Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has released a new video on unemployment a day after he was criticised as "out of touch" by the Democrats for telling a jobless crowd in Florida that he too was unemployed.

The video, titled 20,000,000 Bumps In The Road, attacks Barack Obama's claim that "there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery." A seies of unemployed figures in the film declare: "I'm an American, not a bump in the road."

The Romney camp calculated that "President Obama's 20 Million Bumps In The Road Would Stretch From The White House To Los Angeles".

2. Rising GOP star Michele Bachmann has received a poll boost after her impressive performance in Monday's debate. A poll of New Hampshire voters had Bachmann tied for second place with Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination.

The survey by Magellan Strategies put frontrunner Mitt Romney on 42 per cent, followed by Paul and Bachmann at 10 per cent each. Sarah Palin is on 7 per cent, with Rudy Giuliani on 6 per cent, although neither has confirmed whether they will enter the race.

Tim Pawlenty received 5 per cent in the poll, followed by Newt Gingrich with 4 per cent, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman with 3 per cent each, and Rick Santorum with 2 per cent.

28 per cent of those surveyed said that Bachmann gave the strongest performance at this week's debate, with 39 per cent preferring Romney.

3. Sarah Palin has made her first TV appearance since the release of 14,000 emails from her time as Alaska governor.

"It certainly shows the priorities in what was once a respected cornerstone of our democracy, our mainstream media and we see that priorities are quite skewed," said Palin on Fox Business Network's "Freedom Watch". "I hope folks who read the emails learned a lot about energy independence, fish and game conservation, protecting second amendment rights, why I opposed Obama's stimulus package." The emails were released in response to freedom of information requests filed by the media during the 2008 presidential election.

Palin also commented on the downfall of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned his seat after posting lewd photos of himself to women online.

"Anthony Weiner, from henceforth after his personal indiscretions were disclosed, he was going to be rendered impotent basically in Congress and he wasn't going to be effective," she said. "So obviously [resigning] was the right thing to do. Day late dollar short, though. I think he should have resigned when all of this came to light."

4. Republican challenger Tim Pawlenty has admitted that he was wrong not to challenge Mitt Romney over his support for health-care reform at Monday's debate. Pawlenty, who coined the term "ObamneyCare" on Sunday to describe the similarities between Obama's plan and Romney's, told Fox News's Sean Hannity: "I should have been much more clear during the debate ... I don't think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of ObamaCare and then continues to defend it. And that was the question. I should've answered it directly. Instead I stayed focused on Obama."

The former governor of Minnesota acknowledged his mistake in a tweet on Thursday night.

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5. Barack Obama has said that he and his wife Michelle have no plans to have another child in addition to their two daughters. The US President told ABC's Good Morning: "I think Michelle's general view is 'we're done' ".

Obama joked that he's prepared for a crisis in the White House next month - his eldest daughter becoming a teenager. He said: "I understand that teenage-hood is complicated. I should also point out that I have men with guns that surround them, often, and a great incentive for running for reelection is that it means they never get in a car with a boy who had a beer."

Commenting on Anthony Weiner's resignation, Obama said: "I wish Representative Weiner and his lovely wife well ... Obviously, it's been a tough incident for him, but I'm confident that they'll refocus and he'll refocus, and they'll end up being able to bounce back."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.