatcher. The mayor will also court London-based American donors—finance refugees fleeing Sarbanes-Oxley—and give a foreign-policy speech tonight in honor of Thatcher. To top it off, the Giuliani campaign announced the addition of two former Thatcher advisers, Robert Conquest and Nile Gardiner. Next thing we know, he'll be serving tea at fund-raisers.

As the first '08 candidate to campaign in Britain, Giuliani scores an early touchdown (run?) in the Foreign Policy Primary. It's a move that makes Romney's recent foreign-policy efforts look weak. All he did was write a letter (PDF) to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon this week urging him to rescind Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's invitation to speak at the U.N. General Assembly.

Unlike Bush, Giuliani is remarkably popular among British conservatives. He also gains cred by signing up Conquest, a renowned Cold War historian who turned 90 this summer. Giuliani has said he wants "to accomplish [in Iraq] what we accomplished in Japan or in Germany." professor Niall Ferguson (who has been advising McCain) argues that Giuliani's attitude—hard-charging plus Churchillian grandiosity—might have worked for cleaning up New York, but won't work for foreign policy. Perhaps having Conquest behind him will help make Giuliani more convincing.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 19, 2:45 p.m. ET (link)

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Romney the Scold:  In Mitt Romney's new ad, "Change Begins With Us," he tells voters that "if we're going to change Washington, Republicans have to put our own house in order" and stop acting like Democrats. That means spending less, cracking down on illegal immigration, and raising ethical standards, which now "are a punch line for Jay Leno."

The ad attacks Bush for his budget woes, McCain for his immigration stance, and the Craig/Vitter/Foley crew for their libertine ways. But it also pins these vices on Democrats. "When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses." Loses what? Fill in the blank: money. The war in Iraq. Our dignity. It's a nice twist: Yes, our party has stumbled. But even when we make mistakes, blame the Democrats.

Romney also gets to play the father figure, with an affectionate condescension that suits him well. You've been bad. But I know this isn't you. What with the inspirational music and leafy backdrop, I feel like I've just stepped into a lesson-learning scene from The Wonder Years. It fits Romney's image as Washington outsider, too. He's here to clean things up, and he's going to need our help. But first, let's play some catch in the backyard.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 19, 11:37 a.m. ET (link)

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Heckle This: Sen. John Kerry's run-in with a heckler at the University of Florida on Monday brought back memories of protesters who have disrupted presidential candidates past and present.  In honor of these dissenters and the First Amendment they're lucky to have, we're creating the Heckler Hall of Fame. This handful of inductees illuminates the different ways candidates can respond:

The Comeback
Response tactics: Dismissive laugh, quick one-liner, appeal to audience's humor
McCain's "jerk": In the middle of a question-and-answer session in New Hampshire, a student questions Sen. John McCain's vitality. McCain responds with a minute and a half of generation gap anecdotes before directly addressing the questioner: "Thanks for the question, you little jerk." The crowd explodes with applause.

Hillary's "in the name of Jesus"protester: Speaking about her energy plan, Clinton is interrupted by a chorus of boos and a woman screaming, "In the name of Jesus, get out!"  Clinton's supporters overwhelm the hecklers with a cheer rebuttal. Once the chaos subsides, Clinton cracks, "That's what I love about politics, you never know what the day will bring."

The "Nothing To See Here, Folks"
Response tactics: Darting eyes, exasperated sigh, monotone speech
Thompson's challenger: In July, Fred Thompson was greeted by a 9/11 conspiracy theorist who challenged his membership in the Council on Foreign Relations at an airport. As the woman is escorted away, Thompson flees the scene.

Giuliani's 9/11 nut: A Wal-Mart hater barges in on Rudy Giuliani's address at the University of Oklahoma. Giuliani ignores him, makes a joke, and finally continues his speech as the heckler's screams echo through the auditorium from the hallway.

The Polite Confrontation
Response tactics: Bemused smile, raised voice, principled support of free speech
Romney takes charge: Faced with challenges on his health-care policy, his conservative credentials, and his Mormonism, Romney refuses to stand down. He debates his health-care challenger, pleading, "If you'd like me to answer the question I will!" When an audience member questions his faith, the former governor leans on freedom of religion to dismiss the hecklers' concerns while standing woodenly with a microphone in hand.

The Holier-Than-Thou Shutdown
Response tactics: Finger pointing, raised voice, emphasis on "respect"
Bill Clinton fights back: None of the 2008 candidates can hold a candle to Bill Clinton's forceful deconstruction of a heckler while campaigning in 1992. Clinton stops his speech, looks the guy in the eye and says, "Will you just calm down?" He then leaves the lectern, jabs his finger toward the heckler and uses the words crap and hell like they're the norm for a political speech.

One last wild-card inductee to mention: We would be remiss to exclude this verbal assault on Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol in Texas. Kristol, while not a politician, attempts rebuttals but is overpowered by questioner after questioner.

Posted by Chadwick Matlin, Sept. 18, 7:40 p.m. ET (link)

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Five-Minute Magic: Sen. Barack Obama's new tax plan promises to provide $80 to $85 billion in tax cuts for the middle class. Also, to simplify tax filings so that "millions of Americans can do their taxes in less than 5 minutes." For anyone who spends the average 15 hours preparing their taxes every April, the prospect of five-minute taxes makes disarming North Korea seem like a low priority. But is it realistic?

Doubtful. The idea, Obama said in his speech today, is to automate part of the filing process. "The government already collects wage and bank account information," he said, "so there's no reason the IRS can't send Americans prefilled tax forms to verify." But that assumes Congress would be willing to put in the money to upgrade the IRS' sagging technology. Also, the five-minute promise only applies to people who take the standard deduction. If you itemize your deductions, you're still screwed.

Sure, young single people with one modest job and no dependents can fill out a basic 1040 form and be done with it. But for them, the process is already simple. (Is there a better argument for the monastic life?)

Obama also claims his plan would "save Americans more than $2 billion in tax preparer fees." This is great news. So, are the tax preparers worried? Cindy Hockenberry at the National Association of Tax Professionals doubts Obama's proposal would do much damage to the profession. When the IRS introduced its online Free File program, she said, tax preparers cowered, but "it didn't make a dent." It turns out that most people who file their taxes online aren't the kind of people who hire tax preparers. Same would go for Obama's five-minute tax plan, in all likelihood.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 18, 5:50 p.m. ET (link)

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"Nightmare" Scenario: The Giuliani camp just released a new radio ad responding to yesterday's MoveOn.org "Betrayal of Trust" ad, which slams the former mayor for quitting the Iraq Study Group to give paid speeches. (Listen to it below.) "Why is MoveOn attacking Rudy Giuliani?" the Giuliani comeback asks. "Because he's their worst nightmare. They know Rudy is a Republican who can beat the Democrats."

Meaning physically, right?

Rudy Giuliani.
Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani's ad will start running today in Iowa, where MoveOn is also broadcasting its spot. The two campaigns have been at odds since MoveOn placed its "General Betray Us" ad in the New York Times on the first day of Gen. David Petraeus' congressional testimony. Giuliani called that ad "disgusting" and ran his own NYT full-pager defending Petraeus. (See it here.) The new response ad quotes Giuliani saying: "These times call for statesmanship, not spewing political venom."

Rudy isn't the first 2008 candidate to run tough-guy political ads. John McCain's "Stand Up" spot, which ran earlier this year, features slow black-and-white montages and bizarre imperial music straight out of Command and Conquer. Back in 2004, President Bush ran an ad showing a family evacuating their house as a narrator intones, "Weakness invites those who would do us harm." But trading barbs with MoveOn is a smart way to show toughness without attacking a fellow candidate.

UPDATE 5:10 p.m.: MoveOn has upped the ante by expanding its "Betrayal of Trust" ad to run nationally on CNN. (It started running only in Iowa.) Giuliani's rebuttal, their press release states, "demonstrates that he can't answer the basic charge leveled against him: that he betrayed the public's trust when he went AWOL from the Iraq Study Group (ISG) to take on high-fee speaking engagements."

Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for the Giuliani campaign, says they have no current plans to broadcast the "Nightmare" radio spot outside Iowa.

Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 18, 3:19 p.m. ET (link)

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Hillary and Her 14 Kids: Today is Day 2 of the Hillary Clinton health-care plan offensive. This morning she appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN stressing how much her new plan is not like her 1993 one. She's got a Web conversation scheduled for 8 tonight and she's putting out a new health-care ad. Watch it here and see if you can figure out what message she's trying to send.

What did you notice? I was struck by the number of kids. She's got more of them in the ad than a Romney family photo. (Between 11 and 14 of them, depending on how you count.) Politicians have been kissing babies forever, but there's Sen. Clinton holding them, patting their little heads, and walking through a swarm of them. When she can't touch the kids, she touches the shoulders of parents who hold them. Beyond selling the program, the ad continues the effort to present Clinton as a warm, nurturing person. All those kids are also supposed to remind you that Clinton spent her early career as an advocate for children. (If you don't remember that, Bill Clinton will remind you.)

For those really interested in the messages campaigns try to send while promoting policy, examine the cover of the brochure (PDF) for the plan, which encompasses almost every possible family arrangement—young, old, couples with kids and without, and of the same gender. (The two women remind me of the Kashi box.) Posted by John Dickerson, Sept. 18, 1:25 p.m. ET (link)

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Sept. 17, 2007

The Populist Primary: Hillary took her time getting to the stage. It felt strategic, as if she thought the number of minutes that elapse before you arrive at the podium reflects how much the crowd likes you.

Or maybe it's just hard to move quickly with all that baggage. For one thing, Hillary missed the Aug. 1 deadline the SEIU set for candidates to announce health-care plans. Instead, she unveiled the last of it today, a move that was well-timed to coincide with the convention, but also way past the union's roll-out date. She also faced skepticism about her friendly relations with corporate donors and Bill's trade policies—NAFTA in particular didn't win him (or her) any fans among labor leaders. She went out of her way, therefore, to bring up her vote against CAFTA and her opposition to "fast track authority," which lets the president bypass Congress during trade negotiations.

In this crowd, the more populist the pitch, the better. Hillary slammed the current administration as "robber barons" who have "turned back the clock on the entire 20th century" and its government programs. But she wasn't the only one embracing her inner Huey Long. "I will tell you this," vowed John Edwards in this speech. "I intend to be the best union president in the history of the United States of America."

This game of one-upmanship launched some creative metaphors. "They say we're going to give labor a seat at the table," Hillary said. "Labor built the table." Edwards warned that if we allow insurance and pharmaceutical companies a seat at the table, "they'll eat all the food." Look for Obama to offer Big Pharma a highchair but no bib.

Hillary outlined her health-care plan, hiting the key points—providing preventive care, getting rid of discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, and bargaining with Medicare to reduce costs. She kept emphasizing "choice." "If you like your private health insurance, you can keep it," she said. If you don't, you get to choose from the "wide variety of plans" available to members of Congress. People cheered the policy points, but you could feel the room's collective eye glazing over. As usual, Hillary's strength was policy, not performance. And at a convention like this, stagecraft wins the day.

On that score, Obama stole the show. Edwards, too, had his moment, first by proclaiming himself the Best Union President Ever, then by proposing legislation that would cut off health coverage for lawmakers if they don't pass a universal health care by 2009. The biggest roar of the night came when Edwards urged Congress to send Bush a bill with a timetable for leaving Iraq: "If he vetoes it, they should send him another bill with a timetable for withdrawal." By the time the crowd stopped chanting his name, he could have walked to Virginia and back.

At the end of the day, union leaders invited members to cast ballots designating their first, second, and third choices for endorsements. Or members could recommend no endorsement whatsoever. We probably won't know the union's official decision for another few weeks. The SEIU's president, Andy Stern, has suggested they're leaning toward Edwards. But the option of not endorsing anyone appears to be, if not on the table, then at least near it. Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 17, 10:55 p.m. ET ( link)

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Labor Day: If you're a presidential candidate and you want a labor endorsement, you're going to have to work for it. Five Democratic hopefuls and 2,000 union leaders have descended on the Washington Hilton today for a conference hosted by the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU, which represents 1.9 million health-care workers, janitors, security guards, and other service workers, is the fastest-growing union in the country. Winning its endorsement, as Howard Dean did in 2004, is considered a major boon.

The SEIU cleverly uses the union's "Walk a Day In My Shoes" program, for which Democratic candidates (plus one Republican—brave man, Mike Huckabee) spent a day working with SEIU members, as a framing device. Each speech begins with a video documentary of the candidate's workday. Obama eats breakfast and does laundry with Pauline Beck, a home-care worker. Biden helps make repairs with a school custodian. Richardson assists a family-services worker. It's The Simple Life for politicians. (See the videos here.) The result is win-win: The candidates get to say, I know how you feel, this isn't just rhetoric. And the union gets a powerful series of YouTube-able photo ops.

Dodd goes first. His biggest cheers—and boos—come when he promises to overturn the Kentucky River decisions, a series of 2006 NLRB rulings that reclassified certain nurses as "supervisors" to avoid giving them health care. Dodd keeps reminding us he's been around Washington for 26 years: "I've been a union guy since I arrived in the halls of Congress. I'm a union guy today. And I'm going to be a union guy in the White House." He gets big applause for promising universal health care. Mentions of the Family Medical Leave Act and his childcare laws get loud response, too. He's a great performer, growling and barking like a union leader should. But he also talks like an underdog: "I know I'm not as well known. I know I'm not as well-heeled." Even though he got the coveted (and mostly symbolic) firefighter's union endorsement, it's unlikely the SEIU will throw its weight behind a long shot after the Dean fiasco.

Next up is Obama. By the time he's done speaking—if you can even call a shouting, rousing performance like this a mere speech—I'm becoming concerned about the auditorium's structural integrity. "I don't know about you, but I'm tired of playing defense," he says. "We want to play some offense for the minimum wage. We want to play some offense for universal health care." He does that thing where he leans into the microphone and shouts over the crowd's building roar. Whether or not he'll bust out this sort of roof-raising in Iowa and New Hampshire, we'll see. The "offense" tack has to be a jab at Hillary: She's spent the past few months defending her record on health care in the 1990s, and she'll certainly spend the next few days defending the plan she just unveiled. Obama, on the other hand, doesn't have to play defense, seeing as he has a much smaller record to defend. He goes overtime, but no one seems to care.

After Obama, Richardson feels like an opiate. Even the lines that should get big applause—"Bring them all home! No residual forces!"—receive measured response. Same goes for his big health-care moment, when he asks "Do you know where [veterans] will be able to get health care? Anywhere they want! Anywhere they want! Anywhere they want!" There's a moment where it just might turn into a chant. It doesn't. It's hard to tell how much of the tepid response is Richardson's fault and how much is an Obama hangover. Even Richardson recognizes it's a lost cause, saying, "You guys are really wound up, aren't you? Obama really gave a good speech, didn't he?"

Next up: Hillary goes on offense. Posted by Christopher Beam, Sept. 17, 7:08 p.m. ET (link)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.