The "inevitable" presidential candidates were, once again, front and center at the latest Republican debate. While such attention is now the norm, this particular debate may be remembered for something a bit more telling.
As Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Clinton are, momentarily, the national "frontrunners" for their respective parties, they tend to co-star at many of the debates, both Republican and Democratic. Is this good news for their respective campaigns? Not if it brings unwanted scrutiny and they both go down in flames.
Years ago, when I worked on a presidential campaign, one of the senior operatives told me, "We can spin the outside world, but let's not spin ourselves." Each debate helps to demystify some of the Giuliani and Clinton "outside" spin, and in the process, to expose at least a portion of their soft underbellies to their competition, the media and primary voters.
To a large extent, fear is a driving force behind all campaigns. The Clinton campaign has real fears, as does the Giuliani campaign. Most of that fear — like a movie about reptilian space aliens — has to do with anyone from the outside world seeing their unvarnished and unscripted beings.
For the former mayor, Fred Thompson was only too happy to be the one to lift a corner of the Giuliani "big-top" and give the viewers a quick peek underneath. Mr. Thompson whacked Mr. Giuliani for having supported federal funding for abortions, for backing gun control, for voting for Mario Cuomo and for making New York City a sanctuary city. The former senator then bolded and underlined his point by saying, "He sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues." Clearly, that is a Rudy-Hillary kinship that will put off most Republican primary voters.
For Mrs. Clinton, her greater risks come in the general election. While she is still far from being the Democratic nominee (see President Dean), she has a clear-cut advantage over her rivals. Toward that end, Mr. Giuliani and the rest of the Republican debate chorus sang off the same boring — but potentially highly effective — song sheet. Aside from the usual mantra of "higher taxes," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may have gotten in the best shot at Mrs. Clinton when he said, "She hasn't run a corner store, she hasn't run a state, she hasn't run a city... and the idea that she could learn to be president...as an internship, just doesn't make any sense."
While the Clinton campaign may not like such hits, it's not what really frightens them. No, at the moment — and until they win or are vanquished — what terrifies the senator and her staff are ubiquitous stories like, "Chinese dishwashers and waiters for Clinton." This is the saga of hundreds of destitute Chinese workers in this country who can somehow figure out a way to write $1,000 and $2,000 checks to Hillary.
The real danger in such stories is that they serve to remind the media and voters of past transgressions by "Billary." Those memories in turn create a natural progression of thought that could cause one to conclude, "I don't want to revisit the worst of the Clinton years. I don't want to remember 'Chinese' money in the White House, Lincoln bedroom coffees, or midnight pardons."
Beyond that, the Clinton campaign is well aware of the fact that 95 percent of the American people have given this election little or no thought. But when they do, Mrs. Clinton is very worried that a majority may realize, "We had George H. W. Bush for four years, Bill Clinton for eight years, George W. Bush for eight years and potentially Hillary Clinton for another eight years — two families controlling the Oval Office for almost three decades. No way. Just say 'No' to Hillary."
To deflect some of that thinking, Clinton pollster Mark Penn recently spun the outside world and his own campaign when he said that as many as 25 percent of Republican women would vote for Hillary in the general election. Really? Democratic men and women I chat with in Washington privately wonder if America is "mature" enough to vote for a woman quite yet.
No matter. Hillary and Rudy starred in yet another debate. The process moves forward, the primaries and general election loom, and the words of a distinguished New Yorker hang in the air.
During his first inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rallied a nation with the words, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." For Hillary and Rudy, the only thing they have to fear is buyer's remorse setting in and keeping them from their first inaugural address. Don't monogram those White House towels just yet.