Sunday, September 30, 2007

Beltway bets

It was like popping into an airport bar to catch the playoffs and finding a stranded Joe Buck and Tim McCarver perched on stools, offering their play-by-play to a select crowd that happily included you. In the dullest of years, attending the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference makes you feel like a Washington insider. Catching the annual political download at a time like the present, when the presidential race is fuzzier than Phil Spector’s hair, was akin to getting a D.C. zip code. Elsewhere in the nation, pundits may still be wrangling over which candidates will get the nominations of their respective parties. But everyone inside the Beltway seems to have a solid hold on who the final contestants will be. And the wonks gladly shared that information with restaurateurs attending last week’s conference.

Almost certain to top the Democratic ticket, presenters agreed, is Hillary—though Mike McCurry, a former press secretary for her husband, added a major asterisk. If her performance in the early bell weather primaries suggests she can’t win the general election, the party faithful will likely abandon her for more of a centrist candidate like John Edwards. Why put money and party machinery behind such a polarizing force?

For that reason, Clinton’s chances of returning to the White House were portrayed as unlikely.

Likely to face her in the general election, McCurry and successor Ari Fleischer both noted, will either be Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson. In further analyzing the situation, the former presidential spokesmen noted that Thompson is the Great Unknown, with the mien and outsider credentials of the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. But, as Fleischer said, the question is, “is there any there there?” Is Thompson an actor playing a role, or a genuinely wise, principled conservative of impeccable integrity?

Romney was likened to the Energizer Bunny, the battery-charged, in-the-pink phenom who just keeps going and going and going. They noted that he also has solid business experience, having founded the private-equity behemoth Bain Capital. Yet nothing was said of his political stance, perhaps because it’s changed like the seasons since he caught the attention of Massachusetts voters in his run for governor. Other pundits have noted that the voting public of that state hardly match the political composition of the national populace.

And that left Giuliani, about whom they said virtually nothing positive or negative. Which, judging from some of the other political handicapping that was offered aloud during the conference, is the modern-day equivalent of having FDR’s oratorical skills, JFK’s money, and OTB’s designation as a favorite.

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