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First Primary Could Shake Up The Race

By Mark Z. Barabak and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — When Jeb Bush paid a spring call on New Hampshire, hundreds of Republican faithful crowded the venerable “Politics & Eggs” breakfast for a glimpse of the dynastic candidate many thought would follow his father and older brother into the White House.

Earlier this month Bush returned, trailing far behind in polls, and the audience in the same speaker’s hall was less than a third the size. The reception was polite, but no one was leaping from the folding chairs.

The former Florida governor seemed unfazed.

The contest, he told reporters before his latest stop at St. Anselm College, “will look a lot different when we’re gathered back together after Christmas and when we’re gathered in the second, third week of January, the fourth week. … It always is different.”

Indeed, New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first presidential primary, has a history of unpredictability, resurrecting candidates given up for dead, spurning front-runners or elevating also-rans with late-developing shifts in sentiment.

This time, the three contenders with the most to gain or lose are Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who share the same essential political makeup. All three are pragmatically conservative problem-solvers running as the “serious” answer to the combustible — and, they suggest, unelectable — Donald Trump.

Their strategies are also virtually the same: Survive Iowa, which kicks off the nominating process with its Feb. 1 caucuses, then win New Hampshire eight days later — or at least run strongly enough to emerge as the alternative to Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or whoever else stamps himself the favorite of social conservatives, who tend to rule the caucuses.

No candidate has spent more time and effort in the state than Christie, who was relegated to the Republican second-tier debate in November before a surge in New Hampshire polling placed him back on the main stage in December.

His roots in the Northeast help, as does his forceful persona at a time of renewed anxiety over terrorism. His endorsement by the Manchester Union Leader, the state’s largest and most influential newspaper, doesn’t hurt.

But more than that, Christie has been a virtuoso of the town hall meeting, a New Hampshire set piece that requires presidential hopefuls to take all comers until their questions, or the nighttime, is exhausted.

Christie, who used a boisterous series of town halls to promote his gubernatorial agenda — and build a national following — has held more than 50 of the open-ended sessions in New Hampshire. (Kasich has held more than three dozen.) An excerpt from one Christie appearance, where he delivered a passionate call for treating rather than punishing drug addicts, has been viewed on YouTube more than 8.5 million times.

“Some candidates can go shake every voter’s hand in New Hampshire and still lose miserably because they don’t have the ability to really connect with people,” said Drew Cline, the Union Leader’s former editorial page editor and a supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “There’s a certain bit of talent, charisma, charm that you have to have to make that kind of campaign pay off for you, and not everybody can pull that off.”

During his recent stop at St. Anselm College, it was Bush’s turn for the requisite grilling.

He sat at the front of a hall lined with photographs of candidates past, including his father, George H.W., mingling with supporters on the banks of a lake, and his brother, George W., smiling broadly at an outdoor rally.

For 40 minutes, the former governor answered every question he was asked: about immigration, terrorism, his Latin American studies in college, how he fends off fatigue on the campaign trail — a workout, including 100 sit-ups a day — and what historical figures or celebrity he would invite to the White House. “I wouldn’t invite Donald Trump,” he said dryly.

Afterward, he posed for photographs and shook hands with dozens of people who lined up.

Less than two months before the Feb. 9 contest, the Republican race seems unusually wide open, a fierce competition owing to the large field of serious candidates and the opening that Bush’s diminished status provides others on the center-right hoping to emerge as the GOP establishment favorite.

Polls show Trump leading in New Hampshire but averaging less than a third of the vote, followed at some distance by more than half a dozen others — Bush included — bunched closely together.

More significantly, the latest University of New Hampshire survey found fewer than 2 in 10 likely Republican primary voters had firmly decided whom to support.

(Barabak reported from San Francisco and Mehta from Goffstown and Manchester.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks about his plans for the U.S. military at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, in Charleston, South Carolina November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Drake

 

Trump’s Anti-Muslim Proposal Puts GOP In A Bind

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON—Donald Trump may be an imperfect candidate — he is coarse, impetuous, antagonistic — but he presents the Republican Party with a perfect dilemma.

For the second straight day, the world of politics was consumed with Trump’s latest provocation, a call for a near-blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States, underscoring the billionaire’s continued sway over his adopted party, its presidential candidates and the GOP agenda.

Many Republican were quick to denounce the proposal though, notably, not its progenitor, fearing a backlash should Trump become the party’s eventual nominee. He, is after all, the leader in opinion polls and a favorite of many voters disgusted with more guarded, standard-issue politicians.

“This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday … is not what this party stands for,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Tuesday after a meeting with GOP House members on Capitol Hill. “And more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”

Other members of the Republican establishment weighed in with criticism as well, including party leaders in three of the earliest-voting states, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa.

“As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine,” Matt Moore, head of the South Carolina Republican Party, wrote on Twitter.

Jennifer Horn, leader of the New Hampshire GOP, called Trump’s proposal “un-American” and “un-Republican.”

But the condemnations went only so far, as Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans vowed to support Trump, whatever their qualms, should he emerge as the GOP’s standard-bearer.

Even Jeb Bush, who called Trump “unhinged” for proposing a religious test on newcomers as a way to fight terrorism, declined to back off an earlier pledge of support.

“Look, he’s not going to be the nominee,” the former Florida governor insisted when pressed by reporters at a campaign stop in New Hampshire.

What, then, was his message to Trump supporters? “I’d love for them to consider my candidacy,” Bush replied.

The exchange captured the quandary that the GOP and its presidential hopefuls have faced ever since Trump bulldozed his way into the race: How to distance themselves from his inflammatory statements without alienating Trump supporters, or provoking him into a ruinous third-party run should he fall short of the nomination.

“A new poll indicates that 68 percent of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP & ran as an independent,” Trump posted on Twitter, citing a Suffolk University poll, as Tuesday’s chorus of Republican criticism grew.

The message, in characteristic Trump fashion, was as subtle as a kick in the shins.

Unabashed, he seized on the furor he created — and the wall-to-wall cable news coverage that followed — to defend his exclusionary plan and brush aside detractors.

“You’re going to have many more World Trade Centers if you don’t solve it. Many, many more and probably beyond the World Trade Center,” Trump said in a CNN interview, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

On MSNBC, he said barring followers of the Islamic faith from the U.S. would be as easy as authorities asking them at entry points about their religious affiliation “They would say, ‘Are you Muslim?’” Trump explained.

He cited the precedent set during World War II when the U.S. government investigated people of German and Italian ancestry, and ordered those of Japanese descent to be locked away in internment camps.

“You certainly aren’t proposing internment camps?” asked host Joe Scarborough.

“We’re not talking about Japanese internment camp,” Trump responded. “No, not at all.”

Such distinctions aside, Democrats happily piled on the Republican front-runner and his extraordinary response to the terror attacks on Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., a counter to President Barack Obama’s call to avoid targeting all members of the Muslim faith.

Trump’s emergence comes at a critical time for the GOP, which has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

The party’s political base of older whites is aging out of the electorate and Republicans have struggled to appeal to the growing ranks of younger and minority voters, a task that grows more difficult each time Trump gives offense to one ethnic or religious group or another.

“While entertaining for some, I and many worry about the long-term damage (among) younger voters, African-American voters, Hispanic voters, working-class voters,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist and political adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “He’s managing to alienate a little bit of everybody.”

Reed, whose focus is congressional contests, expressed concern that Trump atop the presidential ticket could undermine Republicans senators facing tough races in Nevada, Ohio and New Hampshire, which could determine control of the Senate after 2016.

He is not alone.

In a private memo recently quoted in The Washington Post, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee outlined a number of strategies for candidates to follow in the event Trump — “a misguided missile” — won the party’s nomination.

“Let’s face facts,” Ward Baker, the head of the committee, wrote his senior staff. “Trump says what’s on his mind and that’s a problem. Our candidates will have to spend full time defending him if that continues. And that’s a place we never, ever want to be.”

His counsel included urging candidates to mind their campaigns and avoid attacks on Trump, lest they backfire on the GOP.

Not all, however, were given to such restraint.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a presidential hopeful who has frequently tangled with the Republican frontrunner, offered his succinct view in an interview on CNN.

“You know how you make America great again?” Graham said, appropriating his rival’s signature campaign slogan. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”

(Lisa Mascaro and Christi Parsons of the Tribune Washington Bureau and Seema Mehta of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire December 1, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Iowa Continues Its Importance For GOP, Despite Spotty Record Of Picking Presidents

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Ted Cruz discussed the pain of his parents’ divorce. Ben Carson recalled losing a young patient in surgery. Mike Huckabee described the anguish of administering the death penalty.

“If that doesn’t sober you up to reality,” the former Arkansas governor said to pin-drop silence from a crowd of hundreds of Christian conservatives, “nothing will.”

It’s hard to imagine such a raw, confessional conversation taking place almost anywhere but Iowa, where every four years White House hopefuls descend to bare their ambitions, present their visions and reveal a bit of their souls in pursuit of the nation’s highest office.

They come and endure the relentless scrutiny, even though Iowans have, at best, a middling record when it comes to picking presidents, especially on the Republican side.

Since 1980, when Iowa held its first seriously competitive GOP caucuses, the first-place finisher has gone on to win the party’s nomination less than half the time. Only once, in 2000, have Republicans sent forth a winner to the White House: George W. Bush.

Even so, Iowa has been swarmed by Republican hopefuls this election season and has already hosted hundreds of campaign events, including Friday night’s “family forum” in snow-plastered Des Moines, where seven candidates fielded more than two hours of questions, including, “Where was God on 9/11?”

“On the throne in heaven,” replied Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “And the reality of it is … that God’s ways are not our ways.”

There are many reasons the candidates keep coming, including habit and the ease of campaigning in a friendly, readily navigable and relatively inexpensive state.

But the most important is this: Iowa will cast the first votes of the 2016 campaign, on Feb. 1, and whoever wins here will get a significant boost going forward.

For the rest of the field, a poor showing could effectively end their campaigns.

“Iowa is not a place that picks presidents,” said Drake University’s Dennis Goldford, who has co-written a book on the history of the Iowa caucuses. “But very often it decides who’s not going to be.”

That entails a certain creative logic.

One big incentive to compete in Iowa, despite the mixed success of past winners, is the fact that a candidate doesn’t need to prevail in the traditional sense, as in getting the most votes, to do well and reap considerable benefits. Simply beating expectations, regardless of where a candidate places, can be enough to claim victory and get a jolt of momentum heading into the contests that follow, starting eight days later with the New Hampshire primary.

“That’s really all a candidate can ask, is an early state giving them a chance to move on,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist and coauthor of a 2013 report on the GOP nominating process, which recommended preserving Iowa’s special place on the election calendar.

With just about two months remaining, the Republican contest is shaping up as a competition among candidates in three distinct categories.

There are the political newcomers — retired neurosurgeon Carson, billionaire Donald Trump and businesswoman Carly Fiorina — who are competing for the outsider mantle.

There are the practiced politicians vying for establishment support, chiefly Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. (Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is too unorthodox for the taste of many party regulars.)

And there are the social conservatives — Huckabee, Sen. Cruz of Texas and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — who are vying for the support of evangelical Christians.

Notably absent from Friday’s religiously themed forum were Trump, Christie, Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is concentrating his efforts in New Hampshire.

Paradoxically, the size of the Republican field — the biggest ever in Iowa — gives candidates more reason to compete, as even a small percentage of the vote on caucus night could yield significant reward. Simply finishing first in one of those three brackets would probably be enough for a candidate to claim a measure of victory and emerge as the front-runner among like-minded Republicans across the country.

“You may not win Iowa,” said David Yepsen, who covered all or part of nine caucuses for The Des Moines Register and now teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University. “You just don’t want to be winnowed out.”

Christian conservatives have long been a powerful force in Iowa, especially in recent caucuses when they boosted Huckabee and Santorum to victories in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Both, however, finished well short of the GOP nomination.

That has led many here, mainly in the Republican establishment, to express fears that Iowa could lose its coveted lead-voting status by backing yet another candidate who wins the caucuses but little else. (There is already concern the play for support in national polls, used to decide who makes the presidential debate stage, has eroded Iowa’s authority.)

The candidates most often mentioned are Trump and Carson, though some also worry that the pugnacious Cruz, with his undiluted conservatism, may lack the broad appeal needed to win in November 2016.

“If you’re the opening state, you want to give momentum to someone who can get elected,” said Doug Gross, a Des Moines attorney who was the GOP nominee for governor in 2002. “If you keep giving it to someone who can’t win, then you’re not serving the purpose.”

There are plenty, of course, who would argue that standing on principle is more important than winning elections, and some, like Cruz, who argue it is possible to do both.

But the discussion remains academic for now.

For more than 40 years, candidates have come to Iowa, braving winter storms and hecklers at the summer fair, because they know that reporters camped in the state will cover their events. Reporters, in turn, go to Iowa because they know that is where they can find the White House candidates.

It’s been a mutually beneficial, self-perpetuating loop that will likely persist.

“As long as the press thinks Iowa is important, so will the candidates,” said Goldford, the caucus historian. “And as long as the candidates think Iowa is important, so will the press.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

Republican Debate Dilemma: Echo Sunny Reagan? Or Go Negative?

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

When the Republican hopefuls gather Wednesday at the Reagan Library for their second debate, the presidential candidates will have a chance to discuss their differences over taxes, immigration, same-sex marriage and a whole host of issues dividing the large field.

But beyond disagreements over walling off Mexico or how the tax code should treat hedge-fund millionaires, there lies a deeper divide — a split that goes to the core of each contestant, how they view the world and the attitude they would bring to the White House.

Fundamentally, it is a clash between optimism and pessimism, between those channeling the anger of unhappy voters and those aiming, in the style of the sunny Ronald Reagan, for inspiration and uplift.

Jeb Bush speaks often of a country “on the verge of the greatest time to be alive in this world.” Donald Trump sees America “in serious trouble,” lamenting, “We can’t do anything right.”

The former Florida governor and the New York real estate magnate — one embodying the party establishment, the other a classic political outsider — stand furthest apart on the GOP’s spectrum of lightness and dark. But tonally, the contrast is not just between those two.

“This idea that we’re not great or that we have to make American great again — that’s not the issue,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, slapping at Trump’s campaign slogan. “We are great.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich suggested it was fine for Democrats and Republicans to disagree. But “I don’t want to be a voice of negativity in America,” he said. “I want to be a voice of positivity.”

Others deliver a harsher message, mirroring the widespread grievance that turns up in repeated polls.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose angry tenor has risen as his campaign struggles, assails fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, accusing them of cowardice and of failing to deliver the conservative revolution they promised. He vows to “wreak havoc” on Washington.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, his temperature set to slow boil, swipes at “the Washington cartel” and leaders of both political parties. He was apocalyptic in his attack on the nuclear deal with Iran: “People will die” as a result, he said, and supporters of the bargain will have blood on their hands.

That’s a long way from “Morning in America.”

President Reagan made that roseate tableaux the centerpiece of his 1984 re-election campaign, and it endures as a model of political buoyancy and radiance.

At the time, the country was emerging from the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, with a jobless rate approaching 11 percent — higher than it reached in the steep downturn under President Barack Obama.

A second Reagan term was hardly a given. But following a script drafted by his longtime strategist, Stuart Spencer, the president deftly managed to project hope and good cheer without seeming callous or willfully clueless to the pain many still suffered.

In a strategy memo that surfaced after Reagan’s landslide victory, Spencer wrote, “The tone of the campaign should be upbeat, but not so confidently optimistic that we are vulnerable to the charge we believe things are better than facts warrant.

“The future vision the president establishes should include challenges,” Spencer said, “but reaffirm our faith in the country’s ability to progress and meet those challenges.”

In a recent interview, Spencer said the strategy worked in good part because it reflected Reagan’s natural persona.

“He had that. He could be upbeat, could sound like a preacher because his style lent to it,” Spencer said. “It happened to be his true belief system. What you saw is what you got.”

Those who know their candidates say, they, too, are simply being who they are.

“Jeb Bush is an optimist,” said Mike Murphy, who is running a pro-Bush political action committee and has worked with the former governor for decades. “He’s running an authentic campaign as an optimist.”

No one, in turn, would doubt that Trump is anything but the born-and-bred, sock-in-the-nose New Yorker who burst into the Republican race, then elbowed his way to the top.

The country has changed vastly since Reagan left office. The Cold War has ended; technology has refashioned the biggest industries and the tiniest facets of everyday life. If anything, after an impeached president and unpopular war, people are even more cynical about politics and the political system.

“Americans want their president to be optimistic and bullish,” said Don Sipple, a veteran political strategist who helped shape campaign messages for George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “But in addition, you’ve got to level with people. In our current culture, people know b.s. when they see it or hear it.”

As they honor Reagan at his namesake library in Simi Valley, Calif., the Republican candidates will bask in the warm memories that shroud the nation’s 40th president. What will shine through strongest, though, is their own personal disposition.

Reagan, an actor by training, knew some things couldn’t be faked.

Photo: Let’s guess how many times this man’s name is evoked during the debate.

Lack Of Clear Front-Runner In Huge 2016 Field Highlights Fractures Within GOP

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Running for president is not quite what it used to be.

Candidates once had to rely on the support of party leaders, who assessed their electability; on a broad fundraising base to sustain them until victory brought in fresh cash; and on a handful of national news outlets to spread the word of their candidacy.

No more.

Major changes in the political system — especially campaign finance laws that allow rich people to write unlimited checks to certain political action committees — have drastically lowered the barriers to entry, as has the proliferation of social media.

“If you’ve got a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a millionaire to fund your ‘super PAC,’ why not?” said Jim Dyke, a veteran Republican strategist working for presidential hopeful Jeb Bush in South Carolina.

The result is more than a dozen declared Republican candidates — with others soon to follow — giving the party its largest pick of presidential contenders in memory and a roster of uncommon depth and experience.

What the party lacks is a clear leader in the 2016 field — or anyone, for that matter, who can plausibly claim a meaningful advantage — producing what is arguably the most wide-open Republican race in more than 50 years.

“You have people who lead in polls,” said Craig Robinson, a GOP analyst in Iowa, the state due to cast the first presidential ballots in just about six months, “but no front-runner.”

Indeed, an aggregate of surveys taken nationally as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire, the second state to vote, shows no candidate gaining the support of even a quarter of Republicans interviewed.

With the field likely to include at least four sitting governors, plus the ex-governors of three big states — Florida, New York and Texas — and four United States senators, the party hardly lacks for skilled and politically proven candidates.

The faithful will inevitably rally around the eventual Republican nominee, uniting behind the shared goal of defeating the Democrats in November 2016 and winning back the White House after an eight-year absence.

But until then, the supersized White House field points not just to the ease of entry but to the myriad fault lines within the party: between its establishment and insurgent wings, between social and economic conservatives, between its growing political base in the conservative South and shrinking toehold in the more moderate Northeast.

“We have polarization in the Republican Party,” said Stuart Spencer, a GOP strategist with more than half a century of campaign experience. “Just as we do in the nation.”

It is not unusual for a party out of power to look inward and debate what, if any, changes are needed to find its way back to success. (Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential contests and haven’t won a sizable electoral college majority since 1988.)

In 1992, after a string of Democratic losses, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won the White House running as “a new kind of Democrat” who was less beholden to the party’s long-standing liberal orthodoxy. He declined to spare a death row inmate from execution, hoping to show his toughness on crime, and vowed to drastically overhaul the federal welfare system, which he did in his second term as president.

No GOP candidates have gone as far as Clinton in taking on their own party. But several have nudged fellow Republicans in different ways: ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by urging the party to soften its tone on immigration, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul by advocating a less assertive military policy, Ohio Gov. John Kasich by embracing the expansion of Medicare under the Affordable Care Act, which is loathed by many Republicans.

While those three and others seek to broaden the party and its appeal, some rivals, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have suggested Republicans hold true to their long-standing positions and do a better job of turning out supporters who, they suggest, have been dispirited by too-quick-to-compromise nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney.

“What Jeb Bush is saying is that we need to hide our conservative ideals,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday in launching his presidential bid. “But the truth is, if we go down that road again, we will lose again.”

Bush, with his universal name recognition and ready-made national network of political and financial supporters, was once considered a strong favorite for the nomination. But his less-than-stellar performance as a candidate and resistance among Republicans toward the notion of another Bush in the White House — following his father and older brother — have pushed him back among the rest of the pack.

That, in turn, has encouraged others to jump into the Republican race, among them Kasich, who is expected to formally declare his candidacy by the end of summer.

“I thought Jeb was just going to suck all the air out of the room,” Ohio’s governor told a group of New Hampshire business leaders earlier this month. “And it just hasn’t happened.”

The last presidential race is instructive.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had lost his previous campaign, a 2006 Senate reelection bid, by a humiliating 18 points. He spent much of the early 2012 contest as a near-asterisk in polls. Still, Santorum nearly snatched the nomination away from the front-running Romney, thanks in good part to a lone financial benefactor who sustained Santorum’s campaign long after it once would have ended.

Given that experience, there is every incentive for others, including several distinct long shots, to hope they, too, can catch political lightning in 2016.

(Santorum is among them, making his second try for the White House.)

History is certainly on the Republicans’ side: It is rare for a party to win the White House three times in a row, and with President Barack Obama stepping down, an open seat offers added enticement.

“If you’re interested in running for president,” said Steve Duprey, a longtime New Hampshire GOP activist, “this is the time to do it.”

All but one of those seeking the Republican nomination will, of course, end up losing. But that may not be so bad, either: Save for the most off-putting candidates, the rewards may include higher speaking fees, a shot at their own cable TV show and maybe a slight edge should they run again four years from now.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Analysis: Long-Shot Candidates Can Boost Their Brand Even If They Lose

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Heeding the call of his own voice, celebrity developer Donald Trump announced Wednesday the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, flirting — again — with a contest he stands no chance of winning.

His declaration, with a grandiosity that has become a Trump trademark, did nothing to change the dynamic of a quickening and increasingly competitive race for the 2016 Republican nomination.

But in his loud, blunderbuss fashion, the attention-hungry Trump has underscored a growing phenomenon: Where long-shot candidates once ran to promote a cause — Eugene McCarthy, for instance, seeking to end the Vietnam War, or Steve Forbes pitching the flat tax — these days the pursuit of the White House has become a self-promotional ploy for some, exercised for fun and profit.

Herman Cain, a pizza chain executive, parlayed his snappy performances in the 2012 debates into a national following and a syndicated radio program. Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and diet guru, landed his own Fox News show after an unsuccessful 2008 bid; even as he mulls another presidential run in 2016, Huckabee has mined his support network for commercial prospects.

Others in the current Republican field — Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and Carly Fiorina, the fired Hewlett-Packard chief executive and 2010 California candidate for U.S. Senate — seem to have little chance of winning their party’s nomination. Each has done extraordinarily well, however, raising their profile across the country, boosting lecture fees and raising the prospect of other lucrative opportunities.

Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, and George E. Pataki, a former New York governor, have done nothing to discourage far-fetched talk of winning the White House; their trips to the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire have only drummed up attention.

Trump, for his part, has publicly contemplated a presidential bid in each of the last four election cycles, presumably less for the financial benefit than for the satisfaction of his ego. In 1999, he formed an exploratory committee that went nowhere. In 2011, he spent weeks weighing a candidacy with extravagant fanfare before saying he would not run.

In recent months, he began publicly musing once more about a possible run, wangling invitations to several candidate forums. Announcing his newly formed committee on Wednesday, Trump declared, “I am the only one who can make America truly great again.”

The general response was a combination of eye-rolling and derision.

“If Donald Trump is a candidate, why not anyone who made it to the finals of The Bachelor?” asked Marty Kaplan, a former Democratic speechwriter who now teaches at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Polls suggest there is little appetite for a Trump candidacy, his assertions notwithstanding. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found nearly three-quarters of Republican primary voters could not see themselves supporting the New York City real estate mogul and reality-TV personality, the worst showing of any GOP prospect.

But the nature of presidential politics has changed drastically over the last several decades — especially in the last few years — giving people like Trump the incentive and wherewithal to run even if they cannot seriously compete, much less win the White House.

Candidates once had to pass muster with party bosses, governors or other elected officials who decided which prospects had the combination of experience, savvy and potential to make them strong contenders. “To be taken seriously,” said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan campaign newsletter, “you needed political credentials.”

But the parties have shriveled as power brokers, especially in light of recent court rulings that have given wealthy donors considerably more clout.

The round-the-clock news cycle, perpetuated by cable TV and social media and their endless appetite for fresh material, have also made it easier to gain exposure and build a political following absent any political accomplishments.

“A candidate thinks, ‘What the hell, I’ll announce and get on Sean Hannity or Ed Schultz or some talk-radio program,'” Rothenberg said, referring to two of cable’s political show hosts. “It seems to have diluted the importance of what would traditionally be thought of as markers for credible candidates.”

The result can be entertaining, for those who enjoy campaign theater, but damaging to the more serious presidential contenders.

To gain notice, long-shot candidates have every incentive to stake flamboyant or extreme positions, forcing others in the field to respond. (In the 2012 campaign, Trump gave prominent voice to those who falsely claimed President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and was therefore not a U.S. citizen.) That, in turn, can color broader perceptions of the party.

There is also the matter of taking up space, physically and in the minds of voters; the upcoming presidential debates are a particular concern, said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist.

“Republicans learned a lesson in the last cycle about letting the debates get out of control,” said Reed, who suggested the inclusion of several less-plausible candidates overshadowed “the seriousness of the event” and created “a caricature that was negative for the party.”

The Republican Party has taken steps to exert greater control over the 2016 GOP debate regimen, limiting their number and giving conservative media a greater voice in questioning the candidates. But a decision on who will participate — and, specifically, whether Trump will be invited, should he run — will be left to others.

Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said “the networks will announce the debate parameters well in advance of the first debate,” tentatively set for August.

Trump — and others angling for attention — will doubtless be heard from many times before then.

Donald Trump speaks on stage with Fox News host Sean Hannity during CPAC 2015 (Michael Vadon via Flickr)

Nevada’s GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval Starts New Term With Tax-Hike Surprise

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

CARSON CITY, Nev. — If 2014 was a good year for Republicans nationally, in Nevada it was an election for the ages.

Gov. Brian Sandoval won his second term with an extravagant 70 percent support. Republicans not only seized control of the Legislature — giving them full run of the Capitol for the first time since 1929 — but also staged an unprecedented sweep of statewide offices.

Sandoval then did something uncharacteristic for a Republican, especially one in a state with such a deep and abiding hostility toward government: He called for the largest tax increase in Nevada history.

And he did so after nearly 80 percent of voters in November rejected a tax hike that, while differing in size and scope, was touted as addressing the same problem Sandoval hopes to remedy with his plan: the state’s woeful public education system.

“I know this will cause debate,” Sandoval said after springing his plan in last month’s State of the State address.

Indeed it has, along with a revolt by anti-tax Republicans, rumblings of a legislative recall and a man-bites-dog display of Democrats hailing the GOP governor and his brave leadership.

“The governor loves this state,” said Marilyn Kirkpatrick, the Democratic leader in the Nevada Assembly. “And he has a vision of what it needs to look like moving forward.”

Apart from turning Nevada politics upside down, Sandoval has launched a frontal assault against the Tea Party — perhaps the boldest in the country — in a state where the movement’s minimal-government philosophy has one of its strongest followings.

The showdown promises no small amount of political drama. The Legislature has yet to convene and already there have been intrigues surrounding a GOP speaker shoved aside for racially insensitive and homophobic comments and a lawmaker booted from the Republican leadership over personal tax troubles.

The latter, Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, has emerged as one of the fiercest opponents of the governor, rounding up votes to kill his tax plan even before the Legislature opens for business Monday.

(In a separate headache, the state’s new Republican attorney general, Adam Laxalt, last week joined a multi-state lawsuit seeking to overturn President Barack Obama’s order blocking deportation of millions of people in the country illegally. Sandoval, who was blindsided by Laxalt’s move, said the matter should be worked out by Congress and the president, not the courts.)

To a large extent, the governor is a victim of his own political success.

He was so popular he scared off serious competition in November, giving Democrats little incentive to turn out. The result was a GOP wave of such magnitude it surprised even Republican strategists; no one expected the party to win control of the state Assembly, where Democrats held a near two-thirds majority, but they did.

Among the GOP newcomers are a number of deeply conservative candidates with scant political experience and, notwithstanding Sandoval’s place atop the ticket, no allegiance to the governor. Many seem likely to vote against his tax plan.

Sandoval’s $1.1-billion proposal would replace the state’s $200 business license fee with a levy based on annual revenue and industry type. The tax on cigarettes would increase, and a 2009 tax hike that was supposed to end in June 2013 but was extended would become permanent.

The added revenue over two years would pay for a sizable investment in the state’s public schools — among the worst-performing in the nation — including an expansion of full-day kindergarten, more money for English-language learning and special programs to benefit gifted students.

Delivering his State of the State address, Sandoval crowed about Nevada’s comeback from the Great Recession, which hit harder here than just about anywhere else. He touted renewed job and population growth and the state’s attraction of new business, including a huge factory to make batteries for Tesla’s electric cars, which Nevada won amid stiff competition with California and other states.

But Sandoval said the prosperity would continue only if the state modernized its economy, ending its overreliance on up-and-down revenue from gambling and tourism, and thoroughly overhauled its schools and outmoded tax system.

“We must decide if [the state’s next] chapter is about getting through the next two years” of the legislative session “or about creating a new Nevada for the generations to come,” Sandoval said.

To critics, the tax plan sounded suspiciously like a ballot measure that voters overwhelmingly rejected in November. That proposal, pushed by organized labor, would have imposed a 2 percent tax on any business generating more than $1 million in annual revenue, with the proceeds going to the state’s schools.

“We saw voters basically say ‘no’ to the idea that we can simply raise taxes and spend our way to greater education performance,” said Andy Matthews, president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian-oriented think tank. “In the aftermath of that loud rebuke … the governor has basically proposed something that looks a lot like what got shot down.”

But supporters point to key differences in Sandoval’s plan, which they say makes it simpler and fairer than the measure voters rejected.

The governor, along with business leaders and prominent lawmakers in both parties, opposed the November ballot measure. But if one listened closely — Sandoval barely campaigned for re-election — there were hints of his far-reaching plans.

Meeting in late October with the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, Sandoval vowed to fix the state’s troubled education system and change the way the state’s penny-pinching government funds itself. Asked if that meant new taxes, he replied, “You’ll find out.”

While the backlash from Republican quarters has been fierce, Sandoval is viewed as politically unassailable. So critics have launched an effort to recall three of the GOP lawmakers who have refused to publicly oppose the governor’s tax plan.

One of them is Assembly Speaker-designate John Hambrick, who was hastily chosen to replace Ira Hansen, a Tea Party favorite, after newspaper columns and past comments surfaced in which Hansen, among other things, compared homosexuality to bestiality and wrote that African Americans were insufficiently grateful to whites for ending slavery.

Sandoval helped push Hansen from the speakership, and that too has rubbed feelings raw. Hansen claimed he was ousted over his anti-tax beliefs.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, whose job includes rounding up votes for the GOP leadership, said the governor was owed a respectful hearing of his tax and education proposals — but no more.

“We have three branches of government … that’s what the checks and balances of this country and this state are all about,” Wheeler said, after doffing his cowboy hat and settling in an office decorated with a lasso, among other western regalia.

He was undecided on Sandoval’s tax plan, Wheeler said, but appeared to have his doubts. Any law that passes, however well-intended, is an infringement on personal freedom, Wheeler said.

“This is the freest state in the freest country on earth,” he said. “And we plan to keep it that way.”

Photo: Curtis Gregory Perry via Flickr

Analysis: Big Obstacles Await Both Parties In 2016 Race For President

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Twelve months before the voting is set to begin, the 2016 presidential race is shaping up as a fiercely competitive contest driven by two overriding forces that — candidates aside — will go a long way toward deciding the next occupant of the White House.

Whoever Democrats nominate — Hillary Rodham Clinton being the heavy favorite — will face the inherently difficult task of winning the presidency for the party for the third time in a row. That has happened only once since Harry Truman was elected more than half a century ago: in 1988 when Republican George H.W. Bush succeeded President Ronald Reagan.

“People always choose, even if you have a popular president, the remedy (to) and not the replica of what they have,” said David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist who twice helped Barack Obama win the White House.

At the same time, Republicans face another wide-open contest for their nomination — and, with it, a gravitational pull from the right flank of the party. That wing of the GOP is far more conservative than the country as a whole, potentially making the winner less appealing to a broader November electorate.

“The stark reality that Republicans face is that the nation is younger and it’s more diverse ethnically,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist in Colorado, a state expected to be among the hardest-fought in 2016. “We’ve got to have a Republican who can speak to that reality.”

With each side facing hurdles, the bottom line is a presidential contest that could be the most competitive since at least 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in after weeks of legal jousting to break an effective tie and put Bush’s son George W. in the White House.

The Republican field is expected to be large and varied, including competing U.S. senators — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and possibly Marco Rubio of Florida; governors, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker; some repeat candidates, including outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, as well as Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida.

Bush starts out with a number of considerable advantages, not least an expansive nationwide network of donors and political loyalists dating from when his father and older brother ran for president and served in the White House.

He is also the favorite of many establishment Republicans eager to avoid the sort of prolonged and acrimonious primary battle that undercut the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, by pushing him rightward on issues such as contraception and immigration.

But it is too soon to call Bush — or any candidate, for that matter — the Republican front-runner.

The party remains deeply divided between its governing wing, which is eager to show voters that Washington can work to implement functional conservative policies, and insurgents such as Paul and Cruz, who favor a more ideological and confrontational approach.

“This nomination is going to be a fight,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “It’s not going to be a layup for anybody.”

Apart from their philosophical divide, Republicans face a country that is changing by the day, as Latinos and Asian-Americans become a larger and increasingly potent share of the electorate. Many are first- and second-time voters who have spurned the GOP, due in good part to the harsh rhetoric and hard-line stance on immigration embraced by some in the party.

Q. Whitfield Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster, says that Obama would have lost to Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 had the electorate been the same as 1980, when Ronald Reagan first won the White House. Whites made up 88 percent of the electorate then, compared with 74 percent in 2008; if the recent trend continues, the share of white voters may be 70 percent or less in November 2016.

“We need someone who can more appeal to working-class whites than Mitt Romney was able to do and more appeal to … Hispanics and Asians than Romney was able to do,” said Ayres, who has worked with Rubio in his Florida campaigns.

“Then we will blunt the effect of those longer-term forces that favor the Democrats.”

In the short term, though, it is Democrats who must overcome one of the most elemental forces in politics: the hunger for change.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month found that more than seven in ten voters wanted Obama’s successor to take a different approach from the incumbent, a not-unusual level of fatigue with a president deep into his second term. After six tumultuous years, even Axelrod, the Obama strategist, sees voters wanting someone different from the president.

“Someone who knows how to navigate the inside game,” Axelrod suggested. “Someone who’s a little less nuanced, less sensitive to the gray.”

If that sounds somewhat like Clinton, consider that Democrats often don’t settle on their initial front-runner, or else embrace them only after an extended primary fight. Moreover, after two highly conspicuous decades in public life — as first lady, New York senator, presidential candidate and Obama’s secretary of State — Clinton is hardly the fresh face that Democrats typically yearn for.

Clinton does, though, hold out the prospect of becoming the first female president, which, in itself, represents a break from the past. “If you want to seize the change mantle … that would certainly be historic,” said Don Sipple, a political ad man whose past clients include George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

Although no serious Clinton challenger has yet emerged, several Democrats have taken at least preliminary steps toward a 2016 campaign. Outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has been an abundant presence in early-voting states, and former Virginia Sen. James Webb has launched an exploratory effort. Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent who usually aligns with Democrats, has also taken preliminary soundings, and Vice President Joe Biden has yet to definitively rule out a run.

If Clinton were to stand down for any reason, the hugely competitive 2016 contest would grow even more so. “You’d have the wildest race on both sides we’ve ever seen,” said Democratic strategist Paul Maslin.

AFP Photo/Oliver Lang

Jeb Bush’s Move Ripples Across 2016 Presidential Landscape

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

By making plain what he has vaguely hinted, Jeb Bush has instantly scrambled the still-early 2016 presidential race.

Practically speaking, Bush’s announcement Tuesday that he would form a political action committee to finance the exploration of a possible White House bid is just a move — and an incremental one — down a path the Florida governor already seemed to be following.

It was a tiny step but left a big footprint.

The overt action banishes any doubts about Bush’s interest in running — doubts he himself had fanned by publicly equivocating about the personal toll and the political difficulties of seeking an office once held by both his father and older brother.

“The PAC’s purposes will be to support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans,” Bush wrote in posts on Twitter and his Facebook page. “In the coming months, I hope to visit with many of you and have a conversation about restoring the promise of America.”

The most immediate impact of Bush’s declaration falls on the many Republicans engaged at various stages of seeking the presidency. Some, like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, already formed such “leadership PACs,” which function as the equivalent of a campaign-organization-in-waiting.

Rubio, who was mentored by Bush as he rose through the ranks of Florida politics, seems unlikely to challenge his former patron in a bid for the GOP nomination, though a spokesman said Tuesday that his decision would not be determined by who else is running.

Considerable pressure will also be placed on those competing against Bush for the support of the Republican establishment. The boomlet behind a third Mitt Romney bid is likely to lose a great deal of whatever momentum it had. Others vying for establishment support, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a pair of Midwestern governors, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, will have to rethink their plans — or, at the least, the timing of their decisions — in light of Bush’s move.

One thing it is almost certain to do is freeze any serious commitments, financial or otherwise, from many of the party’s major donors, at least until Bush makes up his mind and the field of contestants is clarified.

That will free Paul and others, among them Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, to cultivate their distinctive constituencies among, respectively, the libertarian, Tea Party, and conservative Christian wings of the party.

Paradoxically, there is much that remains unknown about the prospects of a Bush candidacy, notwithstanding his household name and dynastic status.

The Republican Party is different than it was back in 2000, when it nominated Bush’s brother, George W., and vastly different than in 1988, when his father, George H.W. Bush, was the party’s choice for president. During much of that time, Jeb Bush, who left the governorship in 2007 after two terms, was out of elective office.

Many in the party have little use for the “compassionate conservatism” that George W. Bush promoted, or the pragmatism George H. W. Bush displayed once in office.

Jeb Bush’s moderate position on immigration and support for Common Core, a set of recommended national education standards, places him at odds with many conservative activists, a bloc that holds considerable sway in the GOP nominating process.

Bush has also pondered whether he can find joy in the ruthless and often mean-spirited business of running for president, a process that has grown even more relentless and caustic with the advent of the never-ending news cycle and hyper-partisan social media.

Presumably, his travels under the auspices of his new PAC will help answer some of those questions.

Meantime, on the Democratic side, the waiting for Hillary Clinton continues.

Blue Texas? With Democrat Wendy Davis Struggling In Governor’s race, It Seems Improbable

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

AUSTIN, Texas — In a corner near the bar at a popular taco restaurant, Wendy Davis was holding the floor.

One by one, a series of television reporters took turns asking the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful the same questions about her controversial TV ad featuring an empty wheelchair and portraying her handicapped opponent as a hypocrite.

One by one, Davis repeated the same response: how the spot was about the right to sue for big-money damages — as her rival did after being hit by a falling tree — and not about Republican Greg Abbott’s disability.

That unswerving verbal discipline and Davis’ marathoner stamina captivated onlookers around the world on a June night in 2013, when she seized the floor of the Texas Senate and talked nonstop for 11 hours to block tough anti-abortion legislation from passing. She became an instant celebrity.

Magazine covers. A book contract. A national speaking tour.

Capitalizing on her fame, Davis leaped into the governor’s race and raised tens of millions of dollars from supporters across the country.

There was talk — mostly outside Texas, it should be said — of a Davis-led ticket helping change the state’s political pigmentation from red to blue, all in one heady campaign.

That, however, seems improbable now, as Davis faces a steeply uphill race she seems likely to lose, along with the rest of the statewide Democratic slate. The only question, many say, is how badly Davis goes down and whether the margin will help or harm efforts to make Texas at least somewhat competitive for Democrats within the next decade or so.

Davis asserts she not only can but will win the governor’s race Nov. 4, noting she twice defied pundits and opinion polls in being elected to the state Senate from a Republican-leaning Fort Worth district. “I have overcome those kinds of odds before,” she said via cellphone between campaign stops in Houston.

But hers is a distinctly minority view. A Davis victory would be one of the great political upsets of this young century.

It was never going to be easy, notwithstanding Davis’ devout national following; winning hearts and minds on the liberal Westside of Los Angeles yields precisely zero votes in conservative West Texas.

But in many ways her celebrity outran her skills as a campaigner and the abilities of those surrounding her, leading to several early mistakes that compounded Davis’ difficulties.

Inaccuracies surfaced in her biography, stealing some of the glow from the teen-mom-goes-from-trailer-park-to-Harvard-Law-School narrative prominently featured in coverage of her filibuster. (It turned out Davis didn’t spend all that much time in a trailer park, was 21 at the time she divorced her first husband and received more financial and parenting support from her second husband than the narrative let on.)

Her message to Texas voters was a muddle, and the ineptitude of her press operation both angered reporters and kept them from covering campaign events, hampering Davis’ efforts to become known in this culturally conservative state for something beyond the abortion issue.

Many of those problems have been remedied and by most accounts Davis has improved as a campaigner. Still, she will never be mistaken for one of the characters — think of the swaggering Rick Perry, or rapier-tongued Ann Richards, to cite two colorful governors — that inhabit Texas political lore.

“She’s not animated in a way that gets larger with the stage,” said Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist in Austin. “Put her in a hall with 500 people and that wow kind of goes away.”

But Davis is smart and substantive — even many critics grant her that, save those who demean the petite blonde with the label “Abortion Barbie.”

There are plenty of issues in the campaign and no end of disagreements between Davis and Abbott, the state attorney general — starting with abortion, which Abbott opposes in all instances, except when the life of a mother is in danger. (The abortion bill Davis temporarily blocked was eventually passed and signed into law by Perry, though portions have been held up in court.)

The two candidates differ over same-sex marriage, raising the minimum wage and whether Texas should issue driver’s permits to people in the state illegally — Davis favors all three, Abbott is opposed. They also clash over whether the state should accept federal money to expand Medicaid under the new health care law: Davis favors doing so, and Abbott backs Perry’s decision to decline the funds.

But those differences pale beside the brute reality of Texas politics. “Given the numbers, having an ‘R’ next to your name is tantamount to victory,” said Mark Jones, who teaches political science at Houston’s Rice University.

Pushing back, Davis has sought to disqualify Abbott with a harsh and relentlessly negative campaign, tying him to the cronyism that has taken root in Austin after years of one-party rule. (No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.)

One attention-grabbing ad accused Abbott of “siding with a corporation over a rape victim,” citing his ruling as a state Supreme Court justice in a case involving damages awarded to a woman sexually assaulted by a door-to-door vacuum salesman.

That charge and others resurfaced in the wheelchair ad, which accused Abbott of denying victims of grievous bodily harm the same right to sue for damages he exercised after being left paralyzed while jogging through a Houston neighborhood in 1984.

Abbott’s campaign was quick to condemn the ad as desperate and “disgusting” and even some Democrats cringed, which led to Davis’ recent stop at Guero’s Taco Bar, where she was seated among a dozen supporters — seven in wheelchairs.

After a bit of stilted small talk for the cameras, Davis did her roundelay of media interviews. “I stand by the ad,” she told reporters. “The ad serves a single purpose and it is to call Greg Abbott out for his hypocrisy.”

The candidate’s struggles inside Texas — to defend her judgment, to spur Democrats to the polls, to convince people the governor’s race is not yet over — has dampened expectations the state will be turning blue anytime soon. But Davis continues to attract a large and adoring audience.

Cosmopolitan magazine this month offered a ringing endorsement, describing Davis as “an American icon” and “a role model for the many who work to build a big life from a difficult place.” In less than two weeks, the editorial was shared on social media 1.6 million times.

Photo: The Texas Tribune via Flickr

A Billionaire’s Climate Change Crusade

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Tom Steyer wants to save the planet, but first he wants to know about the U.S. Senate race in Iowa.

Seated in a hotel coffee shop, with a packet of data in his lap, he bursts with questions for the political strategists arrayed around the table: How many early voters? How many undecided? How much spending on persuasion and how much turning out the environmental-minded vote?

Later, touring an eco-friendly farm, Steyer asks about the compost used to grow the organic figs and wild berries. Is manure part of the mix?

In short order, the inquisitive San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire has become one of the most powerful players in American politics, sinking tens of millions of his fortune into boosting Democrats and trying to elevate global warming from a political afterthought into a top-tier issue.

He’s built an organization that includes some of the country’s top campaign strategists. He’s won a following among environmental activists thrilled at his free-spending ways — he’s drawn at least $40 million from his own checkbook this election cycle — and recruited a nationwide legion of green-thinking volunteers.

His political organization, NextGen Climate Action, is focused on seven campaigns across the country: U.S. Senate contests in Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire and Michigan and gubernatorial races in Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania. He’s also invested in some state legislative races, including Democratic efforts to win back a two-thirds majority in California.

In the process Steyer has drawn the enmity of conservatives, who paint him as the epitome of smug I-know-what’s-best-for-you liberalism: a radical leftist billionaire hypocrite who wants to kill jobs and raise gas prices while perched snugly in his Sea Cliff mansion. He’s even inspired the Republican Party to create a website, MeetTomSteyer, devoted entirely to disparaging “Steyer the Liar.”

Through it all he displays the casual comportment and breezy self-assurance of someone rich enough to treat money as though it doesn’t really matter. He professes to be quite comfortable on the receiving end of attacks, the product of an age when deep-pocketed donors such as Steyer on the left and the Koch brothers on the right are often higher-profile targets than those seeking office. “This is full-contact sports, and … people are going to say nasty things about me,” Steyer says with a shrug.

Although his efforts so far appear unavailing — polls consistently show climate change low on the list of voter priorities — he is determined to inject the issue into the next presidential race and is talked about as a possible 2018 candidate for governor of California, where he honed his advocacy by pushing through ballot measures on taxes and climate change.

All of which raise a number of questions for Steyer himself: What do issues such as same-sex marriage and shipping jobs overseas, featured in attack ads he’s paid for in Colorado and Iowa, have to do with climate change? Has Steyer hurt his credibility with claims that fact-checkers have deemed misleading and even patently false, such as an ad suggesting Florida’s governor was soft on polluters who enriched his campaign? And how much of his conservationist crusade is about him and a future run for office?

Working his way through a cheeseburger, Steyer defends his advertising. “I have not seen anything … that I did not think was supportable,” he says.

And he rules out a gubernatorial bid — sort of. “I have no plans,” he insists, “and that’s no joke.”

He has come a long way from his first campaign experience, as a lowly fundraiser for Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential race, when he was shocked by the casual cruelty of politics. Presented with one of the attack mailers he has paid for against Joni Ernst, Iowa’s Republican Senate candidate, Steyer throws his head back and laughs, a deep throaty chortle.

He waves it merrily, then returns to performance metrics. “What,” he demands of his Iowa campaign team, “do you think the delta will be for our effort?”

Part of the Steyer lore is the role of unassuming billionaire, and he is easygoing and approachable as he chats up small groups of college students across Iowa.

On Day Two of his state tour he wears the same toad-green sport coat, frayed-at-the-cuff khakis and signature tie, a red tartan plaid, as the day before. He may be the country’s biggest individual political donor this year, but no one looks twice as Steyer strolls across campus.

Climate change, Steyer tells his young audiences, is the seismic issue of our day, akin to being on the right side of the American Revolution or the Civil War. But “it’s not just a question of understanding,” he tells an earnest group of Iowa State volunteers. “It’s a question of thinking that it’s important.”

Steyer has some way to go in convincing Americans of that; even his lavish spending is not likely to make climate change the deciding factor in any of the U.S. Senate or gubernatorial contests he’s targeted.

“I would say it’s near the bottom of issues people are motivated by,” said Andrew Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, who has been sampling opinion in the state for well over a decade.

Others say the same. “If your life is fine and you’re not worried about next week’s paycheck … and you’re not buried in student loans, you’ve got the luxury to think about global warming,” said Michael Fraioli, a longtime Democratic strategist working on several campaigns this year. “But if you’re worried about next week, or what happens six months from now, you’ve got more immediate concerns.”

Steyer doesn’t entirely disagree.

The states he aimed at are places where Democrats can talk about climate change without the risk they face in, say, conservative-leaning Louisiana, Kentucky or Georgia, which also have highly competitive Senate races. His absence there is tacit admission that, whatever the merits Steyer sees in his argument, the politics are not yet on his side.

That also explains NextGen’s far-afield advertising, on issues including jobs and contraception, which are much more likely to stir Democratic voters than global warming.

Steyer suggests there is a connection, that candidates he deems wrong on such issues as birth control are probably also wrong on climate change. “If you’re too extreme,” he says, “these things all go together.”

After a privileged upbringing on New York’s Upper East Side, college at Yale and then Stanford business school, Steyer passed through the wealth-creating portals of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs before moving to California and founding his own hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management, in 1986.

Part of his fortune comes from investments in companies Steyer now blames for global warming, though he says he is 100 percent divested from fossil fuels after The New York Times and The Washington Post this year detailed his financial ties to coal mines and other polluters. “I’m trying to at least be congruent and consistent in what I do,” he says.

Steyer, a longtime Democratic donor, financed a 2010 California ballot measure that successfully beat back repeal of the state’s landmark law fighting climate change, and another in 2012 that hiked taxes $1 billion for out-of-state corporations to pay for conservation and alternative energy programs.

What really drew notice, though, was a stated intention this spring to spend $100 million — half Steyer’s money, half raised from supporters — to make global warming an overriding issue in the midterm election. Fundraising has fallen drastically short of that goal, however; the NextGen political action committee collected nearly $43 million through August, the end of the last reporting period, and all but about $2 million of that came from Steyer.

He now says he has no idea where the $100 million figure originated, blaming “somebody I don’t know who has never owned up to it.”

Actually, Steyer’s political strategists suggested the sum, both in public and private.

“Things change and the budget changes,” he says, striding unperturbed across the rainy University of Iowa campus to thank another group of volunteers. “We are going to be able to do what we need to do.”

He also cautions against drawing conclusions before all the votes are cast and the postelection data are crunched. “It ain’t over until it’s over,” Steyer says, suggesting his efforts could make a meaningful difference in November in, say, a close governor’s race in Florida, or the hard-fought Senate contest here in Iowa.

He calls this “one round of what we’re doing.” Already, Steyer’s hoping to build on this year’s efforts in 2016, when not just the Senate but the White House will be up for grabs.

Photo: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Hillary Clinton Returns To Iowa, Drops Hints About 2016 Intentions

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

INDIANOLA, Iowa — Hillary Rodham Clinton returned Sunday to Iowa for the first time since her devastating loss in the state’s 2008 presidential caucuses and dropped a few hints but nothing definite about her intentions regarding another run in 2016.

“I’m back,” the former secretary of State said as she greeted an audience of several thousand Democratic activists gathered on a sodden hot-air-balloon field outside Des Moines for the annual steak fry hosted by retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.

“It is true. I am thinking about it,” Clinton said, without saying exactly what she meant by “it.” The crowd knew, however, and roared.

“But for today, that is not why I’m here,” Clinton went on, as the audience groaned. “I’m here for the steak.”

When last seen in Iowa, Clinton had just finished a humiliating third in the caucuses, the kickoff event of the presidential nominating season; the debacle helped sink her front-running campaign.

This appearance, at which Clinton was accompanied by her husband, the former president, was her most overt political outing since she stepped down as secretary of State in early 2013. If her remarks were a preview of a presidential stump speech, her second White House bid will sound much like Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

The former first lady even used a line — championing hard-pressed Americans who “work hard and play by the rules” — that was a Bill Clinton signature. “We Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, equal pay, making college affordable, growing the economy to benefit everyone,” Hillary Clinton said.

She was careful to cant her statements toward the midterm election in November, endorsing Iowa’s Democratic ticket and urging the audience to take the contest as seriously as the next presidential race.

Each generation of Americans has done better than the one before, Clinton said, in remarks greeted politely but without terrific enthusiasm. “That’s what our country must be again,” she said. “That’s what this election is really about.”

In his speech, which clocked in just short of his wife’s 20-minute-plus remarks, the former president praised Harkin, spoke at length about his own accomplishments, and cast Republicans as standing in the way of the nation’s progress. “We’ve got to pull this country together to push this country forward,” Bill Clinton said.

Hillary Clinton’s appearance drew a small army of political journalists from around the world and an even larger contingent of Clinton supporters, rallying beneath the banner of “Ready for Hillary,” the name of a national group taking names, raising money and serving as a sort of campaign organization-in-waiting.

Although the day was supposed to be a tribute to Harkin, the Democrat who is stepping down after 40 years in Washington, it became, in effect, a gigantic pro-Clinton rally. Surrounding roads and the perimeter fence were papered with white-and-blue signs that said simply “Ready” — a message clearly understood by all in attendance.

For some, it was a reunion of sorts, albeit distant. Clair Celsi, a Clinton precinct captain in 2008, showed up in a T-shirt from that unsuccessful campaign, her chest plastered with Hillary stickers. Her hope, Celsi said, was that Clinton would look out on a sea of blue and fluorescent green “Ready” T-shirts and “take comfort knowing we’re more ready for her at the grass roots” than the last time she ran.

That said, Celsi cautioned that Clinton would need to conduct a different sort of Iowa campaign than the last, which suffered from a distinct whiff of entitlement. “She can’t swoop in again, D.C.-style,” Celsi said, noting voters here expect to meet presidential candidates up close and often.

There’s no choice, Celsi said. “After losing the last time she probably never wanted to come back to Iowa, but we’re still in the No. 1 spot. You have to play in Iowa.”

As if to answer Celsi’s criticism, Hillary Clinton spent a good half-hour after Sunday’s event shaking hands, taking pictures and signing placards for guests. She gave no further insight into her 2016 plans, but played along with those who urged her into the race.

“We’re so ready!” one fan told her.

“Thank you very much!” Clinton replied happily.

“Can I call you Madam President yet?” a man asked. “No,” Clinton replied good-naturedly. “No, no, no.”

Sunday’s cookout, on a field of brilliant emerald green, offered an Iowa restart of sorts, even if it was Clinton’s second steak fry — she spoke in 2007 — and her husband’s fourth. But she hinted the stop would not be her last.

“It’s really great to be back,” Clinton said in concluding her speech. “Let’s not let another seven years go by.”

Before speaking, the Clintons took their obligatory turns wrangling steaks as dozens of cameras recorded the moment and the couple ignored shouted questions from reporters behind a metal barricade: How’s it feel to be back in Iowa? Can she win this time, Mr. President?

Though bright, Hillary Clinton’s solo turn in the 2016 Iowa spotlight is likely to be brief.

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden is planning to visit Des Moines, where he is expected to address a group of nuns launching a cross-country voter-registration bus tour. Also Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a far-left independent who mainly votes with Democrats in Congress, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he was contemplating a 2016 bid for president.

He also appeared in Iowa over the weekend, but his visit drew only a small fraction of the attention devoted to the Clintons.

Times staff writers Cathleen Decker and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Thomas Samson

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Analysis: How Bill Clinton, Improbably, Became America’s Favorite Politician

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

When Bill Clinton left the White House in January 2001, Americans had experienced quite enough of the boisterous Big Dog and his unending dramas, both personal and political.

Republican George W. Bush defeated Clinton’s vice president and preferred successor, fellow Democrat Al Gore, in no small part due to an enervating electoral affliction known as Clinton fatigue.

It hardly mattered that the incumbent was nowhere on the ballot. When Bush solemnly pledged to “restore honor and dignity” to the Oval Office, it was widely accepted as a not-terribly-veiled dig at the adulterous Clinton and his carryings-on with the pizza-delivering intern Monica Lewinsky.

In 1998, the Democrats had managed the rare feat of gaining congressional seats in a midterm election. But that was more a testament to Republican overreach than a tribute to the soon-to-be-impeached president.

When he wasn’t battling to stay in office, Clinton raised money for Democrats but was otherwise of little political utility — in much the same way President Barack Obama finds himself battered and belittled at this unhappy midpoint of his second term.

All of which makes it rather remarkable that today Clinton, as reviled a figure as ever served in the White House, stands as arguably the most popular political figure in America.

It’s not just his desirability to campaign for Democrats who, apart from distant fundraising assistance, want absolutely nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House. (First lady Michelle Obama, however, is still OK to visit.)

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that, alone among today’s major political figures, Clinton is seen in an overwhelmingly positive light, with 56 percent approving of the former president compared to 21 percent who disapprove.

Those handsome numbers compare to Bush’s middling 37 percent to 38 percent rating — though he, too, has been rising in the public’s estimation since leaving office — Obama’s dismal 42 percent to 46 percent rating and overall disapproval of a pair of potential 2016 Republican contestants, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, seen favorably by 23 percent and unfavorably by 27 percent of those asked, and Bush’s younger brother, Jeb, a former Florida governor, with a 22 percent favorable to 30 percent unfavorable rating.

Granted, Clinton is the most spectacularly gifted politician of his generation and the economic boom years coinciding with his time in office make him look, in the roseate rear view, all the better and more accomplished.

His globe-hopping good works, doting fatherhood and distinguished corona of white hair all give off the rarified air of a statesman and that, too, serves to enhance his stature.

But in great part the Clinton revival and continued rise in the public’s esteem speaks to the way Americans prefer their politicians, which is to say retired and no longer grasping for higher office or mucking about in partisan matters.

Look no further than Clinton’s spouse, the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state, whose poll standing has headed steadlily southward the closer she edges to her own expected bid for president in 2016.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found those interviewed were roughly split, 43 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable, in their estimation of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

That so-so assessment compares to a 56 percent to 25 percent approval rating when she ended her time as secretary of State in January and 51 percent to 31 percent a year ago, before she embarked on a rocky book tour, began weighing in on developments like Ferguson, Missouri, and began other conspicuous moves toward a second try for president.

It is not just Hillary Clinton, though.

Much of the sentiment behind a third Mitt Romney try for the White House rests on his emergence in the last year or so as a kind of jolly-good-Republican, showing up to endorse GOP candidates with a gleaming smile and self-deprecating his way through interviews while disavowing any interest in another run in 2016.

That’s far different from the rough and tumble of a campaign, and it’s why people come off so much better when they’re not actually running for office. It’s like a new car, which begins losing value the instant it’s driven off the lot; the moment someone declares their desire to win office, everything they do and say is freighted with personal ambition and weighed on the scale of political calculation.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made a joint appearance this week in Washington, laughing and joshing like two old pals — Clinton actually has grown close to the Bush family in one of the more improbable post-presidential alliances — and the audience loved them for their bipartisan show of bonhomie.

All of which offers a glint of hope for the embattled incumbent hunkered down in the White House this sour election season.

In a column last spring, Yahoo‘s Matt Bai noted the kindlier light being shed these days on the second Bush presidency and suggested Obama take heart. “One day in 2022 or thereabout, he will get out of bed in Chicago or Honolulu to discover that even those who grew disillusioned now remember why they found him compelling in the first place,” Bai wrote. “There will be the inevitable chorus of, “Say what you want about Obama, but at least he wasn’t … ”

Just ask Bill Clinton, who proves there is such a thing as a sixth, seventh — or is it eighth or ninth? — act in American politics.

AFP Photo/Esther Lim

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Harry Reid Apologizes For Jokes At Asian-American Function

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has a history of insensitive and off-color remarks, apologized Friday for a pair of jokes he made before the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce.

“I don’t think you’re smarter than anybody else, but you’ve convinced a lot of us you are,” the Nevada Democrat said to laughter from the audience.

Later in the program, milling onstage as he was introduced to participants, Reid leaned into the microphone and quipped, “One problem that I’ve had today is keeping my Wongs straight.”

A video of Reid’s Thursday appearance was recorded by America Rising, a conservative group, and an account was posted by Time magazine Friday. Soon after, Reid issued a statement saying he was sorry.

“My comments were in extremely poor taste and I apologize,” he said. “Sometimes I say the wrong thing.”

In 2010, Reid apologized after being quoted in the book “Game Change” referring to then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as “a light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

In 2005, he apologized to President George W. Bush for calling him a loser. Reid has also raised eyebrows by dismissing then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as a political hack and commenting on the summer scent of visitors to Washington.

“Because of the heat and high humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol,” he said at the dedication of a Capitol Hill welcome center in 2008. “It may be descriptive but it’s true.”

Jon Ralston, a longtime political reporter and commentator on Nevada politics, seized on Reid’s apology Friday with a tongue-in-cheek tweet: ” ‘Sometimes I say the wrong thing’ would have been a great title of a @SenateReid autobiography.”

AFP Photo/Alex Wong

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Analysis: 6 Californias? GOP Probably Wouldn’t Be Helped By Bust-Up

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

As long as there have been state capitals, there have been people outside those capitals lamenting that lawmakers — in Sacramento, Denver, Des Moines, Atlanta, fill-in-the-blank — are too far removed and too far detached from the people and interests they’re supposed to be representing.

In California, those sentiments have animated a decades-long libertarian vision of breaking away a northern chunk of the state to create, in combination with a slice of southern Oregon, the locally governed, loosely regulated state of Jefferson.

Lately, the breakaway talk has centered on an improbable bid, pushed by venture capitalist and political dabbler Tim Draper, to splinter California into six autonomous sub-states, known as Jefferson, Silicon Valley, North, Central, West, and South California. Draper, who has submitted signatures in hopes of qualifying the question for the 2016 ballot, rests his case on a good-government argument.

His assertion is that the nation-state of California, with its 38 million residents and land mass of 163,000 square miles, is simply too big to reasonably govern. “When the people and their state are no longer in sync, and large populations feel that they are not being represented and when the state fails to provide the services that it promises to our citizens, then we lose our democracy,” Draper said in presenting the signatures his effort has garnered. (Details, such as how to handle those things that inextricably bind California, like the water and electrical supplies, have yet to be explained.)

There is, as well, a strong undercurrent of partisanship among some advocates of cleaving California; they believe that allowing the state’s more conservative portions to go their own way would revive the deeply troubled Republican Party and empower those red-leaning voters who now bob, unhappily, in a political sea of deep blue.

A new study, however, suggests that sundering California would be no GOP panacea, either at home or nationally. In fact, looking at voter registration and past voting patterns, the research suggests that under the multi-California scenario Democrats would continue to hold the bulk of state offices and Republicans would reap a negligible gain in the Electoral College.

First, a brief reality check: The chances of having five additional Californias joining the 50 existing states is about as likely as the late Don Drysdale returning to the mound and pitching the Los Angeles Dodgers into the World Series.

Consider: Even if California voters passed the Draper initiative, the final decision on busting up the state would rest with Congress. And why would a body that famously snubbed California by placing an earthquake research center in Buffalo, N.Y., vote to dilute the power of 49 other states by giving a bunch of Left Coast crazies another 10 U.S. senators to promulgate their odd notions of life and liberty?

Casting all that aside, University of California, Berkeley, researchers Jack Citrin and Ethan Rarick crunched some numbers and came up with the following:

Of the six proposed states, three would remain staunchly Democratic, two would tilt Republican and one, South California — essentially Orange County, San Diego, and the Inland Empire — would be highly competitive. Along with the majority of statewide offices, Democrats would hold seven of 12 U.S. Senate seats, based on the most recent election returns.

In presidential races, Republicans would improve their chances of picking up a state or two — presumably rural Jefferson and Central California — but that would not be enough to change the outcome short of an election like 2000, which ended, in effect, in a tie between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

President Barack Obama received 61.7 percent of the national Electoral College vote in 2012 and 67.8 percent in 2008. Under six Californias, he would have received 60.2 percent and 66.8 percent, respectively. In other words, Obama would have been comfortably elected twice even if California was splintered into six pieces.

Going forward, the study suggests, Republicans potentially could enhance their standing in the three “states” with at least a marginal registration advantage — Jefferson, Central, and South California — thus creating a “bench” of potential candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.

“Given the evidence that voters are geographically sorting themselves into distinct partisan areas, it’s possible that more conservative voters might flee the coastal Californias for a more conservative inland state,” Citrin and Rarick wrote.

But it is also possible, the study says, “given the ever-increasing diversity of the electorate and the GOP’s difficulty in wooing Latino voters” that “chopping up the state could produce not merely six Californias but six Democratic Californias.”

In short, dividing California would not likely conquer the state’s ruling Democrats.

Even if Don Drysdale did come back and pitch the Dodgers into the World Series.

Photo: Justin Brockie via Flickr

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Bill And Hillary Clinton To Headline Harkin’s Iowa Steak Fry

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

Returning to Iowa in grand fashion, Hillary Rodham Clinton will appear next month at Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry, accompanied by her husband in a double bill that will close out a decades-long Iowa tradition.

Harkin, who is retiring after 40 years in the Senate, has long used his giant barbecue outside Des Moines as a showcase and testing ground for Democratic presidential aspirants. The event typically draws thousands of party donors and activists from throughout the state, as well political reporters from across the country.

The Sept. 14 event will be Hillary Clinton’s first visit to Iowa since 2008, when she finished a dismal third in the caucuses that kicked off the year’s presidential balloting. The stop also represents her most overtly political appearance since the former secretary of state began edging toward a repeat run for the White House.

Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has appeared at the steak fry four times. Hillary Clinton appeared once before, in 2007, in the company of then Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Joe Biden of Delaware, among other contestants in a crowded Democratic field.

“What started out nearly 40 years ago as a handful of interested Iowans sitting around on hay bales, discussing politics, has grown to be an iconic gathering,” Harkin said in a written statement announcing the Clintons’ appearance. “This year’s steak fry just might be the best ever.”

Following on this summer’s extensive national book tour, Hillary Clinton is expected to step up her political activities this fall, campaigning for Democratic candidates and causes ahead of November’s midterm elections. A public announcement of her intentions regarding 2016 is not expected for several more months.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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Texas Governor Rick Perry, Others Cry Partisan Foul Over Felony Indictment

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

It’s been nearly three years since Rick Perry stood on a debate stage in Michigan and fumbled fruitlessly for the name of the third federal agency he vowed to eliminate as president.

Since then, the Texas governor has worked assiduously to restore his once-platinum political reputation — the Republican had never lost an election before his failed White House bid — and to position himself for another try in 2016.

There were issue tutorials and appearances on national talk shows, travels to burnish his foreign policy credentials and visits to key political states, in particular the money-lode of California and early-voting Iowa.

All that threatened to come undone with Perry’s indictment Friday on charges that he abused his office by eliminating funds for the state’s ethics watchdog, an office overseen by the Travis County district attorney, a Democrat and persistent irritant.

In a brief yet fierce appearance Saturday before reporters in Austin, Perry denied any wrongdoing and said he was the victim of a partisan persecution — a notion that drew not just Republican support but the backing of some Democrats and legal analysts.

“I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto and will continue to defend this lawful action of my executive authority as governor,” said Perry, who punctuated his vigorous defense with a frequently wagging finger and sordid details of the arrest of his nemesis, Dist. Atty. Rosemary Lehmberg, for drunk driving.

It was Lehmberg’s conduct and Perry’s subsequent threat to veto funding for her office that resulted in Friday’s grand jury indictment.

“I intend to fight against those who would erode our state’s constitution and laws purely for political purposes, and I intend to win,” the governor said.

By portraying himself as a wrongful target, Perry sought not just to deflect the damage of the indictment but to turn the episode to his political advantage, rallying Republican donors and activists aggrieved at the perception of yet another arrogant government overreach.

“We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country,” Perry said, echoing a cry that allies took up shortly after the indictment was unsealed. “It is outrageous that some would use partisan theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state’s constitution.”

It will take considerable time before the political effects of the indictment and Perry’s aggressive defense are known; still ahead is the prospect of booking, fingerprinting and a requisite mug shot, which seems destined to appear in campaign ads by Democrat and Republican alike.

Other GOP presidential hopefuls — Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — face their own potential legal jeopardy involving alleged government misconduct, so Perry is not alone in that regard. (Walker, unlike others eyeing a 2016 run, is also in the midst of a stiff November re-election fight.)

Against that backdrop, Perry’s political skills over the next days and weeks will determine whether he climbs back into the top tier of candidates, where he resided until his collapse in the 2012 campaign, or remains an afterthought or, worse, a lingering joke with the punchline, “Oops.”

In Texas, where Perry’s third and final term ends in January, the governor has been a formidable campaigner, commanding the political agenda and shining in one-on-one encounters. Lately he showed flashes of his old home-state luster, winning positive reviews from activists in Iowa and vaulting himself into the national debate over immigration with a strong stand against the rush of Central American youth to the U.S.-Mexico border.

But there have been signs as well of the more cavalier Perry, who by his own admission entered the race the last time ill-prepared and insufficiently serious.

In San Francisco in June, he tossed a bouquet to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton — “great secretary of State, first lady” — a line unlikely to win friends in a GOP primary. After appearing earlier this week at the Iowa State Fair, he exulted in his performance, telling The Des Moines Register, “I’m awesome!”

His indictment, of course, poses a much sterner, more consequential test.

Perry was charged with two felony counts that stemmed from his threatened veto of $7.5 million in funding for the public ethics unit in Lehmberg’s office, which oversees state and federal lawmakers. After her arrest, the governor had said he would zero out the money unless she quit.

“I exercised … authority to veto funding for an office whose leadership had lost the public confidence by acting inappropriately and unethically,” Perry told reporters Saturday.

Lehmberg served about half of a 45-day jail sentence but refused to resign, and Perry followed through on his veto threat, prompting a government watchdog group to file a complaint saying Perry’s actions amounted to improper intimidation. A special prosecutor was appointed and several top aides to Perry appeared before the Austin grand jury for questioning. The governor did not testify.

Critics of Perry note that at the time funding for Lehmberg’s office was cut, its public corruption unit was investigating one of the governor’s pet projects, the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas. Questions have surfaced regarding the institute’s funding and the role of some of Perry political allies.

The governor did not address the matter in his eight-minute appearance Saturday, but rather laced into Lehmberg for her belligerent behavior after her arrest.

“Stopped for a DWI with a blood-alcohol level almost three times the legal limit,” Perry said. “An individual who, when booked in, had to be restrained, was abusive to law enforcement, was kicking the door. I think Americans and Texans who have seen this agree with me, that that is not an individual who was heading up an office that we can afford to fund.”

Many of Perry’s fellow Republicans — including several potential 2016 rivals — rushed to agree.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has not had the warmest relationship with the governor, called Perry a “friend … a man of integrity” and used a Twitter hashtag to say he was “proud to (hashtag)StandWithRickPerry.”

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana posted a series of tweets defending Perry and calling the indictment “a blatant misuse of the judicial system by liberal activists who couldn’t defeat him at the polls.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose son is running for state office in Texas, called the indictment “politically motivated and ridiculous.”

Far more surprising was the support of many Democrats, who also questioned the case against Perry. Among them was David Axelrod, a longtime Democratic strategist and adviser to President Barack Obama.

“Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason,” Axelrod stated on Twitter, “Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy.”

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan