Today, we debut our first ever column within the confines of The Hotline. Penned by once-and-future GOP strategist Mike Murphy, the witty wordsmith will do what we enjoy doing best -— “Backseat Drive” the ’04 Dem WH race.

Murphy, a veteran of many WH campaigns (including Lamar Alexander in ’96 and more famously John McCain in ’00), promises to keep the partisan rhetoric at a minimum. And anyone who has followed his career knows how much distance he keeps with this WH (or is it the other way around). And with the competition so fierce in the “McCain Primary,” the candidates themselves might be the closest readers of this free advice.

Murphy opens his biweekly gig with a quick handicapping of the Big 5: Kerry’s got the “best label and Lassie’s endorsement”…Gephardt’s “ring savvy”…Lieberman will have “money and message”…”the doctor has a shot”…Edwards to be first on the air?…Who will be the late entry “super candidate?” (#12)

12 BACKSEAT DRIVING: GOP Strategist Mike Murphy Debuts As This is the first of what will be a regular feature between now and the end of the WH ’04 primary contest. GOP strategist Mike Murphy will write biweekly until Labor Day and then go weekly for the rest of the campaign. For those wanting to deliver Murphy some “blowback” to his opinions, he can be reached at

Today I begin the happy assignment of writing a sports column of sorts about the Democratic presidential primaries. My own history in the Presidential nomination racket has given me a decade full of interesting adventures; some of which have earned me enough, um, independence from White House favor and influence to know I can write this series of columns 100% talking point free. I hope to scoff at conventional wisdom, provoke, and entertain. President Bush is vulnerable and the Democratic nomination is worth having. Some observations about where the race starts among the announced field: John Kerry ‘s real campaign slogan is “Democrats, get behind what’s going to happen anyway.” Kerry wants the traditional front-runner’s slot and he’s claiming 57 delicious varieties of money, endorsements and N.H. advantages to prove his claim. It is a commanding position in the race, but loaded with dangerous expectations. If Kerry can hold it, he’ll win, but his bloodless
early performance on the message side of the campaign is a discomforting early sign. He may have the best label, the best can and the heartfelt endorsement of Lassie, but will John Kerry ultimately prove to be the dog food most dogs want to eat?

Dick Gephardt ran 15 years ago, got hot for about ten minutes, and then got clobbered. So now what? Heavy Iowa expectations and a dated story. Hmmm…don’t lend his campaign any money. Still, Gephardt has strengths. He’s the only candidate who has done this before. Ring savvy counts. He has oodles of time to campaign; no New Hampshire hand will be left unshaken. He’ll have a good meat and potatoes jobs and healthcare message. And while Gephardt’s “I have locked up labor” shtick is just a card trick right now- ASFCME is already blowing kisses at Kerry – his labor relationship is a plus. To grow, Gephardt needs to shatter the one-note Iowa trap he’s now caught in and start winning big on message.

Joe Lieberman ‘s name I.D. advantages as Al Gore’s former sidekick has put him in front in the early national polls. Years ago that could lock a nomination, but today everything is post-modern and being ahead in the polls is so heavily discounted it barely counts. In Iowa and New Hampshire the competition is polling better. Therefore, with a certain to melt name I.D. advantage and no geographic base, what is the Lieberman Edge? It will have to be money and message. Lieberman’s heart on the war is commendably closer to Scoop Jackson’s than to the loony grassroots of his party. That offers a hard choice: Does Lieberman run a conventional campaign like the others, but with less? Or does he run against his party as an Iraq hawk? That would be brave, authentic and the true McCain move. But McCain lost.

Howard Dean makes the Viet Cong argument. While Kerry, Edwards and the other Washington pretty boys are all busy blowing millions on staff blowhards in Washington the Army of Howard, pure of anti-war message and lacking expectations, infiltrates Iowa and New Hampshire. Dean has sold this stuff so well he is peaking far too early. A ritual press beating will come soon; Dean has about 16 positions on the top ten issues. Still, when was the last time a Senator won the nomination? The doctor has a shot.

Is John Edwards the Amazing Performer or just over hyped vaporware? Edwards’ Big Bang Theory goes like this: he rolls his act into River City and Mr. Communicator catches on to surge from Iowa to the South etc. Edwards will find it hard to sustain this big promise without signs of early success and so far he hasn’t found any. So look for early TV intended to drive up Iowa polling. Along with Lieberman, I think Edwards’ campaign could start finding the air getting thin by summer. Finally, some attention seeker will appear around Labor Day as the potential late entry super candidate, create a lot of buzz and earn the private fury of the existing field. Some predict Hillary, but until she divorces Bill and finds an up and coming Latino politician from California as her second husband, I won’t believe she’s running for President.