9/08/2007

The Conservative Sweepstakes

Hillary Clinton continues to outpoll her rivals by significant margins. As a result, media storylines have tended to be of the "can anybody catch Hillary" or the "Hillary vs. Obama" variety.

The race for the Republican nomination, however, is much more competitive. Because there is no true heir to Bush-Cheney and no clear figure standing at the head of the line "whose time has come," primary voters and pundits are truly confused.

I do know this much, however. The GOP nomination will come down to Rudy Giuliani and his conservative alternative. This alternative will not be Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, or Ron Paul. It will be Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Fred Thompson. (Newt Gingrich has said he would not run if Fred Thompson's campaign is successful, but regardless, I think Gingrich is running out of time. And I'll talk about John McCain a bit later in this post.)

Now that Thompson is officially in and a few debates have taken place, it's a little easier to analyze the dynamics of this three-way contest (excluding Giuliani).

Mitt Romney

Romney has the advantages of a large campaign war chest, generally strong debating skills (although he absolutely tanked in the most recent debate in New Hampshire), good looks, and a traditional family. Social conservatives highly respect the fact that he's still on his first wife and has been married for over 30 years. He has also been a governor, so he has executive experience. He could potentially be a difficult candidate for Democrats to run against because he was able to implement a comprehensive health insurance program while he was the governor of Massachusetts. He is also leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On the negative side, Romney is a Mormon. It's been discussed a lot in the media as well as in The 7-10, but it cannot be stressed enough. Romney might be doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but his South Carolina poll numbers are anemic. Fred Thompson, who didn't even officially join the race until last week, is up on Romney by more than 2 to 1 in the Palmetto State even though Romney has been on the air here for months. Because Romney is doing much better in the early states than nationally, he will need to win as many early states as possible to generate the momentum to offset the probable victories by Giuliani on Super Tuesday. If Romney wins IA and NH while Thompson or someone else wins South Carolina, there will be no consensus conservative candidate, thus clearing the path for Rudy Giuliani to secure the nomination. (The Democrats have the exact same problem because Obama, Edwards, Richardson, Biden, Dodd, and Kucinich are all trying to be the alternative to Hillary Clinton. Until one of them emerges, Clinton can sleepwalk to the nomination.)

Another major negative for Romney is the fact that his views on several issues that are dear to social conservatives have "evolved," to put it nicely. Had he been a Democrat, Republicans would have had a field day with him. He makes John Kerry look like a man of consistency and unflinching principles. Abortion rights, gay rights, and gun rights are all issues that he has done an about face on in recent years. So there's a perception of him that he's a political opportunist, a flip-flopper, and a soothsayer. Romney also looks clean, but perhaps a bit too clean. Can he really relate to average voters? Also, Massachusetts is a state that Republicans have historically ridiculed as being a hotbed of out of touch liberals. (Think Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy.) A Romney nomination will essentially remove the "yet another Northeastern liberal" weapon from the Republicans' arsenal in the general election.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee has become a popular choice for a dark horse candidate. He is young, has a compelling biography, and has consistently performed strongly in the debates. His biggest advantage is the fact that he is a more credible and more affable conservative than any other candidate running. He is staunchly pro-life and pro-Second Amendment and he has a record to back this up, so he is not viewed with suspicion by evangelicals or sportsmen. And because of his humility and soft-spokenness, he does not come across as the harsh, knuckle-dragging Bible thumper that makes liberals recoil in horror. Republican voters who are looking for alternatives to Rudy McRomney and think Fred Thompson is overhyped may be quite pleased with Huckabee. A Huckabee nomination will make the current Red states very difficult for the Democrats to pick off.

Unfortunately, however, Huckabee is trailing badly in terms of campaign cash and overall campaign structure. He did very well at the Ames straw poll, and this has increased his campaign coffers a bit, but he still trails Mitt Romney badly. Even if Huckabee may be a better fit for conservatives than Romney, Romney has the cash to go the distance. This is really Huckabee's only weakness. The Grover Norquist crowd may have reservations about his candidacy because he raised taxes while he was the governor of Arkansas, but I think overall that conservatives will be quite pleased with his record.

Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson is the Barack Obama of the GOP field. He is the mysterious, hyped up candidate who is revered by what voters think he represents. Right now, Thompson is largely seen as the shining knight that is coming to the conservatives' rescue. He has even been compared to Ronald Reagan, though the main similarity they have is their acting career. Aside from that, Thompson is performing exceptionally well in national polls despite not formally entering the race until this week. Because of all the interest his candidacy is generating (be it justified or not), he has a large megaphone and a prime opportunity to make a strong impression with a wide swath of voters. Southerners also like the folksy "aw, shucks" demeanor he has. This could be a tremendous asset in South Carolina.

Thompson's biggest strength is also his most glaring weakness. Because he had been teasing and tantalizing the media and voters for weeks while he was "testing the waters," people came to know more about the Thompson image, rather than the Thompson candidacy. Barack Obama experienced something similar this spring when Democrats were fawning over him even though nobody really knew much about his record or his policy positions. As a result, Fred Thompson now has a very high bar to clear in terms of expectations now that he's officially a candidate. People have already talked about his seemingly disappointing fundraising totals over the summer. Voters and the media have been waiting a long time for him to jump in the race, so now that he's in, they're going to be examining him closely to see if he's all hype. He has already piqued everyone's interest, but now it's up to him to keep everyone interested. This means that his margin for error is very small. If he fails to live up to the hype, his campaign might not even make it to the Iowa caucuses. This is a very real possibility because Thompson's previous career in the Senate was not particularly ambitious or highly regarded.

Jockeying

In the aftermath of the debate in New Hampshire, Mike Huckabee challenged Fred Thompson to debate:

"I agree that what is needed is a real discussion by the candidates about their vision for the future of our country...Senator, let's lead by example and get the ball rolling."
Clearly, Huckabee knows that his strong debating skills may be fatal to the laconic Thompson.

Mitt Romney has been doing a bit of jockeying as well. He told both Huckabee and Thompson that they needed $20 million to join him in the top tier. It seems Romney is trying to discourage his rivals by using his greatest strength (campaign cash) to attack their weaknesses (a lack of campaign cash). You'll notice that he didn't say anything about John McCain.

So who's up and who's down?

The race for the conservative alternative to Giuliani is like a game of paper-rock-scissors.

Mitt Romney has the money and the best polling in the early voting states, but doesn't have the trusted conservative credentials that Mike Huckabee has.

Mike Huckabee has unimpeachable conservative credentials and a superior debating record, but doesn't have the national polling strength and name recognition that Fred Thompson has.

Fred Thompson has the national polling strength and the media spotlight, but doesn't have the money or the campaign apparatus that Mitt Romney has.

In short, Romney has the most money, Huckabee has the best conservative record, and Thompson has the best national polling. Romney generates the most suspicion, Huckabee has the least money, and Thompson is a blank slate in terms of campaign strength.

What about John McCain?

John McCain does not really occupy the same niche that Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson are trying to fill. McCain is generally a conservative, but he is positioning himself as something of an elder statesman. Fred Thompson is the outsider, Mitt Romney is the executive, and Mike Huckabee is often considered more as being a strong pick for the VP slot than at the top of the ticket. Think of John McCain as the grownup in the room. He has the experience, he has the record, and he knows Washington. Conservatives have been really hard on him because of his views on illegal immigration. However, if conservatives remain restless and dissatisfied with their current choices, they may think of McCain as the battle-tested warhorse candidate. And his military and national security credentials would allow him to neutralize Rudy Giuliani as well. McCain doesn't really need to engage the other candidates as much as they need to engage each other. Pundits have written McCain off as a result of his sagging poll numbers and fundraising problems, but I would not count him out just yet because he has the most extensive record of all the GOP candidates and cannot be attacked as inexperienced or not sufficiently conservative. I like to think of McCain as the Joe Biden of the Republicans.

After the semifinals

Excluding John McCain, all the candidates I mentioned earlier are competing for the opportunity to challenge Rudy Giuliani for the nomination. It's clear that he is a formidable candidate and that his personal history and his moderate positions on social issues are not as much of a liability for him as was once thought. However, he currently has the luxury of having no other candidate occupy the same political real estate that he does, so the true weakness of his biography and policy positions cannot accurately be measured at present. Once a true consensus conservative candidate emerges, Giuliani's appeal and campaign strength will truly be tested.

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