ABC’s Mark Halperin came through Austin yesterday to speak to a group last night at the Headliners Club about the presidential race. He began with a not so cryptic remark: “Yes, she can, and I have no idea whether he will or not.” It wasn’t hard to break the code for the first part, but what was he referring to with the second observation? Al Gore entering the presidential race? Bush attacking Iran? He then asked how many of the 100 or so people in attendance voted for Bush in 2000 or 2004. I raised my hand. From my seat I could only see about a third of the tables, but I didn’t see any other hands. Apparently there were seven of us. Halperin: “This is what passes for diversity in Austin.”

Then he moved into his discussion of the race. “Every source I know in both parties believes that Hillary Clinton is likely to be the Democratic nominee, and the Democratic nominee is likely to win the presidency.”

He noted the irony that if Senator Clinton (as he usually referred to her) becomes president, “Egalitarian America will have successive presidencies of Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton.

“Senator Clinton knows the way to win,” Halperin said, incorporating the title of his recent book (with John Harris), which is based on interviews with Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton, and, yes, Rove does get top billing in that trio. “She has chosen a la carte what worked best for Clinton and Bush.”

“For Republicans, this is an extraordinary election. Republicans always seem to have an annointed frontrunner, in establishment support, in fundraising, in polling, in buzz. This year, it’s divided. McCain started out with the establishment support. Romney has been the most successful in fundraising. Giuliani is leading in the polls. Fred Thompson has the buzz. It’s so divided that it’s impossible to know at this point who is going to win. Don’t write McCain off.”

Some of his general observations about the race:

* What is the country looking for? Change. This is a change election. This favors the Democrats. Of the Republicans, McCain can credibly talk about change.

* It’s hard for a party to win after a two-term presidency–especially when the president is unpopular. (True. Excluding Franklin Roosevelt, the only full two-term presidents in the twentieth century were Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, and of these, only Reagan was followed into office by a member of his party.)

* Voters should ask, Who would make the best president? (Not going to happen. Or, perhaps I should say, I don’t believe voters think this way. Partisanship, ideological loyalties, and emotional attachments and revulsions will trump qualifications every time.)

* Iraq will be the biggest issue, as it was in 2006. Rove argues that other factors were at work in ’06–the Mark Foley scandal, excessive spending by Republicans–but Iraq was the big millstone around the Republicans’ necks.

* The major domestic issues in the race:
–Health Care. “The U.S. is the only industrial democracy without universal health care.”
–Energy and the Environment. “No longer seen as in conflict.” (Halperin hasn’t listened to Rick Perry scoff at global warming.) “The environment offers new opportunities for the economy.”
–Economic Security. “Pensions, jobs, wages. Bush is not as good at discussing this as he is on other issues.”

On the lessons of “The Way to Win”

* You can’t run away from your weaknesses. “Hillary Clinton goes to pro-choice groups and says, ‘You have to respect the pro-life position. Everybody should work to reduce unwanted pregnancies.’ Bill Clinton went to gun owners. Bush talked about immigration reform and education. You won’t carry those constituencies–although Bush did very well among Hispanics in 2004–but you will cut your losses.”

* Reach out to niche voters. “You have to reach niche voters one by one. You can’t use the broad media. Clinton got two very important endorsements, Ambassador Joe Wilson and General Wesley Clark, and withheld them from the mainstream media. She gave them to the liberal bloggers, who are niche decision makers.”

* Learn from your opposition’s strengths. “Clinton’s operation is modeled after Bush’s: It underscores the importance of loyalty and message discipline. You want people who understand that the idea of a presidential campaign is to get the candidate elected, not make yourself famous. The Clinton administration was undisciplined and lazy. There was no loyalty or message discipline. People would criticize the president to the media.

The Democrats: The top three candidates are very strong. They’re hard to jump over. There are some good candidates in the second tier, but they can’t move up.

The Republicans: I don’t think that any of the four candidates can break out. I think Romney has the best chance because he is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he can write a check to cover the campaign.

[This was the end of Halperin’s prepared remarks. Then he took questions from the audience.]

Q. How will the change in the primary schedule affect the race? [Many of the most populous states will hold their primaries on February 5]

A. It won’t affect the race that much. Iowa will probably vote on January 3 or 5, New Hampshire soon afterwards. These are still the most important primaries. For the Democrats, if Hillary Clinton wins Iowa, it’s over. Florida (January 29) is probably the most important state for the Republicans. The press decides the meaning of these races. Pat Buchanan got 30% in New Hampshire against George H. W. Bush in 1988 and the press said it was a loss for Bush.

Q. It seems to me that we have increasing corruption of the political process by big money. Can anything be done about it?

A. The solution is transparency. The new ethics bill will help. Members shoul disclose their meetings with lobbyists, post them on their Web sites. Pork is repugnant. Rove is right–the spending on pork was a big problem in 2006. The candidates who have made corruption an issue are Edwards, Obama, and McCain.

Q. You have said that voters should look for the candidate who would make the best president. Who do you think would make the best president?

A. I can’t say. [What he meant was, “I won’t say,” because it could compromise his reputation as an impartial observer. He did say, “We have a pretty impressive group of candidates. A lot of them have achieved things at a world class level.”

Q. Will you comment on Karl Rove’s ability to sell George W. Bush to the nation, twice?

A. Karl took the Bush brand and leveraged the upside and minimized the downside. George Bush ran in 2000 as a different kind of Republican. A uniter, not a divider, a compassionate conservative. Then they defined Al Gore as a flip-flopping liar. It was very effective when Bush said, “I want to restore honor and integrity to the White House.” He understood that Republicans were willing to let Bush be a bit of a heretic in order to get to the center.

Q. How would you change the media?

A. Less of Brittany Spears. Consumers of news must let news outlets know that there is a market for serious news. Until that happens, the media will keep covering Brittany Spears. No one in our business can say where our revenue will come from ten years from now.

Q. Romney has criticized Clinton’s health care program, but isn’t it the same as Clinton’s?

A. They’re remarkably similar. [He went into some detail, which I will skip.] All the Republicans are attacking Hillary. The Republicans’ message is, Keep you safer, lower taxes, better values. If the 2004 election had been a referendum on Bush, he would have lost. Rove turned it into a choice between Bush and Kerry.

Q. Assess Senator Obama.

A. A few months ago, he was on a trajectory to beat Clinton in Iowa and win the nomination. He made mistakes, she didn’t. The thing he said about not using nuclear weapons was a rookie mistake. He’s not ready to be president. Oprah’s endorsement probably hurts more than it helps. He needs to be seen as ready to be president.

Q. Who are the contenders for vice-president?

A. Gore and Cheney were successful picks. The old idea was someone who would balance the ticket. Clinton chose Gore because he reinforced Clinton–someone who was young, good-looking, smart, from a Southern state, capable of being president. This year, the nominees will look for three things in a vice-president:
* ready to be president from day 1
* able to raise money (because the nominee may decline federal money)
* won’t make mistakes

Clinton might look at Evan Bayh. Obama likes Tom Daschle. She’ll be under enormous pressure to pick Obama, but she won’t pick either of the other leading Democrats.

She doesn’t like the way they’re running against her.

The Republican nominee won’t pick one of the other candidates either. They don’t get anything from picking any of them. All have deficiencies.

Both parties start with around 220 electoral votes. There’s not much to challenge. If Clinton is the nominee, there will be a gender gap.

Q. (Mine) Texas Republicans believe that Hillary Clinton will be so unpopular that they can wipe out the gains Democrats have made. Will she hurt Democratic chances in down ballot races in the red states.

A. Voters who are anti-Clinton will be anti for any other Democratic candidate.

And, privately, on the way out, I asked Mark, “Was the Bush that we knew as governor and who ran for president in 2000 the real George W. Bush, or was he always as conservative and partisan as he turned out to be?” Answer: “I don’t think most people realized how much he wanted to move the country in a conservative direction.”