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« Strong Dem Runs In VA-11 | Blog Home Page | Clinton Targets Obama, McCain »

Morning Thoughts: Nothing As It Seems

Good Friday morning. Tomorrow's another election day, but with only three contests on each side, we're dubbing it Slacker Saturday and sleeping in accordingly. Before we get there, here's what Washington is watching:

-- Leading the news: The graceful and unexpected exit of Mitt Romney, who, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, told supporters he would stand aside to prevent "aiding a surrender to terror" that he said would come if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton became president. Romney's campaign got off to a great start in a classic sense: He was willing to build an organization, spend his own money to do so and build momentum while running a traditional campaign. But a combination of factors prevented Romney from realizing his potential, and as a businessman, NYT's Michael Luo writes, he decided to cut his losses.

-- Romney was dealt a bad hand, and he made some of his own miscalculations: Other candidates didn't like him, and he really had no ideological base within the national Republican Party. Contrast that with John McCain, who seemed universally respected by his opponents, and who at least had moderates and independents on his side, or Mike Huckabee, who only attracted ire from Fred Thompson and had evangelicals in his pocket. Romney never fully dealt with accusations that he was a politician of convenience, and it looked forever awkward to have a businessman try to fit in a social conservative's clothes. It didn't help, as Luo quotes one-time Romney political director Carl Forti, that the campaign paid attention to Rudy Giuliani as a chief rival and ignored Huckabee, who beat Romney in Iowa.

-- One thing that can't be overlooked: Romney's Mormonism was clearly a factor, the Wall Street Journal fronts. While it wasn't an overt reason for Christian conservatives to vote against him, it was certainly present in people's minds. Politics Nation spoke to several voters in Iowa especially who said they would be voting for anyone but Romney while professing their own evangelical credentials. When asked why, they maintained they would rather not say, though their implication was clear. Before Super Tuesday, one of the last images voters in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee would see was Romney at Mormon prophet Gordon Hinckley's funeral, the Saturday prior. It is ironic that Romney's Mormonism, in 2008, was a detrimental factor, whereas father George Romney's religion was a non-factor during his 1968 bid for president.

-- This isn't the last we'll hear from Mitt Romney: Four years from now, he'll be 65 years old, a full seven years younger than McCain is right now. He's suspended his campaign, which means he keeps his delegates as a bargaining chip for a primo convention speaking slot, and, if McCain ends up losing this year, don't be surprised if Iowa Republicans start getting early phone calls from the candidate who spent the most time there this year as Romney seeks their advice on a possible 2012 bid.

-- Romney's exit from the race is actually something of a mixed blessing for Mike Huckabee, who now has to beat McCain on his own instead of simply winning the largest share of a three-way vote. Plus, Huckabee has not won anywhere outside the South, save Iowa. The next contests where he might have a chance, in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia, are not favorable territory. Maryland has too small an evangelical population, Washington is all Beltway Republicans who are flocking to McCain, and even Virginia, Commonwealth native Jonathan Martin points out, offers more kitchen table voters than hard-core social issue voters. Then again, if McCain is assumed to be the GOP's presumptive nominee, wouldn't the state's independent voters head to Barack Obama's campaign, depriving McCain of those he needs to score an overwhelming victory? Chuck Todd thinks so.

-- Evangelicals have migrated west, too. See, for example, Rick Warren's mega-church near Anaheim, California. Huckabee could perform well in both tomorrow's Washington State caucuses and February 19's Washington State Republican primary. Half of the state's delegates to the GOP convention are allotted at each, whereas the state's Democrats allocate all their delegates via the caucuses. Huckabee's not going to win Washington, especially given the sheer number of the state's GOP establishment who will back McCain, but Christian conservatives are a growing part of the state's GOP electorate. That particular state's evangelical electorate will not have a dramatic impact on the presidential contest this year, but keep an eye on them as emerging trend-setters out west. If they take a cue from James Dobson, who endorsed Huckabee yesterday, they may turn out in larger numbers than expected.

-- On the Democratic side, Clinton is apparently back on financial track after an incredible two days of fundraising. After adding 40,000 new donors, Clinton earned $6.4 million over the internet in just two days following February 5. Staffers who once went without paychecks are back in the money, USA Today reports, and everything is looking up. Never mind, of course, that Obama raised $7.5 million in the same timeframe. What's behind Clinton's success? In New Hampshire, as women particularly saw the beginning of the end of a female candidate's campaign, they rallied to Clinton, giving her a massive gender gap over Obama. It would not be a surprise if the same factor were at work now: Clinton was forced to loan herself $5 million in January, and her natural base is coming home to make sure she doesn't have to do so again.

-- Both candidates are looking forward to March 4, when big prizes Texas and Ohio hold primaries. Clinton will begin to run advertising in both states next week, and they're already on the air in Nebraska and Washington, which hold contests tomorrow, and Maine, which caucuses Sunday. Obama is on the air in Louisiana and Washington, along with February 12 states Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. His aides wouldn't comment on future ad buys in Buckeye and Longhorn Country, though given the pace of his fundraising, it's hard to imagine he won't be on as early and as much as Clinton will be.

-- Political Lessons Of The Day: For months, this column was convinced that Romney was in best position to win the GOP nomination. His strategy of winning Iowa and New Hampshire and building momentum from there seemed the most sound of any candidate out there. Others argued for Rudy Giuliani, saying his national name recognition would carry the day. Fred Thompson had defenders who said the same thing. All three are now sitting on the sidelines, watching a guy who largely winged it on the precipice of accepting the nomination. Clinton, yesterday, looked like she was out of cash, but thanks to her strong fundraising performance, she seems, for now, back on track. The lessons: Even the best political plans often go awry, and as McCain has shown, more than just Lazarus have risen from the dead.

-- Today On The Trail: Remember when these ran a few paragraphs? Obama hits a rally in Seattle, something he's done a few times to packed houses and sold-out crowds. Clinton holds town hall meetings in Tacoma and Spokane, while John McCain starts with a national security roundtable in Norfolk before meeting the media, then heads to the Emerald City for a meet and greet. Huckabee heads to Kansas for rallies in Olathe and Wichita before holding a roundtable in Topeka and a rally in Garden City.