Political Capital with John Harwood

Back in Action

Even on vacation in Alaska last week, I couldn't avoid the news about politics and money fom back in Washington. After taking my kids to see the sea lions and seals at the splendid Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, I looked in the local newspaper box and saw a headline declaring that the investigations of Sen. Ted Stevens and his son have extended to the SeaLife Center itself.

There isn't much in Alaska that the veteran Republican hasn't gotten earmarked money for -- to the benefit of his state, but lately, the detriment of a Republican Party whose conservative base has been roiled by corruption probes and spending excess.

Mitt Romney's Economic Wizards

And of course, I couldn't miss the other two big developments of the past week:

-- Karl Rove's departure from the White House. Given his closeness to President Bush -- a tighter relationship than James Carville ever had with Bill Clinton -- I had actually expected Rove to remain in the administration to the very end. But that fact that he will not underscores the fact that, for all practical purposes, the affirmative phase of the Bush presidency is over. About all that's left for the president now is sustaininh his Iraq policy and trying to unite his fractured GOP by playing veto-defense against Congressional Democrats on taxes and spending.

-- Mitt Romney's win in the Iowa straw poll. Less impressive than it would have been had Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and Fred Thompson all competed against him, to be sure. But the fact that they didn't compete and left the field to him says a lot about what Romney's campaign has done well this year -- build both organizational and popular support in the key early states while raising money and spending his own at impressive clips. And nothing enhances a campaign in voters' eyes like a victory of any kind.

One second-order question about the straw poll -- whether former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee can convert his strong runner-up performance in the straw poll into some sort of traction. Tommy Thompson has already left the race, and no one would be surprised if Sen. Sam Brownback, after losing to Hucakee in Ames, follows suit in coming weeks. A small opening for Huckabee, who is well-regarded among religious conservatives, but an opening nonetheless.

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