Year of the independent

Independent voters are suddenly the hottest commodity in American politics.

Independents propelled Sen. John McCain to victory in New Hampshire and limited his losses to Mitt Romney in Michigan. They helped build Sen. Barack Obama’s landslide victory in South Carolina. They will be up for grabs in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in California — but can’t vote for a Republican.

And if they are popular with the candidates now, by this fall they will be courted as never before.

Why? What’s going on?

More trouble for the Clintons

Time stood still inside a corner storefront on Malcolm X Boulevard.

At Sen. Barack Obama’s headquarters in Harlem, busy campaign volunteers stopped, stood and stared in amazement at the scene unfolding on the wide-screen television.

There he was, Sen. Ted Kennedy, a big, white embodiment of the Democratic political establishment, reaching out to embrace the man who could become the nation’s first black president.

Coast-to-coast campaigning

The top presidential candidates and their big-name supporters campaigned from coast to coast Sunday, but one contender seemed atop everyone’s mind: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney contrasted themselves, and each other, with Clinton as though she were the nominee. Her Democratic rival, Barack Obama, played along to a degree, saying Clinton is so polarizing that he is their party’s better bet.

Rather than diverting the less-than-flattering attention, Clinton embraced it.

Clinton: Garnish wages to pay for health care

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday she might be willing to garnish the wages of workers who refuse to buy health insurance to achieve coverage for all Americans.

The New York senator has criticized presidential rival Barack Obama for pushing a health plan that would not require universal coverage. Clinton has not always specified the enforcement measures she would embrace, but when pressed on ABC’s “This Week,” she said: “I think there are a number of mechanisms” that are possible, including “going after people’s wages, automatic enrollment.”

Romney’s economic lies

It’s part of Mitt Romney’s core narrative: Massachusetts, in the throes of a fiscal freefall, fell back on his CEO skills and turnaround wizardry to spark — in his words — “a dramatic reversal of state fortunes and a period of sustained economic expansion.”

It’s a rosy opinion of Massachusetts’ economy that few in the state share. Instead, observers say, the state’s recovery from a disastrous 2001 recession has been tepid at best, and Romney gives himself more credit than deserved on job creation and balancing the state budget.

Let’s focus on foreign policy

In 2008, presidential candidates are not giving sustained emphasis to foreign policy, but those concerns are present and candidates do make regular references to the wider world. In the Democratic debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, Hillary Rodham Clinton took a swipe at Barack Obama’s declared willingness to meet with dictators.

Losing the endorsement game

Hillary Rodham Clinton lost another big endorsement besides that of Caroline and Ted Kennedy this past week. The Clinton team had tried to cultivate young Ilana Wexler, 15, who four years ago got an ovation at the Democratic National Convention when she called in her speech for Vice President Dick Cheney to take a “timeout” for using an obscenity during a fit of pique with a Senate Democrat.

Alas, the Oakland, Calif., teen chose to endorse Barack Obama, saying she was attracted by his hopeful message and influenced by her peers, who liked him best, too.

Hillary, Barack try civility

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama struck a rare note of civility in their White House battle, uniting to observe that history was in the air as the Democrats vie to seize back the presidency.

A star-studded audience at the Kodak Theatre — home of the Oscars — was on hand late Thursday for their first one-on-one debate, but the drama and backbiting seen in previous encounters was replaced by a polite exchange of policy priorities.

Super Tuesday: A not-so-super idea

The race among the states to have earlier contests in order to share in the attention the press and politicians lavish on Iowa and New Hampshire has given us Super Tuesday, or, as the more breathless are calling Feb. 5, Tsunami Tuesday.

In a campaign scheduler’s nightmare, 22 states will hold Democratic primaries; 21, Republican.

Experience is more important than charisma

Voting for any candidate at any level requires a leap of faith and that is particularly the case in a presidential election, even when one has a strong party affiliation. Quite often, the most appropriate guide is the old adage that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.