Democrats’ well-timed remarks

It’s becoming a cherished tradition: When the Democratic presidential candidates gather for a debate, the Chris Dodd campaign breaks out the stopwatch.

It did so for the talkfest at Dartmouth College on Wednesday, and the speaking-time stats underscored that Hillary Clinton is the dominant figure in the race.

She logged 17 minutes and 37 seconds of air time -- roughly four minutes more than the second-place finisher, Barack Obama. Reflecting how Clinton’s been extending her lead in various polls (with the exception of that pesky little contest in Iowa), that’s a reversal from the figures for some of the earlier debates, when Obama led and she ran second.

One trend remains unshakable: Mike Gravel has a lock on being the least-heard.

The N.Y. Times Caucus blog offers another measuring tool: a word count. And what did we learn from a careful study of these figures? Well, even though Bill Richardson and John Edwards had roughly the same amount of speaking time, the latter crams a lot more verbiage into his responses.


No surprise, given Edwards’ past life as a trial lawyer.

Biden by the numbers

For an East Coast guy, Joe Biden showed a laudable awareness of a different part of the country. But a barb he directed at Bill Richardson left us wondering whether he’s lost touch with his own roots.

At a forum in Davenport, Iowa, Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, touted his experience in the executive branch of government (it distinguishes him from the plethora of senators -- including Biden -- he’s running against). In particular, Richardson extolled his efforts to expand health insurance coverage within his state.

Biden decided to offer his own contrast, this one on governing New Mexico versus the entire country. “My good friend from New Mexico, God love him,” Biden began. “His state’s a couple million people. Give me a break. He can pull that together. Pull together 300 million people. That’s like saying, you know, ‘I played halfback when I was in high school; I can play in the pros’ -- a different deal.”

His point sent us to the U.S. Census Bureau for its latest population estimates. New Mexico: 1,954,599 (Biden was on the money). Delaware (his home state): 853,476. It appears Biden has been playing politics in the ankle-biter league.

A forbidden step

Surrogate campaigners are usually a boon to presidential campaigns because they attract crowds and publicity when the candidate is somewhere else. Candidate spouses , mainly wives, are especially popular surrogates.

But every once in a while, an overeager surrogate or a political neophyte steps smack into a cowpie. Such was the case this week in the Barack Obama Iowa camp. In Davenport, Michelle Obama was urging campaign workers to, well, work very hard for a strong Obama showing in the January caucus. “Iowa will make the difference,” she said. “If Barack doesn’t win Iowa, it is just a dream.”

Iowa is about expectations, not necessarily winning. Some nobody can creep into third place and, because it was unexpected, be suddenly vaulted into prime time. Typically, the top three candidates emerge from Iowa looking good. The absolute last thing any candidate wants is to create the impression or expectation that he or she must win or it’s all over.

Out came Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor to say: “Every campaign has said it’s important to do well in Iowa, and that’s our goal.” And he hastened to add that the campaign would continue regardless of the Iowa outcome.

Money and boots

This should pay for a lot of phone banks and door-hangers. The AFL-CIO has announced that it will spend a record $53 million in the 2008 election cycle -- all of it for grass-roots mobilization. And it plans to mobilize an army of 200,000 union volunteers for precinct-walking and other get-out-the-vote efforts. Overall, it expects to spend $200 million on the campaign.

The labor group said it intends to target Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin -- core parts of the country’s traditional manufacturing base. That’s a lot of effort. But the problem the labor movement has faced in recent years is a membership drop and a failure by its endorsed candidates to win the White House in 2000 and 2004. But labor victories and Democratic gains in 2006 could provide a foundation for the 2008 cycle.

Thompson trips again

Fred Thompson didn’t exactly assuage questions about his attention to detail when, during a trip to all-important Florida, he appeared at sea when asked to comment on the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case that so consumed first the state and then the nation in 2005. “That’s going back in history,” he said. “I don’t remember the details of it.”

Also in Florida, he was taken aback when asked about the touchy issue of Everglades energy exploration. “Gosh, no one has told me that there’s any major reserves in the Everglades, but maybe that’s one of the things I need to learn while I’m down here,” he said.

Then came a question Thursday about his home state. The result: another whiff. Talking with reporters while fundraising in Tennessee, he was asked about a federal court ruling last week that the lethal-injection procedures are unconstitutional. He replied: “I hadn’t heard that. I didn’t know.”

He probably should get some points for not trying to bluster. Plus, when he’s not on the campaign trail, he’s still got his hands full -- at age 65, he’s the father of a toddler and an infant. And, more seriously, none of these recent lapses is especially bothersome, individually.

Collectively, though, they create a context that likely will magnify inevitable missteps by Thompson down the road. And, for a candidate whose late start means he has less time to hone a political persona, that cannot be a welcome prospect.

Staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report. Excerpted from The Times’ political blog, Top of the Ticket, at topoftheticket.