8/08/2007

The Republican Rorschach Test

I haven't written much recently about the Republican field because the race is so difficult to figure out.

Unlike Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, there is no generally agreed upon Republican frontrunner. There are several reasons why, however. Here's what I know, based on my own understanding of Republican politics and recent news:

1. John McCain should be the frontrunner, but he's not because he has aligned himself too closely with the unpopular Bush and the increasingly unpopular Iraq War, irked conservatives with his stance on immigration and campaign finance reform, and is trusted neither by conservatives nor independents. Even the media have turned on him. McCain seems to have no base.

2. Rudy Giuliani does not fit the traditional mold of a Republican in that his socially moderate to liberal positions on abortion, gun control, and homosexuals stand in direct contrast to social conservatives who form the Republican base whose support he needs in order to secure the nomination. He is probably the strongest Republican in the general election, but would the Republican base be demoralized by his candidacy? Giuliani is leading in the national polls, but is trailing in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Could Giuliani be knocked out in those two small states before the bigger states that are more likely to support him, such as California and New Jersey, get their say?

3. Mitt Romney is trying to run as the true conservative, but there is so much evidence to the contrary (based on recent conversions and the power of You Tube) that he has to fight off allegations that he changes his political views depending on the office he's running for. Romney may be positioning himself as a conservative, but he's not a credible one in many voters' eyes. Also, the Mormon issue should not be an issue in this campaign, but it is. And it's not going away. To further complicate matters, Romney is leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are early voting states, while his national polling numbers place him further back in the pack.

4. Fred Thompson is the Barack Obama of the GOP field. After a relatively obscure tenure in the Senate, voters are now looking to him as the conservative savior who has the right demeanor, the right drawl, the right geography, and the right politics. However, he remains an undeclared candidate, is drawing mixed reviews on the stump, and doesn't have the organization in place to challenge the more established candidates.

5. Mike Huckabee seems to be a good fit for Republicans on almost all issues, despite the anti-tax wing of the party's consternation for his record as Arkansas' governor. He is a strong debater with a good life story, but he has no money and no real organization in the early primary states.

6. Newt Gingrich is the sentimental favorite who evokes memories of the historic Republican takeover in 1994. He is an intellectual heavyweight and is undeniably a credible conservative. But there are fears that he is too polarizing to win the general election. And he's not even a declared candidate.

7. Ron Paul is saying things that many voters have never heard a politician say before. He's not performing well in traditional polls, but he is on fire in the online blogosphere. Paul unites Barry Goldwater conservatives, anti-tax conservatives, anti-war liberals, and civil libertarians. How do you pigeonhole that? Thus, nobody really knows how well this enthusiasm will translate into actual votes come caucustime next year.

8. Tom Tancredo's main campaign issue is illegal immigration, which conservatives are absolutely livid about. Will GOP voters vote the issue or will they vote the candidate? If they vote the issue, Tancredo could surprise everyone. If they vote the candidate, would that mean conservatives are not as passionate about illegal immigration as people think? What if they nominate a candidate who is not as conservative on this issue as they would like? Would they be demoralized in November?

(9. Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, and Tommy Thompson are running on borrowed time. I don't expect any of these three candidates to still be campaigning two weeks from now. Brownback is really hitting Romney and Huckabee hard, but I just don't think he is taken seriously enough as a presidential candidate.)

Are Republicans looking at 2008 with optimism or dread? There are many polls suggesting a GOP wipeout next year. Is it because of Bush fatigue (which translates into Republican fatigue)? Is it because of Iraq? Is it a hangover from the ethical lapses of the previous congress? Is it the natural cycle of politics? After all, in the last 50 years or so, only George H.W. Bush was able to pull off a third consecutive GOP term in 1988.

None of the old rules about Republican politics seem to apply to the 2008 contest. Socially conservative voters are supporting candidates that are anything but social conservatives while the socially conservative candidates are struggling to gain traction. The party that prides itself on nominating the next candidate in its hierarchy has no heir apparent this time around. Republicans are trapped between supporting Bush and abandoning the leader of their party, so they are not sure how to deal with him. The party that has historically had a cash advantage over the Democrats is now playing catchup.

It doesn't make any sense. Until the Ames results come in this weekend and some of the candidates drop out, this race is almost impossible to analyze in any meaningful way.

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