Showing posts with label ron paul. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ron paul. Show all posts


Thoughts on the 2008 Campaign and a Presidential Endorsement

This is a post I was planning to write in October, not September, because I wanted to wait until after the debates to make a more accurate judgment of the two presidential candidates. But this nonstory about lipstick forced my hand.

I am angry. I am disappointed. And I am scared. But I am hopeful.

Coming into this election season, I was hopeful for America because I believed we finally had a chance to pick up the pieces and get America back on track after our long national nightmare. President Bush has been the worst president of my lifetime. I don't say that as a partisan. I say that because I genuinely believe he is the only president in my 31 years who has left the United States in a worse position than when he came into office. There is a pervasive sense of gloom, despair, apathy, and mistrust swirling around the nation that I have never observed before.

I love the United States of America. I believe this is the greatest country on Earth. It is only in America that someone can progress from having absolutely nothing to being on top of the world. It doesn't matter if you are a third-generation daughter of Polish immigrants, a true-blue son of Appalachia, a waitress working the late shift at a local diner, or a man whose parents abandoned him as a child on a street corner in Los Angeles. The United States offers more opportunities for everyone to succeed than any other nation on Earth.

But lately, it seems that more and more people are falling behind and the American Dream is becoming more and more unattainable. It's not just poor people or those who have made poor decisions who are falling behind. It's middle class people and those who are working hard and playing by the rules who are struggling now too. It costs more to drive our cars because of spiking gas prices. It costs more to go to college because of rising interest rates on student loans. It's more difficult to buy or sell a home. And it's harder to deal with being sick because health care is increasingly unaffordable.

There is a lack of confidence in our government, a lack of sophistication in our politicians, and a lack of professionalism in the media that cover them. People feel that the government doesn't understand their problems, the government doesn't understand its own responsibilities, and the government doesn't care. I'm not saying this as a criticism of conservatism which naturally advocates smaller government. I'm saying that people are losing faith in the very governmental institutions that run America. Think of the Federal Reserve, the State Department, and Homeland Security for example.

Having spent many years of my life abroad, I have seen the transformation that is taking place beyond our borders as well. Gone is the enthusiasm that outsiders once had for this nation. Gone is the respect that the mere mention of "America" commanded. This respect has been replaced by disdain, condescension, and lament.

This brings us to the start of the presidential campaign season.

There were about 20 candidates in the race altogether at the start of the campaign in the spring of 2007, so I figured there should be several candidates whom I'd be willing to support. But then I began to learn more about the candidates and began to cross them off my list.

The Republicans

Rudy Giuliani was a moderate Republican, so I thought he warranted a second look. However, I found him to be a fraud and jumped ship because who was once "America's Mayor" had since descended into pitting Americans against each other on the campaign trail by using terrorism to drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. And I believe he reduced September 11th to a mere political talking point.

Mitt Romney was a nonstarter because of the sheer number of policy reversals he undertook in an attempt to pander to certain parts of the Republican base. He came across as the type of politician who had no shame and would do and say whatever it took, even at the expense of his own dignity, to get elected. So I trusted nothing that came out of his mouth and viewed him to have no ideological core.

Fred Thompson was also a nonstarter because he did not seem serious about his campaign and figured that he could charm his way to the nomination with his Southern twang and red pickup truck. The basis of his campaign was merely that he was a Southerner with a wry sense of humor. There was no policy heft there. No thanks.

Sam Brownback was a candidate of the religious right, so he was automatically disqualified.

This left three palatable Republicans: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul.

I am most definitely not a social conservative. But why would this disqualify Sam Brownback and not Mike Huckabee? Because Huckabee was civil in his political presentation. He was humble, likable, substantive, and in touch. He talked about the economy from the point of view of regular workers, not corporate managers. Even though I strongly disagreed with him on issues like abortion and gay rights, I would have been okay with him as President because he did not use wedge issues to divide the electorate for the sake of finding common ground.

My inner libertarian is what endeared me to Ron Paul. I applauded the courage of his convictions, even if that made him a laughing stock at the Republican debates. He spoke about the insanity of staying in Iraq even though the Iraqis want us to leave and the billions and billions of dollars that are spent propping up countries that are hostile to the United States. Unfortunately, Paul's candidacy came about 40 years too soon and in a party that moved away from Barry Goldwater conservatism decades ago.

This left John McCain. I had a favorable opinion of McCain after his 2000 presidential campaign and appreciated the way he occasionally bucked President Bush and the fringe elements of his own party. His participation in the "Gang of 14" at a time when the Senate was about to explode went a long way towards cementing my respect for him. When the race for the Republican nomination came down to McCain and Romney (Huckabee was still in the race too, but he had been marginalized), I was banking on McCain. I figured that of all the Republicans in the race, he was ultimately the most appealing.

The Democrats

As for the Democrats, I was not one of those voters who was bowled over by the Big 3 of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. All three of them were my last three choices.

I originally started off in Bill Richardson's camp. His resume was simply incredible. Like he said in some of the debates, nominating him would give voters both "change" and "experience." Being from New Mexico, he had the right geography. And as a Latino, he had the right demographics. Combining all this with the fact that he was a centrist Democrat made Richardson bulletproof. His "Interview" campaign ads were impressive too, so I felt comfortable showing my allegiance to the New Mexico governor. He was the first candidate to whom I ever donated money.

But then came the debates. He seemed sluggish, disoriented, and disappointing. I gave him several chances, but he never "popped." And his campaign staff didn't seem all that interested in my offers to volunteer for him either. So he left me cold.

As Richardson's star faded, Joe Biden's stock rose. He was my second choice who later became my first choice. Biden was an exceptionally strong debater with a good sense of humor. He had a lot of experience too and clearly understood the world in which we live. I had the opportunity to meet him three times and he genuinely seemed to talk to me as a person and not as just another voter. I donated money to his campaign too and was surprised when I received a thank you letter from him personally with a real signature. Not one of those computerized signatures, but a real signature with ink stains. This was a United States senator actually taking the time to be gracious to me, a generic PhD student in South Carolina.

As I watched him perform strongly in debate after debate, I hoped that the people in Iowa were paying attention. Despite my enthusiasm for Biden, I worried that he did not have enough star power to shine in the Iowa caucuses because Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards were sucking up all the media's oxygen. But I strongly believed this candidate could be trusted to win the White House and govern with a sense of competence and an awareness of the magnitude of his responsibilities. Unfortunately, he finished 5th in Iowa and was thereby disqualified from the subsequent debate in New Hampshire that Bill Richardson, who finished fourth, could participate in.

Chris Dodd was Joe Biden without the personality, so he didn't have a chance. Mike Gravel was not a serious candidate. And like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich was about 40 years ahead of his time.

Why wasn't I in the Barack Clintedwards camp? Because they were polarizing personality candidates with thin resumes. Obama seemed like a nice guy, but he did not have much of a record to run on. When it comes to voting, I place experience and accomplishments ahead of identity politics and personality. This is why John Edwards was also disqualified. He had even less government experience than Obama and did not prove himself to be a strong campaigner because of how little he helped John Kerry in 2004.

As for Hillary Clinton, she was certainly the "toughest" of the top three candidates, but I had really grown tired of the Bush vs. Clinton storyline and the constant snipping between their surrogates on the cable news channels. I was sick of hearing accusations of President Bush's lying be countered by reminding everyone about President Clinton's lying. I really wanted to move on from the Bush-Clinton dynastic noise and start over.

So my heart was with Biden. But after his loss in Iowa, Richardson's defeat in New Hampshire, and Edwards' embarrassment in South Carolina, I knew I would have to choose between Obama and Clinton. (I still voted for Biden in the South Carolina primary even though he had already dropped out of the race.)

After Super Tuesday my respect for Obama and his political skills increased. He was racking up delegates because he wisely created a campaign apparatus in far more states than Clinton, who felt she didn't need to do this because she was entitled to the nomination. As Clinton fell further and further behind, she became a lot more negative and off-putting. That just reminded me of the Bush-Clinton feuding and further turned me off from her.

But even though I was warming to Obama, I still wasn't sold on him. I appreciated the movement he was trying to create by giving regular people a greater stake in their democracy. And I appreciated his tone, which was more civil and not based on treating voters like they were stupid. But I feared he had too much brain and not enough heart. Hillary Clinton picked up on this and began to run up the score on Obama during the final two months of the campaign and largely rehabilitated her image in my eyes. Unfortunately for her, she had dug herself too large a hole.

Obama won the nomination fairly. The PUMA wing of the party can complain about superdelegates, Florida, Michigan, and half votes, but they should blame the Hillary Clinton campaign, strategist Mark Penn, and the Democratic National Committee for that instead, not Obama. He earned his place at the top of the ticket.

The outrage

So the battle was between a respectable Republican with a record and an intriguing Democrat without one. I thought this campaign would be a lot more civil and uplifting than the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, so I figured that regardless of who won the election, America would come out on top.

But then something changed. Channeling John Kerry, Senator John McCain became Candidate John McCain, and I did not like what I saw. And my worst fears about Senator Obama being overly cerebral came true.

Because of my disagreements with John McCain over foreign policy, the ongoing war in Iraq, and his tack to the religious right, I figured that there was only about a 30% chance that I'd vote for him. That has since become a 0% chance. Some of this is due to John McCain directly, but some of it is also due to his allies.

I am sick of this election being about middle names, flag pins, e-mail rumors, Paris Hilton, religion, and lipstick.

I am sick of the media fixating on insignificant nonsense while ignoring the issues that really matter to people.

I am sick of dishonest political advertising, political red herrings, stupid talking points, baseless accusations of media bias, and phony outrage.

I am sick of having my patriotism questioned because I thought the Iraq War was a terrible idea and don't support most of President Bush's policies.

I am sick of having flag pins determine how much an American loves this country.

I am sick of politicians demeaning our allies and then complaining when they don't enthusiastically support our policies.

I am sick of equating a politician's popularity abroad with political leprosy at home.

I am sick of the fact that a vice presidential nominee that nobody knows won't give media interviews because the media are not "deferential" enough to her.

I am even sicker of the media who let her get away with this in the first place.

The fears

This nation is in a state of historical decline in which we are becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and our own quality of life is decreasing. And that scares me.

We are spending billions of dollars in Iraq. Where is this money coming from?

Millions of people can't even afford to get sick, much less actually go to the doctor because health insurance and health care cost too much money.

The world is unstable, as Russia's incursion into Georgia and Iran's nuclear ambitions illustrate.

The environment is slowly degrading and the balance between man and nature is becoming skewed.

It costs three times as much to fill up my gas tank compared to 10 years ago.

A growing percentage of young people are failing to graduate from high school. And for those who do, it's more difficult for them to pay for college because tuition keeps rising and there is less financial aid available.

People are getting kicked out of their homes because of rising interest rates on their mortgages.

Brave Americans are dying and getting hurt every day in Iraq because of an ill-conceived war with an ill-defined mission. And these brave warriors are being neglected when they return home.

There is no transparency in our government. Instead, our national leaders are saying "Trust us" even though they have given us every reason not to.

Laws are being written, passed, and ignored because of presidential signing statements.

An American city drowned and has yet to be rebuilt.

We are one Supreme Court appointment away from major reversals in longstanding social policy.

Politicians are accusing other politicians of being elitists because they went to private schools and sent their children to private schools even though these very same politicians want to institute vouchers that would let parents send their own children to private schools.

Politicians are politicizing America by using phony and loaded slogans like "country first," as if every other candidate running for president doesn't do so.

I am sick of it. There are too many serious issues that need to be addressed, but the quest to win the daily news cycle is crowding everything out.

The endorsement

John McCain would probably be a competent president. And should he win, I would pray for his health every day because I have little respect for and little confidence in Sarah Palin. And I hope that President McCain would govern as Senator McCain, not Candidate McCain.

I have strong disagreements with Barack Obama when it comes to illegal immigration, corporate taxes, tort reform, and entitlement programs. But after what I have seen from the increasingly dishonorable McCain campaign and the doe-eyed media over the past two or three weeks, I have decided that enough is enough.

The path McCain took to get here has caused me to lose a lot of respect for him. His "country first" slogan is a total farce and the phony outrage coming from his campaign over accusations of sexism and celebrity show him to be nothing more than a tool of the very same people who turned George Bush into a polarizing 30% president who only cares about 30% of the electorate.

Real leaders don't accuse their political rivals of wanting to lose a war before losing an election. That's not "country first."

Real leaders don't distract the electorate from substantive issues by throwing up smokescreens about minutia. That's not "country first" either.

Real leaders don't choose their vice presidential nominees after just meeting them once. It reminds me of "looking into Vladimir Putin's soul." While Palin has so far turned out to be a tremendous success for his campaign, the fact remains that this was an irresponsible gamble that has been rendered even more irresponsible by the fact that he is restricting media access to her as if she should not have to be scrutinized by the press.

Real leaders don't cry sexism over stupid remarks about lipstick, especially when they themselves have used the exact same expression in the past and commonly ridicule others for political correctness.

Real leaders don't scare voters by linking their political opponents to children and sex education.

Real leaders don't continue to shout out talking points that have long since definitively been proven false.

An Obama defeat would vindicate the strategists who believed that diverting discussion from education policy, the economy, and Iraq to a discussion about lipstick and sexism are the keys to winning the White House.

An Obama defeat would vindicate a media that is derelict in its responsibilities.

An Obama defeat would lead to a likely Clinton nomination in 2012 and signify to voters that the only way you can win the White House is to throw mud and engage in character assassination. Bush did that in 2000 and 2004, McCain is doing that this year, and should McCain win, Hillary Clinton will do that again in 2012. I don't want politics to be that way.

No more wedge politics.
No more journalistic negligence and irresponsibility.
No more lipstick. And freedom fries. And jokes about France.
No more chants of U-S-A whenever a Republican politician bashes a Democrat.
No more scaring the electorate by linking politicians with children and sex.
No more hiding behind the flag and impugning another American's patriotism.

I have serious reservations about Obama's lack of experience. But the fact that he chose Joe Biden as his running mate reassures me. The two have a good personal relationship, so I know that Biden will always speak his mind even if it means giving Obama bad news. And he can serve as a liaison between the old Washington and the new. Biden-Obama would have been preferable to Obama-Biden, but that is not how the campaigns turned out. But perhaps because Obama is at the top of the ticket, that makes the contrast in tone between Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin all the more stark.

I do not endorse Barack Obama because I care much for his political views. And I do not endorse him because of his personal story. I endorse Barack Obama because everything he's running against must not be validated by his defeat.

Even if you may not agree with Obama's political ideas, I hope you at least agree with his political approach. After Paris Hilton, feigned cries of sexism, blaming the media, and lipstick, it is safe to say that the United States can't afford to have this nonsense be rewarded by a McCain victory because that will only allow it to continue in 2012. America deserves better than this.


Ron Paul's Descent

One of the most underreported stories in January has been the underwhelming performance of Ron Paul's presidential campaign. After shattering fundraising records and amassing legions of loyal supporters online, Paul's candidacy seems to have run out of gas.

To his credit, Ron Paul, the proverbial Repbulican punching bag, has performed better than several of his supposedly stronger rivals in the early voting states. For example, Paul finished ahead of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani on more than one occasion. This shows that he is not as much of a fringe candidate as his rivals have made him out to be. The fact that his campaign has survived longer than theirs further validates this argument.

However, his performance in the primaries thus far has served more to embarrass his rivals, rather than shed light on his own viability. The problem is, where does Ron Paul go from here? New Hampshire was supposed to be his breakout state because of its libertarian bent. But he only drew 8% of the vote there, and has struggled to break 10% in any other contest so far, save for Nevada where he finished second with 15%.

Again, the fact that he has outperformed some of his rivals more than once in the early voting states shows that he had been underrated. However, most of these rivals have since dropped out of the race. The only candidates left are John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. With the exception of Nevada, a state that was largely uncontested, Paul has yet to beat any of these remaining contenders for the nomination. And the national polling numbers suggest that he is too far behind to stage an unlikely victory in any Super Tuesday state.

It is no longer early in the voting process, so candidates cannot blame a disengaged or inattentive electorate for their poor polling. Voters have had ample opportunities to assess Ron Paul on the campaign trail and in the debates, so it is now safe to conclude that they simply aren't voting for him in large enough numbers to portray him as a viable candidate any longer. Prior to Iowa and New Hampshire, it was difficult to accurately gauge Paul's support because of his strength in straw polls and online polls. However, as Super Tuesday approaches, Paul has gone from a potential movement candidate to a potential spoiler on the cusp of irrelevancy.

Ron Paul generally pulls about 5-10% of the vote at most. Knowing this, the most obvious question becomes that of who is hurt the most by his candidacy. The immediate answer would be John McCain because he also has a libertarian streak. However, one could also make the case that Paul is siphoning votes off from Barack Obama because of the similarity in their positions on Iraq and the fact that younger voters, a core part of Obama's base, also comprise the lion's share of Paul's support. Paul also enjoys support among anti-abortion voters who would otherwise go for Huckabee. But because Paul's support is largely cobbled together from various demographic and constituent groups that do not appear to be natural allies (as I wrote about here), perhaps no other candidate is hurt more than any other by his continued presence?

Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani all had their firm supporters even if this support wasn't always reflected in the polls. However, they all dropped out because it was obvious that they had nowhere else to go. At this stage of the game, only the most viable candidates should remain on the stage. I wasn't quite sure how to classify Ron Paul when I first wrote about this last summer, but I can now say with confidence that he should no longer be included in the list of true contenders for the nomination.


Post-South Carolina State of Affairs (R)

South Carolina and Nevada have spoken, and the results have finally produced several distinct tiers of Republican candidates: John McCain and Mitt Romney in the top tier, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani in the second tier, and Fred Thompson and Ron Paul in the third tier. Because of the sheer chaos that characterizes the Republican race, Republican voters and party operatives are anxiously waiting for signs that someone is breaking out of the pack, as they are not sure who they should rally around. Things might still be muddled right now, but the race is no longer as turbid as it once was.

John McCain's South Carolina victory is particularly sweet for him, especially after the way he was vilified in the 2000 primary. Of course, nasty kneecap politics reemerged this time around too, but that McCain was able to survive should serve as a testament to his overall strength and appeal. This victory caps McCain's improbable political comeback and has established him as the Republican frontrunner. At the very least, he is a co-frontrunner with Mitt Romney. I predicted McCain's resurgence back in December and based this prediction on the fact that even though he has made a lot of Republicans angry on individual issues, he is at least acceptable enough to all factions of the Republican Party to make him seem like a consensus candidate. The South Carolina exit polls show how balanced his support is among Republican voters. This balance potentially makes him a stronger candidate than Huckabee (whose support skews to evangelicals) or Romney (whose support skews to wealthier voters and corporate Republicans).

McCain can now enter Florida with a reasonable chance of pulling off another victory. There are major military bases in the Tampa and Pensacola areas, which should be fertile territory for him. The fact that there are also a lot of seniors there should work to his advantage too, as Huckabee tends to do better with younger voters. And because Florida is supposed to be "Giuliani's state," there's not as much pressure on him to win it. So McCain has to be sitting pretty right now.

Huckabee should study the exit polls carefully because they reveal a potentially fatal weakness about his candidacy--that his appeal among non-evangelical voters is weak. It's well known that devout Christians (those who attend church more than once per week) love Huckabee. However, the problem for Huckabee is that even in the Republican Party, there are a lot of less traditional and more moderate Christians, and these voters are decidedly not supporting Huckabee, as he only won 16% of their votes (as opposed to winning 43% of the vote among evangelical/born-again Christian voters). This does not bode well for Huckabee in less conservative states outside the Bible Belt and even in a general election. His populist rhetoric is certainly appealing, but is his Christian rhetoric turning these voters off? Huckabee had better figure out a new approach soon because as soon as he becomes a Pat Roberson candidate and nothing more, his campaign is finished.

Fred Thompson narrowly won third place in South Carolina. Because of his limited campaigning elsewhere, his falling poll numbers, and the general sense that his campaign has been a disappointment, Thompson really needed to win South Carolina to reinvigorate his campaign. However, because he barely only placed third, it's really hard to see how Thompson can continue. He will not be the nominee.

However, even though Thompson is likely finished, his presence is still having a major impact on the race. Judging from the South Carolina exit polls, Thompson significantly cut into Huckabee's base of evangelical Christians. Had Thompson not been on the ballot, it is quite probable that Huckabee would have beaten McCain. Thompson is not really attacking McCain aggressively, but he is blasting Huckabee. Since McCain and Thompson are close personal friends, could Thompson be serving as a stalking horse or a shield for McCain? Is Thompson's role to force McCain's rivals out of the race by starving them of victories they are widely expected to have? Thompson clearly held Huckabee back in South Carolina. Could he do the same with both Huckabee and Giuliani in Florida?

Fred Thompson is hurting Mike Huckabee the same way John Edwards is hurting Barack Obama. They are both Southerners who are trying to run as consistent conservative outsiders. Huckabee is the stronger candidate, but Thompson is strong enough to significantly bog Huckabee down. Needless to say, Huckabee would be thrilled if Thompson pulled out of the race before Florida. However, given Thompson's ambiguous speech after the results came in, there's no telling what to expect.

Romney's victory in uncontested Nevada overshadowed his fourth place showing in South Carolina. This is fine because he is continuing to silently rack up delegates. And seeing that Nevada had more delegates at stake than South Carolina, his decision to play in Nevada was a smart tactical move. And because the focus will be on Huckabee and Giuliani to win Florida, he enters the state with the advantage of low expectations. So while a Florida victory would be nice, Super Tuesday is clearly where his attention will lie. Second, or even third, in Florida should be good enough to give him decent momentum heading into Super Tuesday. It appears that Romney will be one of the last two (or three) candidates standing. The other one used to look like Giuliani (and that may still happen), but McCain is clearly emerging as the strongest candidate with all the momentum.

Ron Paul's second place showing in Nevada will likely serve as yet another embarrassment for Giuliani. Paul also bested Giuliani in South Carolina as well. It is clear that Paul is gathering enough support to warrant respect from the other candidates. But in the end, this second place finish took place in a state where the other candidates weren't campaigning all (except for Romney), and the best he could do elsewhere prior to this was fourth or fifth. 15% seems to be Paul's ceiling, which is not enough to win a primary or caucus anywhere. The question now becomes who is Paul drawing the most votes from?

At most, there will be three tickets out of Florida. Florida will be the last stand for Huckabee, Thompson, and Giuliani. McCain and Romney can survive even if they don't win because they have each already won at least twice. Huckabee only won Iowa, and these memories of his Iowa victory are being replaced by his second and third place showings elsewhere. Thompson surprised pundits by placing third in Iowa, but he was clearly expected to do better in South Carolina. Seeing that Florida is another Southern state, Thompson essentially gets a do-over--but this is it for him. Giuliani has not been a part of the national conversation for weeks now, so his candidacy is sliding into irrelevance. Anything worse than a close second in Florida will probably end his campaign because he simply won't have the financial resources to compete on Super Tuesday. The pressure is off of McCain and Romney to win Florida, so the final ticket to Super Tuesday will go to the Huckabee-Thompson-Giuliani winner. Because of Giuliani's strength in several major Super Tuesday states, many of which more moderate, will McCain and Romney avoid crippling Huckabee and Thompson while they blast Giuliani in an attempt to abort his candidacy before it has a chance to demonstrate its true appeal?

I once thought that the GOP nomination would come down to Rudy Giuliani and his conservative alternative. But now it appears that it will come down to the establishment candidate and the outsider. That explains Clinton vs. Obama on the Democratic side and would explain McCain vs. Romney on the Republican side. Huckabee or Giuliani could still replace Romney, but the only way this could happen is if they win Florida. Second place is not good enough for those candidates anymore.


Post-Michigan State of Affairs (R)

The results are in and Mitt Romney is the clear winner of the Michigan Republican primary. Beating rival John McCain by a healthy 9 points, Romney finally won a "gold medal" (people often ignore Wyoming). Independent and Democratic voters simply didn't turn out for McCain in large enough numbers this time. People are often quick to minimize Romney's victory by reminding everyone that Romney was born there and that his father was a popular state governor. McCain referred to Romney at least twice as a "native son" in his concession speech. These are convenient excuses, but I think the main reason why Romney won is because he paid the most attention the the economy, which was certainly weighing heavily on the minds of Michigan voters.

However, Romney's victory did not wound McCain as much as it wounded Mike Huckabee, who finished a distant third. Huckabee has now placed first once and third twice. Thus, the onus is now on Huckabee to win South Carolina. Given the religious conservative bent of the state, Huckabee should be able to eke out a victory there. If he fails to do so, he will be hard pressed to win elsewhere. He could easily rationalize not winning in New Hampshire and Michigan because they are moderate Northern states with a smaller Christian conservative base. That excuse won't fly in South Carolina, however.

An ominous sign for Huckabee is that Michigan's evangelicals did not flock to him the way they did in Iowa. This may illustrate the problem Huckabee has with appealing beyond his religious conservative base. Consider these remarks from a campaign event shortly before the primary:

"[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards."
(You can view the YouTube clip of this here.)

Did these remarks doom him among nonevangelicals? Or was Romney's focus on the economy what allowed him to run up the score among what was supposed to be Huckabee's base? Regardless, this is the second time of note that Huckabee has said something that could really ruin his appeal among moderates and independents. Back in October, he compared abortion to a "holocaust" and even tied aborted babies to illegal immigration. Part of Huckabee's appeal has been that he came across as a Christian conservative with a smile. He went against the stereotype of a polarizing, Bible-thumping firebrand like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Basically, like the way Barack Obama has been able to bridge the gap between Blacks and Whites, Mike Huckabee had the ability to appeal to both Christian conservatives and more mainstream Christians. Should these latest remarks gain widespread play in the media, voters and the media may fall out of love with him as fast as they fell in love with him.

Because of the way the races have broken down so far, it's as if the Republicans are playing a game of hot potato in that the person who loses at the wrong time faces a must-win scenario in the next primary. The onus was on McCain first in New Hampshire. His victory there shifted the onus to Romney in Michigan. In light of Romney's victory there, the onus is now on Huckabee, as I mentioned earlier.

Also, although nobody is really talking much about it, the onus is also on Fred Thompson, who is treating South Carolina the same way Rudy Giuliani is treating Florida. Simply put, Thompson only has one shot. Win and survive or lose and go home. A blunted McCain, a Huckabee whose star is no longer shining as brightly, a Romney who pulled his campaign ads, and a Giuliani who is keeping his powder dry until Florida have given Thompson his opening. South Carolinians may like McCain's support of the surge in Iraq and his positions on spending and taxes, but they are still seething over the immigration "compromise" he previously supported. Huckabee's appeal among nonevangelicals is still suspect. And Romney was positioned to capitalize on his Michigan victory by winning South Carolina a few days later, but his decision to drop his ads here have essentially ceded the state to his rivals. Thompson has been working South Carolina hard and he still seems to be the "authentic, consistent conservative" that so many Republicans had been waiting for--at least to South Carolinians. But not being at the forefront of the political dialogue may have rendered Thompson irrelevant.

It is worth noting that Ron Paul beat both Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson in Michigan. This means Paul has beaten these candidates twice (Giuliani in Iowa and Michigan and Thompson in New Hampshire and Michigan). The fact that this supposed fringe candidate who was often mocked and marginalized in the debates has beaten two popular candidates known nationwide twice should serve as a warning that Paul is a potential spoiler candidate (or even a kingmaker) who represents a very real and very angry slice of the electorate. What effect will losing to Ron Paul a second time have on Giuliani's fundraising in particular? And is it safe to say that Paul is running stronger than some of these supposed "major" candidates? South Carolina may eliminate McCain or Huckabee. If McCain is forced out of the race, where will his supporters go? McCain has a libertarian streak and is very much against wasteful government spending, just like Paul is. Thus, could Paul absorb a disproportionate amount of McCain's supporters?

Romney's win is a mixed bag for Giuliani. While he's happy to have his rivals divided and duking it out to be his conservative alternative, he probably would have preferred to have Romney fold up his tent and withdraw from the race. Romney is the only GOP candidate who can finance his own campaign. Thus, as long as Romney is still competitive in Florida, he will be able to seriously compete on Super Tuesday in about three weeks.

I recently mentioned that Romney could win the Republican nomination by consistently placing second with a few first place showings sprinkled in as long as long as no other candidate kept winning. This would cause him to emerge as everybody's second choice, but nobody's favorite. Romney is now winning the delegate race and will probably win the Nevada caucuses that nobody is talking much about even though Nevada is offering more delegates than South Carolina. Romney hasn't gotten much respect in this campaign, but his Michigan victory forced McCain and Huckabee to follow suit with victories of their own in South Carolina. So in other words, Romney now controls his own destiny again, and for that reason, he has probably overtaken McCain as the new frontrunner with McCain second, Huckabee third, and Thompson and Giuliani tied for fourth. Ron Paul remains too difficult to quantify at present.

Needless to say, such chaos is a political junkie's dream come true. Could we really be headed for a brokered convention?


New Hampshire Predictions (R/D)

The New Hampshire primaries are tomorrow and the fact that several wildly divergent results are possible is a tremendous gift for politicos everywhere. So many candidates' fortunes depend how well people who aren't even their direct competitors perform. As everyone knows, the current front-runners are John McCain and Barack Obama. However, one of those candidates' leads is secure while the other one's is considerably more tenuous.

John McCain's problem is obviously Barack Obama, and Obama's strength is what makes this primary so difficult to predict. Because independents can vote in the party primary of their choice in New Hampshire, McCain has to be worried that the very independents he needs to propel him to victory there will be gobbled up by Obama, whose support is surging. McCain still only gets lukewarm reviews from Republicans, so if he has to rely solely on intra-party support, the advantage will shift to Romney. Put another way, the more Obama racks up the score, the more likely it is that Romney will win the Republican primary.

Obama's Iowa victory gave him a tremendous boost and the compressed calendar has made it virtually impossible for his opponents to blunt his momentum and reconnoiter. Barack Obama is going to win New Hampshire. The question is, by how much? Independents make up slightly more than a third of New Hampshire voters. These voters are more likely to vote for him than McCain because of an enthusiasm gap, but if Obama's support is particularly lopsided among independents, that will have several likely effects:

1. Clinton and Edwards could potentially argue that Obama is more popular among independents than Democrats. Should they pursue this tack, however, Obama could easily counter that this is a reflection of his ability to transcend political lines, thus further buttressing his sense of electability and his message of national unity. Partisan Democrats might resent Obama for being more popular among independents than voters of his own political party, but these partisans don't really constitute Obama's base.

2. John Edwards could potentially place second and beat Hillary Clinton again. This would be absolutely devastating for Clinton and her campaign because Edwards was supposed to be the candidate whose entire hopes rested on Iowa and who was supposed to drop out after not winning there. Should this happen, Clinton still would not drop out of the race (and she shouldn't), but Edwards could come to legitimately be seen as the Obama alternative. This scenario is possible because Clinton has less appeal among independents than Edwards does. Independents who want to vote for "change" will split between Obama, Edwards, and possibly Huckabee. It's hard to see how Clinton picks up much of this independent support.

3. Mitt Romney will be more likely to eke out a victory. I noticed in the debates last weekend that Romney used the word "change" a lot and even had a few kind words to say about Obama. Could he have shrewdly been trying to appeal to independents to either throw their support behind Obama? After all, McCain is running as a statesman, not a change agent. And "change" is what voters seem to want in 2008.

What about Ron Paul...again?

New Hampshire is probably the best state to accurately gauge Ron Paul's support because of its demographic characteristics and political leanings. Paul performed respectably in Iowa, but New Hampshire is the state where pundits, the media, and political observers can finally ascertain whether he is a fringe candidate who just happens to be good at fundraising, or if he is a candidate with new ideas who deserves to be treated with more seriousness and more respect than has received so far. Future debate organizers would also have a hard time making the case for him to be excluded from their debates if he manages another double-digit performance. Paul supporters and even non-supporters are irate over Fox News' treatment of Ron Paul, and justifiably so. (Read the comments section here and this general story here.)

Rudy Giuliani was embarrassed by finishing behind Paul in the Iowa caucuses. If that happens again, pundits and voters will notice. For someone who is banking on Florida at the end of the month, finishing behind Ron Paul a second time will have a severe effect on his fundraising. And how ironic would it be for the candidate who is arguing he is the "toughest" to have his campaign go up in smoke at the hands of the candidate he views as the "weakest?"

Ron Paul will likely finish ahead of Fred Thompson as well, but neither Thompson nor his supporters will care. Thompson, who hasn't campaigned much in New Hampshire at all, knows his political Grim Reaper is South Carolina, not Ron Paul.

What about Mike Huckabee?

Huckabee did not get much of a bounce out of Iowa, which was not a surprise given how poorly he fits the state. However, he could still legitimately spin a third place showing in New Hampshire as a sort of victory simply because everyone's expectations for him are so low there. Should he place behind Ron Paul, I would expect him to be gracious and praise Paul's ability to generate enthusiasm among new and young voters. This statesmanship would remind voters of his sense of humility and sincerity, both of which are his strong suits. And should he place ahead of Ron Paul, that would be seen as further evidence of Paul's limited appeal. Huckabee will probably finish no higher than third, but if he somehow managed to beat Romney (because McCain's support among Republicans is higher than the polls suggest), then it's hard to see how Romney could recover.

What will happen if Romney wins?

A Romney victory would be bad news for Giuliani in that it would probably eliminate McCain from the race. That would reduce the number of conservative alternatives to Giuliani from four to three (Thompson, Romney, and Huckabee). A Romney victory in New Hampshire would likely be followed by an easy layup in Michigan. Those are supposed to be McCain's two best states, so if McCain wants to have any chance at the nomination at all, he must stop Romney in New Hampshire first. I am still not sure if Republican voters will coalesce behind Romney though because Huckabee has tapped into disaffected conservatives and the evangelical wing of the party still doesn't trust Romney's religion. And Ron Paul has a near monopoly on Republicans who are absolutely angry with President Bush. Romney would need his rivals to cannibalize each other and emerge as the last man standing.

And if Romney loses?

A second silver medal for Romney would be a second major embarrassment. New Hampshire is supposed to be Romney's backyard, but he would be seen as a two-time loser if he fails to beat McCain. This would lead to another hotly contested primary in Michigan where there are a lot of independents (advantage McCain) and voters who are worried about the lousy state economy (advantage Huckabee). By virtue of his own personal wealth, Romney can stay in the race as long as he wishes. If he keeps finishing second place, he could potentially win the delegate race if all his rivals keep divvying up gold medals. However, will he be seen as legitimate?

And as for John Edwards, finishing third would probably send him to South Carolina for his final hurrah. Edwards' survival depends on Clinton's weakness. Clinton may be weakening, but I think she is still a bit too far ahead of Edwards in New Hampshire for him to catch her there.

I deliberately haven't said much about Clinton in this post because even if she places second, she will have serious problems that have received enough ink already. Nevada and South Carolina will go for Obama and Clinton will have to place all her chips on Super Tuesday. She still has strong national polling numbers and voters in places far removed from the early caucus and primary states might not be as antagonistic towards her simply because she hasn't been campaigning there. Because of her own personal negatives, the less contact she has with voters, the better she probably does. New Hampshire was supposed to be Clinton's firewall, but now that firewall is Super Tuesday. An additional problem for Clinton, however, is money. Because of her national organization and her large staff, she has to burn through a lot of cash just to maintain her daily operations. But she has a higher percentage of donors who are tapped out because of campaign finance rules. Obama relies more heavily on a much larger network of smaller donors who donate $20 or $50 instead of the relatively small number of donors who pony up $2300 for Clinton. How much will this fundraising dry up if Obama runs up the score?

And finally, regardless of what happens, expect there to be a serious discussion about reforming the way we go about picking a president. Barring a total meltdown, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. Fortunately, the Republican nomination is still a jump ball, but there's a good chance this race will be settled by South Carolina or Florida--which is before about 90% of the other states get their chance to have their voices heard. Also, candidates who are extremely wealthy are able to finance their own campaigns while candidates who rely on public financing are at an insurmountable disadvantage. And a very small number of voters in very small states that represent a very small segment of the population have an unfairly large influence over the whole process. Some of the best candidates have already been marginalized or forced to drop out of the race before voters in other states had their chance to weigh in on who's best. "Tradition" and selfishness are creating a lot of resentment, but nobody running wants to make anyone angry because their own political fortunes depend on defending this ridiculous system.

Final predictions (Democrats):

Obama 38%, Clinton 29%, Edwards 23%, Richardson 4%

Final predictions (Republicans):

If Obama finishes with less than 40% of the vote: McCain 31%, Romney 28%, Paul 15%, Huckabee 12%, Giuliani 10%, Thompson 2%

If Obama finishes with more than 40% of the vote: Romney 34%, McCain 29%, Huckabee 16%, Paul 11%, Giuliani 7%, Thompson 1%


Fox News New Hampshire Debate Analysis (R)

Yet another debate took place in New Hampshire tonight. This debate was the subject of much controversy, as Ron Paul was not invited to participate even though he is polling better than Fred Thompson in New Hampshire and performed better than Rudy Giuliani in the Iowa caucuses. However, the small number of candidates again allowed everyone to provide extended answers and challenge each other without having to worry too much about the clock. Fox News, which sponsored this debate, however, would be wise to clearly state the criteria that must be met when extending debate invitations. They cited double-digit national polling numbers as the criteria necessary to participate, but that might not be the most meaningful or fairest way to include or exclude candidates, especially in light of the Iowa caucuses that had just taken place. It seems at first glance that Fox News was trying to silence the candidate they don't like or have fundamental disagreements with.

As for the candidates' performances...

Mitt Romney had his best debate in a long time tonight. He looked competent, collected, and presidential. He was a bit more aggressive towards his rivals tonight and spent less time on defense, which was a huge contrast from the previous debate yesterday where he was the designated punching bag. If Romney could deliver such steady performances in the debates and on the campaign trail more consistently, he would be a much more formidable candidate. However, he still seems a bit emotionally distant and has a tendency to sound more like an impersonal manager than a galvanizing leader. Also, at a time when voters are angry about their finances and how they're working harder for less money and less job security, it is not wise for Romney to run as the champion of corporations. He did that again tonight. The business wing of the Republican Party is probably quite happy about this, but average voters likely don't want to hear their president pay more attention to businesses than the people who work for them, even if the businesses are what provide the jobs. Should Romney make it as far as the general election, he would be wise to heed this advice. Having said that, Romney turned in a much stronger debate and erased his awful performance yesterday from the front pages.

John McCain did reasonably well at the debate, but Romney occasionally got the best of him when he was confronted on his positions on the Bush tax cuts and visas for illegal immigrants. However, he did remind voters of why they liked him so much when he talked about how he brought "change" to the United States regarding his conviction on Iraq and the surge. Romney tried to suggest that McCain was less qualified to prosecute military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that was a stretch that only elevated McCain at Romney's expense. Romney's debate performance was stronger than McCain's, but McCain did not do anything to hemorrhage any support in the polls. However, McCain does need to work on his body language and mannerisms a bit because he has displayed a tendency to smirk or chuckle inappropriately, often after hitting one of his rivals with a tough attack. It reminds me of a strange grin McCain gave at a debate last spring after passionately expressing his determination to capture Osama bin Laden. It just seems weird, and even a bit off-putting and childish.

I am not sure what Fred Thompson brings to these debates. He has had a tendency to make inappropriate remarks and snide comments that may seem colorful at first, but ultimately make him appear immature and unpresidential. His wisecracks may remind voters of President Bush, and not in a good way. For someone who is polling at about 2% in New Hampshire and isn't even campaigning there, I am unsure of why he was even included in this debate. Supporters of Ron Paul have every right to be outraged about this.

Rudy Giuliani got lost in the shuffle tonight. It is amazing how far Giuliani has fallen. He was seated at the far end of the table and was not the center of the dialogue. And he failed to say anything in this debate that he has not said already. How thin has his 9-11 mantra worn among voters? Giuliani had better hope that McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney wins Michigan, and Huckabee or Thompson wins South Carolina because the only way Giuliani can win the nomination is if his conservative opposition remains divided. Should a single consensus conservative alternative arise, Giuliani would be in serious trouble because he seems not to have much to offer Republicans anymore other than his leadership in New York City after the terrorist attacks there.

And finally, Mike Huckabee had one of his poorer debates in that he spent a bit more time on the defensive and appeared evasive when confronted by tough questions from Mitt Romney. However, again, Huckabee seems to be the only Republican candidate who understands the concerns of average people. The other candidates could not stop talking about curbing spending, tax cuts, why the Democrats are bad for America, and supporting the mission in Iraq, which are generally good things for Republicans to talk about. However, families concerned about the price of gas, increases in their children's college tuition, and rising health care premiums aren't thinking about tax cuts and "socialized medicine." They're thinking about how to make ends meet and they need help. New Hampshire voters are much more moderate and more libertarian than Huckabee's evangelical base that turned out for him in Iowa. However, he may be rewarded with a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary because he has his finger on the pulse of the concerns of a lot of voters. The other candidates would be wise to spend less time reciting familiar Republican talking points and a bit more time addressing the concerns of actual people.

Fox News presented this debate and the format allowed for some tough exchanges between the candidates. However, I found the question selection to be poor, as they spent so much time talking about tax cuts and rehashing the same questions about illegal immigration. Obviously, these are major issues for Republican voters and New Hampshire voters. The problem, however, is that the questions and the exchanges that followed did not really allow for any new ground to be broken. Also, these questions seemed to be more focused on ideological purity than on practical solutions. I refer to the appeal of Mike Huckabee's rhetoric again here. Being the toughest on illegal immigration, cutting taxes the most, and being the staunchest defender of the mission in Iraq may please the Republican base, but they don't do anything to bring moderates and independents into the Republican tent. McCain in particular is going to need these independents now in the primary, but whoever wins the nomination is going to need these independents in the general election.

Thoughts on the New Hampshire Debate (R)

So much political news has taken place over the past few days. I'm still poring over the entrance polls from the Iowa caucuses, but I had to tune into the Republican and Democratic debates tonight because they were the first debates post-Iowa and were the first debates that didn't have 724 candidates on stage. To ABC's credit, they did a respectable job of keeping only the most relevant candidates on stage. As a result, the debate was quite informative and well-paced. The candidates all had a lot of time to articulate their positions and even challenge each other. In other words, this debate was an actual debate.

Both debates were well conducted. The moderators were professional, but tough. And they were keen on reminding the candidates when they did not answer the questions posed to them. The questions were substantive and relevant. And having all the candidates from both parties appear on stage together between the debates was a nice touch, as it likely reminded the candidates of the importance of being civil even when attacking their rivals.

This post will address the Republican debate, which took place first. (My take on the Democratic debate is here.) Here are my thoughts:

1. It is obvious that nobody likes Mitt Romney. He was attacked by McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, and Thompson. They challenged him on immigration, supporting the surge in Iraq, the veracity of Romney's campaign ads, and health care. Everybody knew Romney was significantly weakened after his second place showing in the Iowa caucuses. It was as if the other candidates smelled blood and went in for the kill. As a result, Romney spent a lot of time on defense and came across as weak. For Republicans, projecting strength matters, especially because Republicans pride themselves on being tough on our nation's enemies, or at least tougher than the Democrats.

2. Romney also has a very serious brand problem. The "flip flop" label has stuck and his rivals are making sure voters know that. For example, Romney told Huckabee not to misrepresent his position on an issue during the debate, but Huckabee then shot back, "Which one?" Ouch. Romney was also talking about the importance of "change" in this election before McCain chimed in, "Yes, you certainly are the candidate of 'change,'" a reference to the "changes" in Romney's positions. These attacks were so strong that even a casual observer with little political knowledge whatsoever could understand what was going on. There is a very real risk now that whenever a voter hears the name "Romney," they may immediately associate "flip flopping" with it.

3. Mike Huckabee seems more in tune with regular people than the other candidates. The other candidates talked a lot about how the Democrats and Hillary Clinton would take this nation over a cliff. But rather than join in the Hillary-bashing and berating the "Democrat Party (sic)," Huckabee talked about the importance of leadership and getting things done. He seemed more concerned with actual governance and solving our nation's problems than the other candidates, who did a better job of trying to bruise each other and give the opposition party a black eye. Pay special attention to the discussion about health care and the number of uninsured Americans. Most of the other candidates dismissed this and talked about how "the US had the best medical system in the world" and how "socialized medicine" is a disaster. This all may or may not be true, but none of those candidates addressed the issue of those who are uninsured now. To Huckabee's credit, he actually addressed the issue.

Even though Huckabee's positions on social issues are not a good fit for a moderate state like New Hampshire, I do believe the voters there may reward him for his pragmatism, his authenticity, and his desire to actually get something done other than bickering.

4. Fred Thompson seems to be a better candidate now than he was when he first entered the race. But is it too little too late? Thompson seemed more confident and more comfortable with his delivery than in previous debates. He also spoke more directly and did a good job of reducing the other candidates' extended answers and obfuscations to simple, easy to digest barbs. It is too late for Thompson to place higher than fourth or fifth in New Hampshire, but South Carolinians who were watching the debate might be more inclined to give him a second look, likely at Romney's expense.

5. The other candidates are ignoring Ron Paul at their own peril. Aside from Huckabee, Paul was the only candidate to give straight answers to the moderator's questions. Voters who may have had knee-jerk reactions to Ron Paul because of his positions on Iraq earlier may have listened to some of his other arguments about inflation and energy and been quite impressed. And the clarity of his answers contrasted nicely with the often indirect and tangential answers some of his opponents gave, especially Rudy Giuliani. He also talked about the importance of getting younger voters involved in the process. Judging from Iowa's entrance polls, Paul is relying heavily on the under 30 crowd. Citing them in this debate reminded these young voters of the power they wield.

6. John McCain had a good debate and played the role of the elder statesman as the other candidates beat up on each other. However, he seemed to speak more to Republican voters than independent ones, as he talked a lot about strength, supporting the surge, and illegal immigration. He didn't talk much about "change," which is an obviously popular theme in this election. Thus, Barack Obama will probably benefit because these independent voters may be more inclined to participate in the Democratic primary instead of the Republican one.

7. Rudy Giuliani's star is fading. Criticizing Ron Paul's Iraq positions and talking about terrorism may be easy for him, but he runs the risk of being seen as having nothing else to run on. His biggest problem is that he is not giving voters a reason to vote for him. He's better at giving voters reasons not to vote for his rivals. He seemed much more negative and confrontational as well, which contrasted with Huckabee.


Because the New Hampshire primaries are so soon, I think McCain's performance was strong enough tonight to put him in the driver's seat. He is well positioned to win the primary and complete his marvelous comeback after his near political death experience last summer. Mike Huckabee likely beat voters' expectations of him, as he did not spend a lot of time talking about his positions on social issues that are generally out of step with New Hampshire voters. He likely earned points in these voters' minds by sounding humble, pragmatic, and serious without sounding overly partisan. That seems to be what a lot of voters want. In contrast, Mitt Romney is coming across as weak, unlikable, emotionally detached, boring, and insecure with his positions on the issues. (Why on earth was he defending pharmaceutical companies?!) He did not help himself in the polls with his performance tonight and he had better be concerned with not placing third or even fourth. Giuliani and Thompson are not really playing in New Hampshire, although Thompson probably did more to help his numbers than Giuliani did. And given the independent and libertarian nature of New Hampshire, I would not be surprised if Ron Paul placed third in the primary.


Digesting Iowa (R)

By now most of you probably know that Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama won the Iowa caucses last night. For the sake of readability, I will address only the Republican results in this post. (Click here for my assessment of the Democratic caucuses.)

Now, before I go any further, I must eat some crow. Here is a humorous quip by Dan Conley of Political Insider about the perils of punditry that sums up how I feel quite nicely. While my Democratic predictions were generally okay (though I thought the second tier candidates underperformed when it came to second choice preferences), my Republican predictions were slightly off, to put it gently. I may be a politico, but my punditry skills need a bit more work. I got it wrong this time. Oh well. But I'll be back!

Having said that, Mike Huckabee beat most pundits' expectations and performed better than the closing tracking polls suggested. Huckabee is a talented candidate, but I believe a large part of his strength is actually a function of how weak the rest of the field was.

Dan Schnur penned an excellent column in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago that talked about how former Virginia Senator George Allen has haunted the GOP field. Schnur alludes to something I call an "authenticity gap" that explains so much of what has happened in the Republican field.

Schnur correctly argued that Allen was the candidate of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and defense hawks. He was the experienced candidate around whom Republicans everywhere would coalesce with minimal division. However, "macaca" doomed his candidacy and left a tremendous void in the field that no candidate has been able to fill ever since.

This problem created another problem: The other Republican candidates tried too hard to portray themselves as something they obviously weren't and aren't. In 2000, John McCain was the maverick who wasn't afraid to take potshots at his own party. However, in 2007 McCain was cozying up to Jerry Falwell and embracing George Bush. It seemed awkward because, love him or hate him, it contradicted the McCain most voters had been familiar with earlier on. The very reason why his fortunes have risen in New Hampshire as of late is because he has started showing his independent streak again.

When Mitt Romney was running for a Senate seat and the governor's mansion in Massachussets back in the 90s, he adopted a far more moderate stance on social issues than what he's advocating at present. Using this strategy, he was able to ride to victory in a deeply blue state. Any Republican who could do that would likely be able to put states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey in play in a presidential election. Romney probably would have had far more success in the '08 campaign had he tried to run as a Lincoln Chafee or Christopher Shays Republican, rather than a Richard Shelby or James Sensenbrenner Republican. His contortions on abortion, gay rights, gun rights, and immigration have been painful to watch and have led to a severe problem with the Romney "brand." The "flip flop" label is sticking, and voters in Iowa didn't buy what he had to sell. Even worse, Romney has trapped himself with his own conservative rhetoric because it is now impossible for him to tack back to the center where he is probably more comfortable without further agitating the conservative voters he has tried so hard to woo.

In the case of Rudy Giuliani, he jumped into the race with his 9-11 halo still intact. Conventional wisdom had long suggested that he wouldn't survive because he was a moderate to liberal on social issues like abortion rights and gun control. He started off high in the polls, but as voters learned more about his record, his stock fell. He tried to reassure voters that "his 80% friend wasn't his 20% enemy," but it stopped working. As he tried to prove his conservative bonafides, that only made him look more like a panderering hypocrite. For example, his rhetoric on immigration (especially his attacks on Romney) didn't square with his policies on immigration when he was the mayor of New York. His equivocations on his feelings about repealing Roe vs. Wade also have bothered many Republicans. As a result of Giuliani's identity confusion, he has now backed himself into a corner from which the only way out is Florida. So he only has one chance to get it right.

The doubts surrounding McCain, Romney, and Giuliani left Republicans yearning for a true conservative. An authentic conservative. Enter Fred Thompson. He had the right geography, the right drawl, and a sufficiently conservative Senate record at first glance. However, while voters may have viewed Thompson as a serious conservative initially, they did not view him as a serious candidate after his much hyped campaign entry. And on top of this, it turned out that he wasn't as conservative as many Republicans had originally thought, especially after his remarks on not instituting a federal ban on gay marriage and not attending church regularly.

All of this disappointment is what allowed Huckabee to rise through the pack. He was not right with conservatives on all the big issues (e.g., illegal immigration, taxes), but he was authentic. Whenever he made a mistake on the campaign trail, he owned up to them. And rather than withering and obfuscating under pressure, he made no apologies for his record when he was criticized for it. What you see is what you get. Even if Republicans didn't agree with him on everything, including some of the hot button issues, enough of them respected the fact that he was a man of conviction, rather than contrivance and convenience.

In the case of Romney, however, contrivance and convenience may not be what sabotaged his campaign. There is another possible explanation that not many people are talking about, at least not openly: Romney's Mormonism. 60% of the Republican vote last night came from self-described evangelical Christians. That is a much higher percentage than what would be observed in a normal election. Huckabee outperformed Romney among voters who said faith was important by better than 2 to 1. (entrance poll results here) Romney's positions on taxes and immigration seem more in line with the GOP base, so one would have expected him to perform a bit better. He also had a much better campaign apparatus than Huckabee, so he should have been better able to turn out his supporters. And the controversy surrounding Huckabee's pardons and commutations seemed to be wounding him to Romney's advantage as well. While Huckabee's candor and affability should not be discounted, I can't help but wonder if Romney fell prey to something he simply can't "fix." And if that is true, then that is a shame.

John McCain would have liked to have finished third, but because Huckabee defeated Romney by such a wide margin, that story will eclipse everything else. McCain is now in a very good position to take advantage of a weakened Romney in New Hampshire. Huckabee is not a threat to him there. Notice how cordial Huckabee and McCain are being towards each other. They draw from two different bases, so they are not threats to each other at present. And they both have a common enemy in Mitt Romney, so it is in their best interests not to tear each other down because they need each other to deliver the fatal one-two punch to his campaign. Of course, if McCain beats Romney in New Hampshire, McCain and Huckabee will finally have their head to head matchup in South Carolina. Interestingly, both McCain and Huckabee are better able to withstand a defeat in South Carolina at the hands of each other than Giuliani can in Florida.

As for Ron Paul, he performed better than Rudy Giuliani and almost outshone John McCain and Fred Thompson. That Paul only lost to Thompson and McCain in such a socially conservative state by three points is quite revealing. Again, exit polls show that 60% of the voters in the Republican caucuses were evangelical Christians. Huckabee was going to win the lion's share of those votes. So this left a minority of votes to be spread across four or five other candidates. Thus, Paul's performance is actually quite respectable, especially given Giuliani's much better name recognition. However, a better barometer of Ron Paul's support will be in New Hampshire, a state that is more independent and more libertarian than Iowa. Should he not get more than 10% of the vote there, it will be reasonably safe to say that his support is more limited than his fundraising would suggest.

What does Huckabee's victory mean? Coupled with Obama's stunner, it suggests that voters of all political stripes are sick of the way the government is functioning right now. They probably think government at all levels is broken and they don't trust politicians who embody this broken government to fix it. Republicans in the Senate keep blocking the Democrats, especially when it comes to Iraq policy. Democrats in the House keep sending bills to the Senate that don't have significant Republican support. George Bush commonly criticizes the Democratic Congress and vetoes their bills for things he was strangely silent about when Republicans were in control (e.g., earmarks, spending, timeliness). Torture tapes are being destroyed by the CIA, people who should be held accountable for possible transgressions "can't recall" critical details when they are investigated, illegal immigration remains unresolved, the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast remains a disaster area, the price of gas is going up, and parents are feeling gloomy about the world their children are growing up in. Establishment politicians who spout the same tired rhetoric about "lower taxes, tax cuts for the rich, beating the right wing conspiracy, stopping Hillary, socialized medicine, and sanctuary mansions" were roundly rejected last night.

More than a conservative government or a liberal government, I believe people simply want a government that works. Huckabee sounded the most sincere and the most pragmatic in his rhetoric among the Republicans. He spent more time talking about why people should vote for him instead of why they shouldn't vote for his opponents. Huckabee and Obama are the two youngest candidates in the field, so they are arguably the least "tainted" by the system. America is stuck, and Republicans in Iowa believe that Huckabee should have a chance to get the country back on the road again because the other establishment types who have already had their chance only have gridlock, polarization, and a cynical electorate to show for it.

For Huckabee to win the nomination, he will now need to broaden his appeal among nonevangelicals. Had only 40% of the Republican voters last night been evangelicals, Romney probably would have won. Evangelicals and social conservatives are now solidly in Huckabee's camp. Nobody else can pry them away from him because if they haven't been able to do so already, they never will. Huckabee owns them now. The Benazir Bhutto assassination did not factor much into voters' minds this time, but a more significant event abroad may give his supporters some pause in the future. Thus, Huckabee had better bone up a bit on foreign policy and show a greater command of what's happening around the world. For now he can focus on South Carolina because the main story in New Hampshire will be John McCain. Huckabee won't win New Hampshire at all, but he could place third or fourth and it won't damage him at all. Campaigning in New Hampshire will give him an opportunity to test his appeal to a more mainstream (e.g., moderate) audience.

You can read more about the Republicans' victory scenarios here.

Congratulations to Mike Huckabee and his campaign.


Iowa Predictions (R)

Against my better judgment, I will attempt to handicap the Iowa caucuses tomorrow and offer my predictions. (Why not have a little bit of fun, right?) In this post I will address the Republican race. (I addressed the Democratic contest here.)

The Republican contest consists of two smaller contests: the battle for first and the battle for third. The battle for first is between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Huckabee came out of nowhere and surged to the top of the polls in recent weeks, much to the chagrin of Mitt Romney, who has invested millions from his personal fortune in the state. However, it is possible that Huckabee peaked too soon, as crises abroad reminded voters of the importance of electing a president with foreign policy chops. Huckabee fumbled the issue by tying the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with Pakistani illegal immigrants. This fumble likely benefited John McCain in his quest for third more than it benefited Romney in his quest for first simply because Romney's foreign policy credentials are also suspect.

Romney seems to be more of an establishment Republican who adequately represents the evangelical and business wings of the party. Huckabee is more of the insurgent or outsider candidate who wants to take the party in a whole new direction. However, Christian conservatives who like Huckabee (because he has the Christianity without the Mormonism and the anti-abortion rhetoric without the anti-anti-abortion past) probably have reservations about his policy depth in other areas. Romney has also attacked Huckabee hard over the past few weeks on his record on illegal immigration, taxes, and crime. Evangelical Christians will have to be honest with themselves about their personal biases, as Romney seems to be a more complete candidate than Huckabee. Huckabee seems to be the candidate of these voters' hearts while Romney is the candidate of these voters' heads.

The battle for third is between John McCain, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani. A third place showing by McCain would give him tremendous momentum because he has not campaigned much in Iowa at all. This momentum would serve him well in New Hampshire, where he is much more competitive. Put another way, Romney cannot spin a second place loss to Huckabee as a victory. However, McCain can spin a third place loss to Romney and Huckabee as a victory.

Fred Thompson has a vested interest in placing third as well because if he fails to do so, it's hard to see how he remains relevant later on. He is polling under 5% in New Hampshire, so it will all come down to South Carolina for him. But placing fourth or fifth in Iowa would probably end his campaign before he even makes it to South Carolina because it's hard to see how a candidate can go from a fourth place showing in Iowa to a sixth place showing in New Hampshire to victory in South Carolina.

Third place would be nice for Rudy Giuliani to have, but because he's not making a serious play for any state before Florida, Iowa is relatively meaningless for his campaign. A Huckabee victory in Iowa would be good for Giuliani not only because it would prolong the battle between his divided conservative opposition, but also because when it comes time for the media to generate their "What went wrong?" stories, they would more likely be about Romney instead of Giuliani, even if Giuliani placed fifth.

What about Ron Paul?

Nobody is saying much about it, but there will be serious pressure on the other candidates to drop out of the race or explain themselves if they place lower than Paul. Despite Paul's popularity online and among regular voters, it is clear that the establishment and the main candidates in general view him with contempt. Should Paul place third or fourth, that would be a severe embarrassment to Giuliani and Thompson in particular. After all, it is Giuliani who famously smacked Paul down in the debates when it came to discussions about the reasons behind the September 11 attacks. And as for Thompson, it would be hard for his followers to conceive of their candidate, once the great hope of conservatives everywhere, faring worse than the "loony libertarian."

Final prediction: Romney 32%, Huckabee 24%, McCain 17%, Paul 11%, Thompson 8%


Roadmaps to the Nomination (R)

Back in September I provided my take on how the Democratic presidential candidates could snare their party's nomination. Much has changed since I wrote that original analysis, so an updated one is warranted. However, in this post I wish to address the Republicans.

The 7-10 is not a partisan blog. However, I've tended to focus a bit more on the Democratic race simply because it has been much easier to figure out. On the Republican side of the ledger, there is overwhelming evidence that the laws of political physics have been suspended or thrown out altogether. (I wrote more about that confusion over the summer.)

But after taking all the debate performances, polling, momentum, potential scandals, and gaffes into consideration, here is where I believe the Republican candidates stand in their quest for the GOP nomination with their chances of winning in parentheses:

Rudy Giuliani (30%)

Rudy Giuliani has had a particularly tough November. The Judith Nathan and Bernie Kerik scandals are not going away and other candidates are gathering so much momentum that it threatens to knock Giuliani out of the race before he even wins a state.

One of the biggest problems for Giuliani now is that Hillary Clinton has faltered. How are Clinton's political fortunes related to Giuliani's viability? Well, I speculated back in September that Giuliani was at risk because one of the main pillars of his campaign was his ability to defeat Clinton:

"Ironically, another major problem for Giuliani is one of the selling points of his candidacy--Hillary Clinton. Again, Giuliani has said repeatedly that he is the one Republican who can defeat her. But what happens if Clinton somehow stumbles and is no longer a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination? The Republicans won't need a Hillary-slayer if she doesn't even become the nominee! So then one of the pillars of his candidacy would be moot. Even though Republicans may look with glee at [Clinton's scandals and missteps], I can't help but wonder if bad news for Clinton is also bad news for Giuliani. Whether Giuliani likes it or not, Democratic voters get their crack at Clinton before he does. [And should Clinton falter,] this would open up the door for Romney, Thompson, McCain, or Huckabee--all of whom are more in tune with the party base than Giuliani is."
In light of Obama's ascension and the negative, petty stories surrounding Clinton's campaign as of late, Clinton is looking less and less inevitable. Republicans are paying close attention to Clinton's trajectory and if they conclude that she won't be the nominee, then they will feel more comfortable nominating someone they actually agree with on the issues, rather than simply nominating someone they think can beat their nemesis.

Giuliani had been relying on skipping the early voting states for the sake of Florida, which would propel him into Super Tuesday. However, this strategy is looking increasingly perilous not just because of Clinton's problems, but also because of Huckabee's and Romney's strength. Romney in particular is a serious threat to Giuliani because he has deeper pockets and a more impressive resume. Romney could also plausibly win Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina. Should that happen, he would have incredible momentum that might be a bit too powerful for Giuliani to overcome. Basically, the national frontrunner risks being overtaken by the early state frontrunner. (Of course, Mike Huckabee has thrown a major wrench into this discussion of who the early state frontrunner is, but Romney is still the more viable candidate based on his campaign apparatus and appeal outside of the evangelical community.)

For Giuliani to win the nomination, he'll need Huckabee to block Romney in Iowa and McCain to block Romney in New Hampshire. Two losses by Romney in those two states should effectively end his campaign before he enters the friendlier confines of Michigan, where his father had served as governor. Also, should Romney lose both states, the media will focus more on Huckabee's and McCain's rise while ignoring Giuliani's possible third or fourth place showings in both states. If the race for the conservative alternative to Giuliani drags on, that will work to Giuliani's advantage. His name recognition should then be enough to carry him to victory in Florida and in the Super Tuesday states because there won't be a clear rival. The lack of a consensus conservative candidate would leave the nonconservative Giuliani as the beneficiary.

Mitt Romney (25%)

The Romney campaign is in a major state of panic right now. After investing so much time and money into Iowa and South Carolina, some second tier guy from Arkansas comes out of nowhere and overtakes him in the polls in just a few short weeks. Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise is not a good development for Romney because he significantly complicates his early state strategy, which is the opposite of Giuliani's megastate strategy.

Huckabee's rise illustrates the discomfort that evangelical Christians have with Romney. It's not fair, but it is real. Romney is saying all the right things that social conservatives want to hear, but it is obvious from the shifting polls that his support was soft. This soft support results from three factors, listed in no particular order: 1) evangelical Christians' reluctance to support a Mormon candidate, 2) a perceived lack of credibility resulting from Romney's flip-flopping on social conservative issues, and 3) his sterile demeanor and perceived lack of warmth which hinder his ability to connect with voters on the campaign trail. Mike Huckabee trumps Romney on all three of these issues, which explains why he is gaining ground at Romney's expense.

Romney does have one thing going for him, however: the perception of him as being more than just a social conservative candidate. With Huckabee, there's still a sense that he is just "the evangelicals' candidate." However, Romney is seen as a social conservative and a fiscal conservative. Romney should take advantage of Huckabee's perceived one-dimensionality and stress how he is more electable than Huckabee is. Even though Iowa has a large number of social conservatives, Romney should try and make a play for fiscal conservatives' and moderates' support. It is unlikely that Romney can win the majority of evangelicals' support in Iowa at this late stage, so he should just try to hold Huckabee's margins down on that front while he runs up the score among other types of Republican voters. Romney could stop Huckabee with a victory in Iowa because a victory there would lead to an easy victory in New Hampshire. Two consecutive victories would be hard for Huckabee to stop even in the Bible Belt state of South Carolina because of all the favorable press Romney would receive. South Carolina's evangelicals may prefer Huckabee to Romney, but the electability gap would send these voters to the somewhat acceptable Romney.

If Romney emerges as the alternative to Giuliani, he would have an advantage in that he is comparatively more scandal-free. Social conservatives and gun owners who have reservations about Giuliani would then likely gravitate to Romney, especially if it looks like the Democratic nominee will be someone other than Hillary Clinton. Romney's camp should find solace in the fact that he is more viable than Huckabee and only needs to stop him once.

Mike Huckabee (20%)

I predicted as early as May that Huckabee would be public enemy #1 for Romney. And in August I warned that Huckabee was an underrated candidate. It now looks like voters, the punditry, and the media have finally discovered the former Arkansas governor and he is peaking at just the right time.

A second tier candidate no more, Huckabee now has a realistic chance of winning the Iowa caucuses. Much to the chagrin of Romney, Huckabee has become the social conservative that evangelicals had been looking for. This candidate was supposed to be Fred Thompson, but he undewhelmed voters on the campaign trail and has not shaken the perception that he is not taking this campaign seriously. Huckabee has filled this void and has become the "none of the above" Republican who also appeals to evangelicals who felt their concerns were not being addressed by the other candidates.

Huckabee's immediate threat is Romney. While Romney can knock out Huckabee with an Iowa victory, Huckabee cannot do the same to Romney because Huckabee has no chance of winning New Hampshire, where social conservatism is far less prevalent. So here's the Huckabee calculus:

1. If Huckabee loses Iowa to Romney, he is finished.

2. If Huckabee wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, South Carolina will be the tiebreaker state that permanently eliminates one of these candidates.

3. If Huckabee wins Iowa and John McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney is finished. South Carolina will then eliminate the loser of the Huckabee vs. McCain battle. The winner will go on to become the alternative to Giuliani.

Huckabee would be particularly difficult for Giuliani to defeat because Huckabee could also credibly claim that he beat "the Clinton machine" in Arkansas. However, Huckabee would overwhelm Giuliani among social conservatives and voters who are turned off from Giuliani's scandalous past, marital history, and divisive rhetoric. Huckabee is also a better fit for Republicans on abortion and guns. Both have served as executives, but the edge would go to Huckabee because being a governor entails more responsibility than being a mayor. Giuliani would have to be careful talking up New York's size while diminishing Arkansas because rural and Southern voters may rebel against him. Both candidates also have legal controversies to deal with, such as Huckabee's pardons and Giuliani's police details for his mistress and Bernie Kerik. Thus, these weapons will be rendered useless because invoking them would create blowback. And talk about "strict constructionist" judges won't have much resonance when they are pitted against a candidate who is more credible on conservative issues.

Huckabee has been successful in getting the media to pay attention to him. Now it's time for his second act. Huckabee should now focus on inviting new voters into his camp. Evangelicals are already sold on his candidacy. But his appeal among other voters remains suspect. He now needs to demonstrate his competence on economic and foreign policy issues to prove that he is not just a one-dimensional candidate.

John McCain (15%)

Not much has been said about McCain as of late. However, he has silently been picking up important endorsements in New Hampshire. He also picked up an endorsement from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. McCain is benefiting from the dogfight between Giuliani, Romney, and Huckabee. As they tear each other down, McCain looks more and more presidential. And Huckabee's rise doesn't adversely impact McCain because both candidates draw from two different bases with minimal overlap.

McCain has written off Iowa, so his campaign all comes down to New Hampshire. But he needs a bit of help. Should Huckabee defeat Romney in Iowa, that would weaken Romney in New Hampshire. This would make it easier for McCain to emerge from New Hampshire victorious because Huckabee is not a threat to him there. Also, McCain will need someone other than Barack Obama to win Iowa because if Obama wins Iowa, New Hampshire independents be more inclined to vote in the Democratic primary than in the Republican one, thus sapping McCain of the independent votes he needs.

If Romney wins Iowa, it will be difficult for McCain to stop his momentum in New Hampshire, which neighbors Massachusetts where Romney served as governor. This is not to say that McCain can't beat Romney, but it would be far easier to do so if Huckabee takes care of Romney in Iowa first. So for now, McCain and Huckabee are allies. If Huckabee makes it to South Carolina, South Carolina will be the do or die state for both candidates. McCain could potentially do well in South Carolina, a state that has a large military population, and in Michigan, whose primary he won in 2000. Should the last two Republicans standing be McCain and Giuliani, Giuliani will be in serious trouble because McCain is much tougher and much more credible on national security than Giuliani is. And despite his warts, McCain is also closer to the Republican base on abortion, gun rights, and social issues in general.

For now, consider McCain a sleeper candidate.

Fred Thompson (8%)

The biggest problem for Fred Thompson is that the image no longer trumps the candidate. He has made several mistakes on the campaign trail and has generally been an unimpressive candidate since his much anticipated entry this fall. (You can read more here, here, and here.) Mike Huckabee has planted his flag on what was supposed to be Thompson's political territory. And because of Romney's organizational strength and deep pockets and McCain's silent ascension, Thompson is now seen as Plan C or D for anti-Giuliani Republicans. He needs these candidates to falter and/or cancel each other out, thus prompting Republicans to give Thompson a second look.

To win, Thompson needs Huckabee, Romney, and McCain to all enter South Carolina wounded. Here is the Thompson calculus:

1. Thompson's enemies are Romney, Huckabee, and McCain.

2. If Romney wins Iowa, Huckabee and McCain are finished. South Carolina will come down to Romney vs. Thompson, a battle Thompson could win because he has been a consistent conservative and has the right geography. Evangelical support will be interesting to watch because Bible Belt South Carolinians will have to choose between the Mormon Romney and the non-churchgoing Thompson.

3. If Huckabee wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, McCain is finished. South Carolina will become a three-way contest between Thompson, Huckabee, and Romney. Huckabee would likely have the edge in this contest because the Confederate flag flap may have fatally injured Romney and Thompson. While both candidates gave answers to this question that pleased most Americans, South Carolinians are none too pleased because of the significance of the Confederate flag in their lives.

4. If Huckabee wins Iowa and McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney is finished. McCain would take Romney's place in the three-way battle in South Carolina. This would be a difficult battle to handicap because the evangelical vote would go to Huckabee, the military vote would go to McCain, and anti-McCain and anti-tax voters would go to Thompson. South Carolinians punished McCain in 2000 and the anti-tax wing here is quite strong. These anti-tax voters may look at Huckabee's record with suspicion. Thompson may emerge as the hybrid candidate who embodies the best of his rivals.

5. If Thompson loses South Carolina, he is finished.

6. If Thompson wins South Carolina, he will be well positioned in Florida, another Southern state. However, Thompson's biggest problem is that he really doesn't have a political base anymore. McCain is the defense wing candidate. Romney is the business wing candidate. Giuliani is the moderate wing candidate. And Huckabee is the religious wing candidate. For Thompson to win, he will need the other candidates to cannibalize each other first and then for Giuliani to be seen as unacceptable to Republicans because of his "New York values."

Ron Paul (1.5%)

Ron Paul remains difficult to quantify. He is no longer the gadfly candidate in the field who was the target of much consternation and ridicule. His fundraising and creative politicking have caused his rivals to take notice and respect his candidacy.

But what will his fundraising and dedication among his supporters mean? And is his support really higher than what the polls suggest? The true gauge of his support will be ascertained from the New Hampshire primary results. New Hampshire, a state with strong independent and libertarian streaks, may provide Paul with a show of support that surprises everyone. But can this lead to an actual nomination?

My thinking is that there are a lot of voters who are committed to other candidates who like Ron Paul, but fear that he is not viable. This is the same type of thinking that likely typifies supporters of candidates like Duncan Hunter, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden. If Paul beats Thompson, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, or Giuliani in any state, that will serve as enough validation for these voters to switch allegiances and support Paul.

I do not expect Paul to drop his candidacy even after another candidate appears to be the inevitable nominee. If the GOP race comes down to Paul vs. some other candidate, perhaps Paul's purity on taxes and the Constitution would put him over the top. But would the Republican Party really give Paul the nomination at their party convention?

None of the above (.5%)

The political schizophrenia among Republican voters this year has never been seen before. Normally Republicans rush to crown their party's heir apparent. This is the consensus candidate who has worked his way up the party ranks. It happened with Nixon, Reagan, the elder Bush, Dole, and the current Bush. Because Cheney is not running and the leading candidates all have a serious deficiency, Republicans have been particularly fickle with whom to support. That candidate was John McCain before it was Fred Thompson before it was Mitt Romney before it was Mike Huckabee, all while Rudy Giuliani has remained at or near the top of all national GOP polls.

What will happen if Huckabee wins Iowa, McCain wins New Hampshire, Thompson wins South Carolina, Romney wins Michigan, Giuliani wins Florida, the Super Tuesday states break evenly, and Ron Paul wins 10-15% of the vote everywhere? What will happen if no single candidate emerges with a majority of delegates? What will happen at the GOP national convention next summer? Will the party nominate someone who is not even a current candidate? Could that someone be Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour? Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue? Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice? Indiana Senator Richard Lugar? This scenario is not likely, but it would be a dream for political junkies everywhere if it were to materialize. And while this is unlikely, given how many other unlikely scenarios have actually come to fruition in the GOP race so far this year, maybe a brokered convention is a more realistic possibility than we may think.

Only 18 more days before Iowa...


YouTube Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in their first YouTube debate last night and was produced by CNN. (You can read my initial take on the debate here.) This was CNN's second YouTube debate, as the Democrats participated in the first one back in July. This debate revealed a lot about the candidates and the media. More on that later.

Regarding the technical production of the debate, it seems that CNN took a few of my criticisms from the first YouTube debate to heart, as the videos were easier to hear and there were fewer technical problems, save for one man in the audience who accidentally turned off his microphone while addressing the candidates. Having said that, for the members of the audience, it might have been a bit too difficult to see the video questions because all the dead space involved should have been utilized to magnify the size of the videos. The best way I can describe this is to imagine placing a postcard on a regular sheet of paper and then enlarging it. The postcard will certainly fit, but you're also not taking advantage of all the extra functional space on the paper. More video and less graphics and whitespace is something future YouTube debate organizers should consider.

This debate started in a way that was similar to the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas in which the candidates were introduced one by one and stood at center stage for a few minutes for a photo op. While the members of the press corps were happily snapping away, CNN's political analysts were handicapping the debate. I personally think this photo op is something that should have happened after the debate (as I had written about here), but perhaps CNN followed this protocol in an attempt to be fair to the Republican candidates since this is what they did for the Democrats a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. The "honor system" rule regarding response time was also the same, although it rendered moderator Anderson Cooper impotent, especially during the first half of the debate as the candidates frequently interrupted him or ignored his prompts to yield the floor to another candidate.

Before I go any further, I must address the candidacies of Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. I've said that they needed to withdraw their candidacies because they are clearly mired at the back of the pack and do not occupy any political niche that isn't already filled by another candidate. However, like Mike Gravel, they have every right to run. And this is where the media become a problem. Neither Tancredo nor Hunter received much talk time at the debate, which brings up the same old criticism. If you're going to invite a candidate to participate in the debate, then you should not be so obvious in the way you marginalize them. I made that exact same criticism about the Democratic debate here. Of course, neither candidate really brought very much to the debate other than their positions on illegal immigration, so perhaps their limited talk time was justified. Having said that, future debate organizers are going to have to be honest with themselves and figure out what to do with these two candidates because the time given to them could have been more effectively used by the other candidates.

As for the selection of questions, I was surprised that there were no questions about Iran and healthcare, both of which have been major stories in the news recently in light of the escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran and the recent veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Rudy Giuliani in particular has criticized the Democrats for not mentioning the words "Islamic terrorism" in their debates, but I curiously noted how none of the Republican candidates mentioned the name "George Bush." It would seem to me that both political parties have a bit of a disconnect in that many voters may feel the Democrats don't take terrorism seriously enough and that a lot of voters may feel the Republicans don't understand just how unpopular Bush really is. Ronald Reagan's name came up more often than Bush's did, as has been the case in every GOP debate thus far, but one of the unintended consequences of praising Ronald Reagan so much is that it reminds Republican voters that George Bush is most certainly not Ronald Reagan. And in a political environment in which voters want "change," is going back to the '80s the right way to address these "change" voters? Hillary Clinton shares this exact same problem with her nostalgia about the '90s.

After the introductions, photo-op, and explanation of the debate format, Anderson Cooper played a few video submissions that did not make the cut. The final video was one that featured a song lampooning the candidates and their weaknesses. It was a bit awkward watching the candidates feign laughter when their name came up to be ridiculed in the song. After all, who wants to laugh when someone is bringing their flaws out into the open before the first question is even asked? But the candidates seemed to do the best with what they had. This video was probably included to get the debate off on a light note, but it was probably unnecessary.

About the issues and exchanges

Illegal immigration is huge. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani spent the first 15 minutes or so of the debate hitting each other hard on this issue. Romney accused Giuliani of being the mayor of a "sanctuary city." Giuliani hit back by accusing Romney of living in a "sanctuary mansion," an obviously prepared line in reference to the illegal aliens that had worked at his house. Romney defended himself by saying the company that hired the illegal aliens to work at his house was responsible for verifying their employees' legal status, and Giuliani defended himself by saying there were only "three exceptions" that allowed illegal aliens to stay in New York. Both of their defenses seem pragmatic enough, but the problem with this back and forth between them is that it reminds Republican voters that both candidates are trying to portray themselves as further to the right on this issue than they were when they were governor of Massachusetts and mayor of New York. Like Tom Tancredo said, "they are trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo" on this issue and it makes both candidates look less credible on the issue.

Mike Huckabee also drew fire from Mitt Romney on illegal immigration and how special benefits had been offered to the children of illegal immigrants while he was governor of Arkansas. To Huckabee's credit, he addressed this issue without using the shrill tones and demonizing language that turns off more moderate voters. He also explained the scholarship program by showing how it reflected conservative Republican values (he emphasized that the recipients had to be drug free, honor students, in the process of applying for citizenship, etc.). Huckabee also reminded voters of his humble roots when he attacked Romney for his emotionally sterile attitude and perceived disdain for helping out those who are less fortunate. His pragmatism and his delivery provide a perfect example of why I believe Huckabee has such a wide appeal. Romney came out on the losing end of this exchange because it showed him to be a bit too perfect or a bit too removed from average people's lives.

Democrats would be wise to develop a coherent policy proposal regarding illegal immigration because it is clearly a much larger issue that could potentially blow up in their faces in the general election. It is that galvanizing. Even though the "driver's license" question was tough for Hillary Clinton, it should be considered a godsend for Democratic politicians everywhere who had up until then been content with sitting on the sidelines while the Republicans blasted each other over border security, amnesty, deportation, and guest worker programs. This issue is a very big deal.

John McCain seemed a bit more presidential than Romney and Giuliani. However, it often took him a long time to warm up in his responses, which led to lots of inspirational language, but not a lot of solutions. It's nice to know that "he came to the Senate not to do the easy things, but to do the hard things," but was it really necessary for him to drone on and on about what currently ails this nation? He also soberly reminded everyone that the Republicans failed when it came to spending and Hurricane Katrina, for example. The problem is that while everybody knows what the problems are, nobody wants to provide any meaningful solutions. McCain did cite eliminating pork barrel spending as a way to achieve fiscal responsibility, but that alone will not solve the issue. McCain clearly had his openings tonight, but did not take full advantage of them because of how much time he spent saying things that everybody already knew. But despite that, I do believe he turned in a stronger performance than Giuliani and Romney simply because he didn't seem snippy, petty, or shrill.

Romney and McCain got into a spat over waterboarding. Obviously, as a former prisoner of war, McCain is uniquely qualified to talk about this issue. And he totally dismantled Romney when Romney said "it would not be prudent to disclose which interrogation methods we use because our enemies would know what to expect." The problem with Romney's remarks is that, while they may be popular with the GOP base, they could easily be countered in a way that catches these politicians in a contradiction. For example, if someone were to ask if it were okay for American interrogators to cut off the fingers or arms of captured terrorism suspects, surely all of these candidates would say that should never be condoned. So if it's okay to come down hard against one form of torture, why is it okay to be evasive or tight-lipped about another form of torture? Romney should develop a follow-up response to this line of questioning because trying to avoid the issue by saying it would aid the terrorists might not be enough to placate his critics.

This spat shows a major rift among Republicans. One wing of the party believes everything should be on the table when it comes to national security. Another wing is a bit more pragmatic and warns about the slippery slope of allowing torture. Avoiding discussing the issue like Romney did (and the way Bush does today) seems to be a way to straddle the fence, but it really opens you up for attack from all sides.

Fiscal conservatives are probably not too happy with any of the candidates. When a question came up about national debt reduction, the strategies proposed were "spending cuts the way Ronald Reagan did, eliminating pork, fundamental change in the way Washington works, entitlement reform, and using technology to improve efficiency." The problem here is that these are all generalities that any average person can come up with. Had a candidate gotten a bit more specific and conveyed a reasonable grasp of the potential consequences of these proposals, that candidate would have won major plaudits. The moderator gave Fred Thompson a chance to do this and tried to pin him down on his strategies towards fiscal responsibility (especially after he said "he had specific plans"), but he wouldn't elaborate. That was likely another disappointment for Republican voters who wonder if there is any "there" there with Thompson. (Read more of my criticisms about our superficial level of political discourse here.)

This is one reason why I believe Ron Paul turned in a stronger debate performance than most of the other candidates. Rather than making vague statements (we have to fix Social Security, we're winning in Iraq, we must secure our borders, etc.) and attacking low hanging fruit (pork spending, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Hillary Clinton, etc.), Ron Paul actually listed specifics. He proposed cutting the Departments of Education, Energy, and Homeland Security, for example, to cut down on spending because they were failing and bloated bureaucracies. The political establishment may view his remarks as burning your bridges with the electorate, but I get the sense that a lot more voters are viewing his frankness as a refreshing blast of political courage. John McCain also tried to display similar courage in terms of reforming the tax code. However, his delivery reeked of the same superficial rhetoric that I believe voters are fed up with:

"If Congress can't fix the tax code, then give me the job. I will fix it."
When he said this, the camera panned to a woman in the audience who rolled her eyes. Perhaps she is one of those fed up voters who wants real substance, rather than rhetoric.

McCain also made one other more damaging mistake. He went after Ron Paul on foreign policy and military intervention, but his attack blew up in his face. McCain said that "Ron Paul's isolationism caused World War II" and that "we allowed Hitler to come to power." Why McCain invoked Hitler is unknown, but that seemed a bit over the top. Ron Paul then hit back in a way that undermined McCain's grasp of foreign affairs. McCain accused Ron Paul of being an "isolationist," but Paul is really a "noninterventionist." There is a big difference between the two terms that a lot of average voters might not have known about until Ron Paul spelled it out for them last night. (For the record, a noninterventionist is open to communicating and trading with the rest of the world. An isolationist, however, has limited or no such contact with the rest of the world at all. Think about the differences between Sweden and North Korea, for example.) This exchange made Ron Paul appear more knowledgeable about foreign policy than military veteran McCain did--and at McCain's expense.

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the debate concerned the issue of Chinese product safety. When this question came up, it was inexplicably only given to Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter! I am sure there were a lot of women with children in particular who would have loved to hear what Giuliani, Romney, McCain, and Thompson had to say about this issue. What a lousy decision on the part of Anderson Cooper!

Voters did, however, hear Giuliani's position on gun rights, and I don't think conservatives liked what they heard. In addition to talking around the question he was asked (about having to pass a written test to be able to purchase a firearm), Giuliani said that "the government can impose reasonable regulations" and cited things like background checks and mental health checks. This would appeal to moderates, but conservatives most certainly don't want to hear anything about adding new government regulations. I believe this could potentially divide Giuliani's base. Are national security voters and Second Amendment voters one and the same? If they are, Giuliani is in trouble.

On the question of who owns a gun, Mitt Romney should have kept his mouth shut:
"I have two guns in my home. They're owned by my son Josh."
For a Republican candidate whose love for guns has long been suspect, Romney would have been better off staying quiet. Instead, he reminded voters that the caricature of Romney being a panderer had some validity. This remark reeked of "me too-ishness."

Gun voters aren't the only ones who likely left the debate dissatisfied. Black voters were also probably shaking their heads. There were two questions about Black issues--one on Black-on-Black crime and one on why Blacks don't vote Republican. Romney showed that he had very little understanding of the issue of Black-on-Black crime by taking the Sam Brownback approach and saying "having a mom and dad" is the best way to save inner city communities. Is he serious? Of course, for the millions of Blacks living in single-parent homes in the inner city, "having a mom and dad" isn't going to do a single thing about the fact that these people need help now.

Rudy Giuliani also totally flubbed a question about why Blacks don't vote Republican. He lamely said that "we don't do a good enough job of conveying that our party is a good fit for Blacks and Hispanics" before pivoting to welfare reform. For any readers out there who are wondering how politicians can make inroads with Black voters, you can start by acknowledging the utter failure of the government at all levels to take care of the people affected by Hurricane Katrina. Rudy Giuliani could have mentioned how the New York City Police Department mishandled situations like the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant in his own doorway. Issues of police brutality, racial profiling, taking money out of failing inner city public schools and putting it into (White) suburban private schools, not commenting on hot-button issues like the Jena Six case, and not bothering with reaching out to Blacks because "they'll never vote for a Republican anyway" would be good places for a Republican to start!

How can Republicans be so passionate in their rhetoric about fighting terrorists in Iraq and getting rid of illegal aliens coming from Mexico, but have so little to say when it comes to issues affecting millions of Blacks living within America's own borders? Do you remember the ignorance Fred Thompson displayed when asked about the Jena 6 case? It's a shame that Anderson Cooper did not ask everyone this question. The only person who displayed any sense of competency on this issue was Mike Huckabee, who mentioned some of the medical issues that commonly affect Blacks, such as AIDS, hypertension, and diabetes. Should he be the nominee, I expect him to attract a lot of Black votes. He seemed to be the only candidate on the stage last night who actually "gets it," just like Ron Paul "gets it" when it comes to how Iraq is draining our treasury:
"We're using our taxes to blow up buildings and bridges overseas, but we don't use that money to actually build buildings and bridges in the US! We need to get government off our back and out of our wallets!"
Romney's answer on the question of the Bible will come back to haunt him. His Mormonism is obviously a big deal in this primary and when he was asked if he believed "every word of the Bible," his answer was painful to listen to. For evangelical Christians, there is no tolerance for equivocating on such an issue. And Romney, unfortunately, took three big steps back when he answered the question "I may interpret the Bible differently than you do, but I believe the Bible is the word of God." (No answer on whether he believes "every word" of it though.) His answer wasn't really bad, but it was not good enough for evangelical Christians. Huckabee did a much better job of answering this question, but it was probably a bit unfair that he got to answer such an easy question, given the fact that he's a Baptist minister. Romney has been trying hard to lay the questions about his religion to rest, but I think he may have created more questions than he answered.

One of the questions that perhaps no Republican wanted to field was the question about how long the US military should stay in Iraq. The question came from a staunch Iraq War supporter who wants the US to maintain a long-term presence there. None of the candidates who answered that question hinted that they would advocate staying in Iraq for 5 or 10 more years. Instead, they answered the question with the common generality "We'll stay in Iraq until the mission is finished." Anderson Cooper could have made things a bit more interesting by asking what "the mission" is, but he missed the opening.

Perhaps the biggest surprise involved a question towards the end of the debate about what the Confederate flag meant. Mitt Romney took a pretty firm stand against the flag by saying "I don't recognize that flag. There are not two Americas. There is only one. We need to get beyond that stuff." This likely pleased moderates and any Blacks who were paying attention until turned them off again by saying "the Democrats are dividing America." And on top of that, his remarks probably doomed him in the early primary state of South Carolina. Politicos remember how John McCain was fatally wounded by his stance on the Confederate flag in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary against George Bush. The reason why this is a big deal for Mitt Romney is because he had been trying to make the sale to Southern conservatives that he is "one of them" despite being from Massachusetts, being a Mormon, and once being on the wrong side of abortion and gay marriage. Coming down hard against the Confederate flag is one step below coming down hard against the Bible in South Carolina, where the flag still flies in front of the statehouse and in front of private residences throughout the rural areas of the state. It's common to see vehicles here with Confederate flag decals and vanity plates, so these (likely Republican) voters were probably offended by Romney's remarks. These remarks alone moved Romney out of the "conservative" category and into the "liberal" one as far as South Carolinians are concerned. This is irrevocable.

Fred Thompson offered a more nuanced position on the flag:
"Not everyone who flies the flag is a racist, but some people who fly it are. It should not be flown in public places."
Again, Southern conservatives were likely not pleased by these remarks. And South Carolinians are probably going to ask him about the flag flying in front of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. After being disappointed by Mitt Romney's remarks, these voters were probably waiting for "the great conservative hope" to say the flag meant "standing up for states' rights," which can mean many things including a code word for racism. I once compared Fred Thompson to Barack Obama prior to his late entry in the race because of the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign. However, it now seems like his candidacy has fallen to the ground with an unceremonious thud. If Thompson can't keep White Southern conservative males in his tent, then he has no base left.

Disaffected Democrats watching this debate probably were not converted last night. Aside from Huckabee, Paul, and maybe McCain, none of the Republican candidates gave any reasons why they should be President. Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson were all too busy trying to cut each other down. And when they weren't doing that, they were busy avoiding giving straight answers. (Consider Romney's backing away from the question about looking forward to the day when gays can openly serve in the military.) I can't help but wonder if Republicans feel the same way about their frontrunner candidates as the Democrats do about theirs because it seems like the candidates who should be getting all the attention are the ones further in the back of the pack. Huckabee, Paul, and McCain seem much better qualified for the presidency than Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani. The same holds true for Richardson, Biden, and Dodd for the Democrats.

As for the Democrats, even though she wasn't on stage last night, Hillary Clinton still managed to find a way to get involved in negative politics. One of the men who asked a question at the debate was a member of Clinton's steering committee. In addition to making CNN look biased, it reminded voters of the scandal that characterized the Clinton years. That should motivate Republicans and depress Democrats, thus feeding into the notion that she is the most beatable Democrat. The question was about letting gays serve in the military. It was a good question, especially since gays are being discharged even though they may be proficient Arabic speakers who are invaluable given the War on Terror. However, the scandalous side of the story threatens to overpower the actual issue, and that is unfortunate.

It is worth noting that the man who posed this question was a gay 43-year Army veteran and a retired one-star general. When he challenged why gays should be discharged for their sexual orientation, the audience actually booed him. I thought that was in terribly bad form, especially from voters who commonly criticize Democrats for not "supporting the troops." Some pundits criticized the media for even including this question in a Republican debate because "it's not an issue that matters to Republican voters," but I disagree. If the GOP is serious about moving beyond straight White Christian males with shotguns, then it's going to have to be serious about addressing these issues.

All in all, the main questions that I think will emerge from this debate are the following:

1. Will Huckabee replace Romney as the Christian conservative alternative to Giuliani?

2. Is Fred Thompson relevant?

3. At what point will conservatives refuse to further compromise their values by supporting Giuliani?

4. Will New Hampshire independents support Obama or McCain?

5. Can Romney recover?


The Republican YouTube Debate: Initial Thoughts

Tonight was the long-awaited Republican YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida. This debate was a particularly nasty one in which several candidates drew blood. This post will only provide a general overview of my thoughts on the debate. A more detailed analysis of the evening's happenings will be written tomorrow or Friday.

The setup

The leading candidates were placed at the center of the stage and the lower-tier candidates were placed on the sides. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were placed next to each other, which made for several tense exchanges. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter were essentially the bookends on stage. I thought this was a smart decision by CNN. I hope future debate organizers continue this arrangement.

CNN and the moderator

Anderson Cooper did a better job of handling this debate than Wolf Blitzer did at the last CNN Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that "better" is a relative term, rather than an absolute one. Cooper did not have much control over this debate, as the candidates commonly ignored his prompts to wind up their responses, especially in the first half of the debate when most of the fireworks took place. To Cooper's credit, however, he did do a respectable job of following up on some of the candidates' responses and reminding them of the questions they were actually asked.

To CNN's credit, this debate was better produced than the Democratic one and the post-debate analysis was more interesting to watch because they focused on all of the candidates (save for Tancredo and Hunter), instead of just the top two or three (as in the Clinton-Obama lovefest happening with the media and the Democratic race).

Mitt Romney

This debate was a disaster for Romney. He had several weak moments, including getting dressed down by John McCain on torture, getting broadsided by Giuliani on illegal immigration, flubbing a question about believing every word in the Bible, and getting caught flat-footed when his previous remarks about gays in the military blew up in his face. Republicans in South Carolina also likely were not impressed with his answer on the Confederate flag. In short, Romney came across as someone who had no core convictions, and that is not presidential at all.

Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani turned in a stronger performance than Romney, but his problems with social conservatives are not going away. I believe there is significant overlap between voters who value national security and voters who value their rights to bear firearms. Giuliani's hedging response to the question about access to guns probably gave these voters some pause. And will talk about "appointing strict constructionist judges" really be enough to offset the fact that he is obviously a pro-choice federalist? Women voters also might not have liked the way he attacked Mitt Romney on the issue of illegal immigrants working at his "sanctuary mansion." Giuliani did mention September 11 again tonight, but it did not seem to have the potency it once did.

Fred Thompson

Thompson's performance was a bit steadier than Giuliani's and Romney's, but I get the sense that his ship has sailed. He had a few funny lines, but his answers were often droning, uneven, and uninspiring. Questions about how seriously he is taking this campaign will not be doused by his performance tonight. And for a candidate who is trying to position himself as the favorite of Southern conservatives, will they be disappointed by his statements about the Confederate flag? Moderates and more progressive-minded voters were likely pleased, but I notice when he made those remarks, there was very little applause from the audience. Thompson didn't hurt himself tonight, but I don't think he will emerge with much momentum.

John McCain

McCain was arguably the winner of the debate. His answers were firm and he came across as a resolute, pragmatic, honest, battle-tested statesman. He seemed to be the grown-up on stage, as his remarks placed him above the fray that was developing between Romney and Giuliani. The moral authority he had regarding torture came through in the way he criticized Romney for not unequivocally stating that he was against the practice of waterboarding. Independent New Hampshire voters likely were reminded of the John McCain they fell in love with in 2000. The question for McCain, however, is how many of these independent voters will actually vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary? Keep in mind that independents can vote in any party primary they wish. Will these independents show up at the polls for McCain? Or will they show up for Barack Obama?

Mike Huckabee

Simply put, Mike Huckabee is serious. I've been writing about Huckabee for several months now and the evidence continues to mount that this is probably the single most difficult Republican for Democrats to defeat, especially if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton. He successfully fielded several potentially dangerous questions, such as a question about the apparent contradiction between being pro-life and supporting the death penalty. He also had the line of the night in which he said that Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office. Evangelical Christians have found their candidate, and it's not Mitt Romney. I have detected a change in the way the media are covering Huckabee over the past week or so, however. Some of the questions he received were softballs, like the question about how much of the Bible he believed. I expect him to have to explain his policies in more detail in the future, as opposed to simply explaining his values. When will he be asked about his desire to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, for example? Anyway, people often talk about a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, but if Huckabee keeps up these strong performances, he may very well emerge as the lone remaining conservative alternative to a Rudy Giuliani nomination.

Ron Paul

I get the sense that the other Republican candidates are absolutely sick of Ron Paul. His foreign policy and Iraq positions are clearly out of step with the GOP base and the audience made their disapproval known several times when they booed him. However, of all the candidates, Ron Paul did the most thorough job of explaining his policies and why his opponents' policies were wrong. One of his best moments came when he talked about the folly of spending so much money to "blow up bridges and buildings in Iraq when we could use that money to build bridges and buildings here." One of the questions he received asked if he would run as an independent in the event that he doesn't win the Republican nomination. Even though the establishment clearly doesn't seem to like him, I sense that his appeal among regular voters is quite real.

Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter

There really is no point in keeping these two candidates on stage. Neither candidate brought much to the debate in terms of their own ideas or putting other candidates on the defensive. When will Tancredo and Hunter get the Mike Gravel and Alan Keyes treatment?

In short...

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are probably not feeling too hot right now.

John McCain and Mike Huckabee should continue their rise in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.

Fred Thompson stopped the bleeding in the polls, but it might be too little too late.

Ron Paul is directing his own movie.

Expect a tightening of the polls in the early voting states and nationwide over the next few days. The race for the GOP presidential nomination is truly a case study in political schizophrenia.

A more detailed analysis will follow later this week.


Sorting out the Religious Right (R)

One of the main components of the Republican base is the Christian right. These evangelicals and social conservatives place a premium on addressing the issues of restricting abortion, banning gay marriage, keeping God in the public square, and restricting stem cell research. Despite President Bush's failures (Katrina, managing the war in Iraq, spending) and controversies (the Valerie Plame saga, domestic wiretapping), the Christian right generally gives Bush high marks because of two obscure men: John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Bush's conservative nominees for the Supreme Court.

As we enter the twilight of Bush's presidency, the Christian right is now looking for Bush's successor. Given that the next vacancies on the Supreme Court are likely to come from liberal retirements (Justices Ginsburg and Stevens), one would think that Christian Republican voters would pay special attention to the current field of Republican presidential candidates and coalesce behind the candidate that best represents their views. Given the size of their ranks and their ability to haul in campaign cash, the Christian right is a powerful wing of the Republican Party that most Republican politicians actively court.

But something seems wrong this campaign season. The top six Republicans (Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson) all have major flaws that prevent conservatives in general from throwing their weight behind any single candidate. In turn, that makes the Republican field particularly difficult to analyze.

Rudy Giuliani, who is on his third wife, seems hawkish enough on defense and has a 9-11 halo, but he has dressed in drag and has moderate to liberal views on abortion, gay marriage, and guns. Mike Huckabee is a credible conservative, but the antitax wing of the party has serious reservations about him and he is dogged by perceptions that he can't raise money and he can't win the general election. John McCain has a long record of conservative accomplishments, but he has angered the Republican base with his views on campaign finance reform and illegal immigration and alienated evangelicals when he refered to leaders such as Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance". Ron Paul is staunchly pro-life and a fiscal hawk, but his libertarian views put him out of step with traditional Republicans. Mitt Romney's personal biography allows him to appear as a family values Republican, but his religion matters to evangelicals and his rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail is quite different from his previous rhetoric from his governor and Senate races in Massachussetts. Fred Thompson was supposed to be the conservative savior for Republicans who liked "none of the above," but he has tended to underwhelm on the campaign trail and he has made statements suggesting that he does not fully understand some of the issues and/or is not as conservative as people had originally made him out to be.

So I would expect that support for any of these candidates is soft. This confusion and fragmentation apparently characterizes the Christian right as well. Consider the endorsement race. Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Thompson, although Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is strongly against Thompson. Bob Jones University Chancellor Dr. Bob Jones III endorsed Romney. Former presidential candidate and evangelical favorite Sam Brownback threw his support behind McCain. And then there are rumors that James Dobson may endorse Huckabee.

What does this all mean? For one, it means that ideological purity might not be as important as electability. This would explain Giuliani's high level endorsement and Huckabee's lack thereof, although Huckabee is much stronger in Iowa than Giuliani is. It may also mean that past legislative accomplishments matter more than rhetoric and promises about the future. This would explain Thompson's endorsement, as the NRLC cited his previous votes on abortion in the Senate at their reason for supporting him while disregarding the federalist views he expressed recently on Meet the Press. However, this would not explain the Romney endorsement. It may also mean that the Christian right is more diverse than pundits realize in terms of their priorities. Does this mean that a Democrat could attract evangelical support? It could also mean that Hillary Clinton is influencing evangelicals just like she's influencing Republicans in general. This would explain Romney's endorsement, as Dr. Jones said "this is all about beating Hillary." This naturally begs the question of what would happen if Clinton were to lose the Democratic presidential nomination.

There are still too many candidates in the race to make sense of this. But there are a few things that could happen that would help clear things up a bit:

1. Hillary Clinton's lead could become even more precarious. If Republicans begin to doubt that Clinton will win the nomination, how will this affect Giuliani and his endorsement from Pat Robertson?

2. The annual "War on Christmas." This seems to be a favorite of Fox News and religious conservatives. Will a Republican be tripped up on the campaign trail by a question about "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays?" Could that be a tiebreaker that moves evangelicals from one Republican to another?

3. A surprise Supreme Court vacancy. Should Justice Stevens retire before the race for the Republican nomination is settled and Bush appoint a new conservative justice who gets approved by the Democratic Senate, would evangelicals' political agenda be fulfilled? Replacing Stevens with a conservative justice would likely be enough to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which is a major goal of evangelicals. Would these evangelicals further mobilize to pack the Supreme Court with a possible sixth anti-Roe justice? If so, who would they coalesce behind?

4. Fourth quarter fundraising totals. If Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee turns heads with their fundraising in December, will that dry up evangelical support for candidates like John McCain and Fred Thompson? This is not to say that evangelicals will support Ron Paul, but it would allow them to question the wisdom of supporting Thompson if Paul can raise more money than he can.

5. The Iowa results. The Iowa caucuses are less than two months away. What will happen if Mike Huckabee places a strong second or beats Mitt Romney and wins the contest outright? Will evangelicals view this as unimpeachable evidence that Huckabee, not Romney, is the most viable candidate who represents their views?

Stay tuned.


The Ron Paul Appeal

In what may be shocking to establishment politicos everywhere, Ron Paul raised about $4 million online yesterday. That's $4 million raised in a single day. I can only imagine how John McCain and Mike Huckabee feel about this. Even though their polling is much better, their fundraising can't compete with this.

I really don't know how to classify Ron Paul, nor do I know how to accurately gauge his true support. But it seems to me like Paul's support is coming from the following:

1. Libertarians. The Libertarian Party is the third largest political party in the United States. Libertarians are often torn between voting for their party's nominee and voting Republican in general elections. Republicans' positions on limited government, fiscal conservatism, and gun rights please Libertarians even though their results might not always match their rhetoric. The religious part of the Republican platform, however, discourages Libertarians who believe no religion (including Christianity) should be accommodated or discouraged by the government. Thus, the evangelical wing of the party is a big turnoff to live and let live Libertarians. Ron Paul offers the libertarian side of Republicanism without the religious side of it.

2. Gun owners. Like abortion, the right to bear arms is one of the rare issues in which people vote the issue rather than the party. NRA members generally endorse and vote for Republicans, but they will warmly support a Democrat who shares their views as well. However, some of the leading Republicans are viewed with suspicion because of their views on guns. Mitt Romney's appreciation of the 2nd Amendment and hunting are not seen as credible because of his recent conversion on the issues. And lately, Romney seems to be running as the candidate for the corporate wing of the Republican Party, rather than the sportsman wing of the party. Front-runner Rudy Giuliani is also viewed as suspect because of his crackdown on guns when he was mayor of New York. Giuliani did address the National Rifle Association earlier this campaign season and tried to make the point that "my 80% friend is not my 20% enemy." This is a good strategy, but the problem with it is that, as I stated earlier, gun rights are one of those issues in which people vote the issue instead of the party. Among NRA voters, a Democrat who is a gun rights advocate could beat a Republican who is a gun rights opponent. This is important in Midwestern states like Missouri, Michigan, and Ohio. For these gun rights voters, Ron Paul has a much stronger record on the issue that matters to them most than the two leading Republican candidates.

3. Antiwar voters. Ron Paul is as pure on Iraq as Dennis Kucinich is. So why isn't Kucinich benefiting as much from his antiwar purity as Ron Paul is? One reason is that you don't have to be a Democrat to be against the Iraq War. There are a lot of conservatives and Republicans who are infuriated with Bush over his prosecution of the war in Iraq. Paul correctly argues that the war is draining our resources, draining our treasury, and creating more problems than it solves. When he argues this, however, the other Republicans gang up on him as being out of touch with reality and implying that he is soft on terrorism. It seems that whenever Paul talks about the folly of Iraq, the other Republicans treat him as if he were a Democrat. The Rush Limbaugh crowd may love this, but there is a wing of highly educated Republicans that recoils in anger when they see candidates like Giuliani use Paul's arguments as a cheap applause line. (I use the term "highly educated Republicans" not to suggest that base voters aren't smart, but rather to say that these more educated voters are more likely to think rationally about politics and the consequences of our actions, rather than revert to simplistic knee-jerk thinking.)

4. Antitax voters and deficit hawks. Mike Huckabee is fast becoming the buzz candidate among Republicans. His consistently strong debate performances and his humble demeanor have given him lots of good press. Now he is a serious threat to Mitt Romney in Iowa and could potentially derail Fred Thompson in South Carolina. Huckabee does have one weakness in the eyes of Republicans, however: taxes. The Grover Norquist wing of the Republican Party is strongly against taxes because they believe they impact economic growth. Norquist's Club for Growth has strongly criticized Huckabee's record on taxes while he was the governor of Arkansas. Ron Paul is notorious for voting against excessive spending and tax increases. Pleasing the Club for Growth means one less enemy to worry about as you pursue the Republican nomination.

5. Constitutionalists. It's very hard for the other Republican candidates to refute Ron Paul when he cites the Constitution as the basis on which he formulates his policy. In the debates, the other candidates were clearly annoyed by Paul's assertions that some of Republicans' policies were against the Constitution. Rudy Giuliani in particular talks about the importance of nominating "strict constructionalists" to the federal courts. However, Ron Paul applies "strict constructionism" to his legislation and policies as well. Thus, Paul can more credibly claim to be the Constitution's chief defender.

6. Grassroots appeal. Voters don't like being told that they should abandon their desired candidate because they are wasting their votes. And voters love David and Goliath stories. All the media coverage, polling, and fundraising totals favor Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney. Ron Paul, however, has a particularly strong online presence that is seeping over into real world presence. Paul has won several straw polls and is turning out in droves at his campaign events. I have seen more Ron Paul signs in South Carolina than signs for John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. There seems to be a greater sense of individual ownership in the Paul campaign. Instead of waiting for Paul to get his message out, his supporters are doing it for him in viral ways. How often have you read a political article online that has been flooded with comments supporting Ron Paul's presidential bid?

7. Appeal among cynics. Ron Paul has maintined an impressive level of ideological consistency on the campaign trail. He's not focusing so much on bashing the Democrats or on getting Republicans to like him. His message has consistently been about freedom and the Constitution. This lack of pandering and focus on the pressing issues of our time make him seem apolitical, which is appealing to voters who have had enough of rhetoric and trying to one-up their political opponents. Ron Paul is not alone in this regard, as Mike Huckabee, Bill Richardson, and maybe even John McCain are all focusing more on their records and ideas rather than the warts of their opponents.

This leads me to wonder if the prototype of a Ron Paul supporter is a hodgepodge of several different types of voters. With Fred Thompson, it is reasonable to view his supporters as primarily White, Southern, conservative males. And Rudy Giuliani is popular with Midwestern and Northern moderates. Hillary Clinton is drawing the bulk of her support from women and Blacks. And Barack Obama is popular among younger, well educated voters. But what about Ron Paul? It seems like Paul's support has been cobbled together from various constituencies which would not appear to be natural allies at first glance.

So why isn't he registering in the polls? I mentioned several weeks ago how it would be interesting to see how well Paul performed in New Hampshire, the most conservative-libertarian state in the Northeast. Could it be that a lot of his supporters are feigning allegiance to other candidates when they are surveyed even though they really plan on supporting Paul in the primaries? I honestly can't figure Ron Paul out.


Michigan Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate that focused primarily on economic issues this afternoon in Dearborn, Michigan. The debate was co-moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Matthews has found himself at the center of a controversy because of remarks he recently made at the Hardball 10th anniversary celebration. (You can read more about the remarks here.) In short, Matthews made some comments about the Bush Administration that suggested he was biased against Republicans and conservatives. Although attacking Matthews over this provided low hanging fruit for the Republican candidates, none of them took the bait and Matthews emerged unscathed.

This debate was long anticipated and scrutinized closely because it was the first time Fred Thompson was on the same stage as all the other candidates. One of the chief criticisms of his campaign is the sense that he has been evasive because of his long "testing the waters" period and his refusal to accept Mike Huckabee's invitation to one-on-one debates despite Thompson's earlier claim that he wanted to participate in smaller forums.

Another reason why this debate was unlike the others is because for the first time, the ghost of Newt Gingrich was no longer a presence. Since Gingrich had formally ruled out a presidential run, the already declared candidates didn't have to look over their shoulders anymore and fear a galvanizing figure with strong conservative credentials throwing his hat in the ring. The Democratic candidates can't quite yet say that about Al Gore, however, even though he is running out of time to jump in.

Here are my thoughts:

There are too many candidates in the race for these debates to be as useful as they possibly could be at this stage in the game. There were nine candidates on stage competing for talk time. People have often complained about the Democratic debates and how the no-shot candidates continue to be included. Future debate organizers should consider implementing a threshold for participation. This threshold could be based on polling, fundraising, campaign organization, or some other factor that reasonably assesses a candidate's credibility and/or viability. Until the number of participants in these debates is reduced, it will be much more difficult for the credible candidates to engage each other in a meaningful exchange of ideas. As a result, this will serve to the advantage of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney because it will be harder for the middle-of-the-pack candidates to distinguish themselves.

Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, and maybe Tom Tancredo should seriously reconsider their campaigns. Sam Brownback was one of the clear losers in the Ames straw poll back in August. Even worse, the candidate he lost to was Mike Huckabee, who occupies the same political niche that Brownback is trying to fill. After that straw poll (and his consistently strong debate performances), Huckabee has eclipsed Brownback in opinion polls while Brownback has remained stagnant. There's not enough room in the race for two consistent social and religious conservatives. Huckabee has earned that mantle. As for Duncan Hunter, he has the same problem with Tom Tancredo that Brownback has with Huckabee. Tancredo is polling somewhat better than Hunter and is the more compelling speaker. Both candidates are vying for the role of the anti-illegal immigration, tough on national security hardliner. To this date, Tancredo has gained a fair bit of traction while Hunter has not.

Fred Thompson performed adequately, but he did not perform well enough to squash the budding caricature of him as a bumbler who is not quite ready for prime time. Thompson's delivery was halting and uneven at times as he had a tendency to meander. The substance of what he was saying should generally placate conservatives, but at times he seemed not to know when he should finish his answers and stop talking. This led to instances of Thompson talking a lot, but saying a little. This is something he should work on before his mouth gets away from him and he says something he regrets. For example, consider his meandering response to the question about the threat of a weak dollar.

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani may want to focus on Hillary Clinton, but they do so at their own peril. Both of these candidates are the co-leaders of the Republican presidential pack. Giuliani is the national frontrunner while Romney is the early primary state frontrunner (thanks to his strong support in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada). Are they both focusing on Hillary Clinton to gin up the base while drawing the spotlight away from their own warts? Is Giuliani still worried about his moderate to liberal stances on social issues? Is Romney still concerned that conservatives aren't buying his "conversion" to conservatism? Will ranting about "Hillary," "Hillarycare," and "the Clintons" be enough to make conservatives hold their noses while they vote in the primaries for the obviously not conservative Giuliani or the suspicious Romney?

Rudy Giuliani would be wise to evoke September 11 a bit more prudently. Giuliani has been criticized a lot recently for tying so many of his behaviors and policies to these terrorist attacks. He even went so far as to attribute his taking a call on his cell phone from his wife in the middle of a speech to the NRA to September 11. Ron Paul was making a firm point about the war in Iraq and the potential war with Iran and said that there has never been an imminent attack on the United States in 220 years. Giuliani then reminded him of September 11. Paul defended himself by saying the terrorists were "19 thugs instead of a country," but Giuliani asserted that "there were operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that "we could have launched a strike that would have disrupted their operations." (These are not direct quotations.) Anyway, Giuliani's responses seem okay on the surface and would likely appeal to voters who generally do not dig a bit deeper. However, in this exchange with Ron Paul, how could a terrorist strike in Pakistan have stopped the September 11 attacks if the hijackers were all in the United States by the time these attacks became "imminent?" Will a candidate begin to poke holes in Giuliani's 9-11 mantra in the future and diminish his executive/national security image? The openings are definitely there.

Ron Paul must be taken seriously as a spoiler candidate. Paul's fundraising for the third quarter has been particularly impressive. However, because he continues to languish in the polls, it is difficult to gauge exactly where his support is coming from. Barry Goldwater conservatives who have a more libertarian view of social issues may find some resonance with Paul. The same could be said for Grover Norquist anti-tax conservatives. Ditto for anti-war liberals who like his clarity on the unconstitutionality of the war in Iraq. Younger voters who are less likely to have the same hangups that older voters have regarding issues like homosexuality and gay marriage may be more intrigued by his libertarian message as well. Paul received several rounds of sustained applause after some of his responses in this debate as well as earlier ones. The candidates most threatened by a Paul ascendancy are John McCain and Barack Obama. Iowan Republicans are a bit too socially conservative as a whole for Paul to crack, but all bets are off in New Hampshire, whose motto is "Live free or die." Because independents can participate in the New Hampshire primaries, Paul could draw independent Republicans from Obama and independent Democrats from the maverick John McCain who has traditionally attracted significant independent support. The purity, thoughtfulness, and consistency of his arguments have helped his rise from political obsolescence to annoying gadfly to a voice of logic and reason that many other candidates seem not to want to hear.

John McCain seems to be more of a national security candidate than an economic issues candidate. McCain's strong performance at the last debate in New Hampshire led to a flurry of stories about "McCain's revival." I highly doubt those stories will continue based on his performance at today's debate. McCain spoke with far less conviction when he was talking about corporate issues than he does when he talks about terrorism and Iraq. Aside from criticizing pork and wasteful government spending, McCain did not seem particularly passionate about discussing corporate profits, free trade, and labor unions.

Mitt Romney's gaffe about seeking attorneys' guidance before attacking Iran will come back to haunt him. Romney already has to deal with the caricature of being just a little too slick. A slick candidate making a gaffe about slick lawyers regarding the decidedly unslick issue of national security is problematic. And worse of all, Republicans want strong executive leadership. If a Democrat had said the president had to consult attorneys before making such critical national security decisions, he would have been absolutely pummeled by the Republicans. How will Giuliani and the other candidates exploit this misstep? It definitely undercuts his image as an executive, that's for sure.

There was a lot of sloganeering and cheerleading at the debate which came at the expense of fleshing out actual policy discussions. When the candidates were asked what the greatest threat was to the United States' economic prosperity was, several of them cited "a lack of optimism." Pep talks about "no more doom and gloom" and "being the greatest nation on Earth" may make voters feel good, but they don't address the actual threats to our nation's economic security that can be addressed by policy, such as the deficit, trade imbalances, energy independence, China, the defense budget, or taxes. It reminds me of religious conservative politicians who believe prayer is the best antidote to many of society's ills while government assistance, educational opportunities, economic development, and community involvement often go unmentioned. There's obviously nothing wrong with prayer, but anybody can pray. However, only politicians and lawmakers have access to the levers of power that control the tangible resources that can actually make a difference.

Mike Huckabee is very, very dangerous. I've written about Huckabee's potential as early as the second Republican debate back in May. I've studied Huckabee's comments in all the debates so far and he seems to be a much more credible, thoughtful conservative than either Romney or Thompson. He is also able to make references to Southern and rural culture that sound natural, rather than forced. For example, Huckabee made a simple analogy about NASCAR and taxes or some other economic policy. ("In NASCAR, when you pull into the pit stop, you get what you need and you get it fast.") This is a perfect example of breaking down political double talk into plain ol' English. He even managed to casually work in a reference to "Goober and Gomer" for good measure! While Giuliani and Romney train their guns on each other and on Hillary Clinton, they had better be careful that Huckabee doesn't snatch the nomination from them. During the post-debate show Huckabee said, "If A takes care of B, then C will be the nominee." This could be prophetic. The problem Huckabee poses for Romney and Giuliani is that they cannot attack his conservative credentials. It's no secret that conservatives are conflicted about Romney, Giuliani, and even Fred Thompson. But Huckabee is a much better ideological fit for them and he can talk about his conservatism much more credibly. He is a better speaker than Thompson and can match Romney and Giuliani in terms of executive experience. Huckabee has been clawing his way through the pack on a shoestring budget and is finally getting some fairly steady press coverage. Consider the recent Des Moines Register Poll showing Huckabee in third in Iowa ahead of Giuliani. Simply put, Mike Huckabee is real. This candidate is a much more serious threat to the Democrats in general than Rudy Giuliani is.


Thoughts on the Republican Black Forum

Last week most of the Republican presidential candidates attended a forum moderated by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The Democrats had attended a similar forum earlier this year. This debate was unique in that none of the four leading Republicans attended, with each citing "scheduling conflicts." Four empty podiums stood on stage in their (dis)honor. Much has been written about the absences of Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, so this post won't go into that. Instead, I'd like to focus a bit more on what I observed from the candidates who actually did participate.

Before going any further, I want to commend Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and newcomer Alan Keyes for at least giving the forum a chance and attempting to deliver their message to a potentially hostile crowd. It is no secret that Blacks tend to vote Democratic by about an 8 to 1 ratio. Defenders of the absent candidates often cite this statistic before saying "Blacks would never vote for us anyway, so why bother?"

Yes, that may be the easy way to rationalize blowing off the most politically powerful minority voting bloc in America, but here's why that line of thinking is wrong. Republicans seem to think that they have to "win" the Black vote, as in win a majority of the Black vote. But let's get real. That's not going to happen for many, many years. A Republican doesn't have to "win" the Black vote in order to win more elections; they often only have to "do better" with the Black vote in order to tip more elections in their favor. Winning 25% of the Black vote may be enough to win a close race, while winning only the usual 15% will keep you practicing your concession speeches. And this is what a lot of Republicans seem to overlook. But then again, maybe the candidates and strategists who use this "we'll never 'win' the Black vote" line simply don't want to try and maybe don't even care. Black voters pick up on rhetoric like this just as much as they pick up on the candidates who shun them, as the four leading candidates did.

People talk about Rudy Giuliani's appeal to moderates, Fred Thompson's appeal to Southerners, and Mitt Romney's appeal to evangelicals. However, you don't hear much about a candidate's appeal to Blacks, at least on the Republican side of the field. The Democratic Party does not have a monopoly on Blacks' votes at all, as many Blacks feel the Democrats take their votes for granted. So there's a huge opportunity here for a Republican who is willing to do a bit of work first.

Anyway, as I watched the debate, I made a few observations. Even though I may criticize these candidates, the fact that they at least showed up makes me have far more respect for them than the candidates with the "scheduling conflicts." Anyway, here are my thoughts:

1. Duncan Hunter kept using the word barrio, which is the Spanish equivalent of "the hood" or "the ghetto." I think Hunter was trying to show that he had some knowledge of "the lingo" used in "minority" communities. I'll give him credit for that. But at the same time, it seemed like he was either trying too hard or was genuinely clueless about which word he should use to describe "where minorities live." How would a roomful of Southerners feel if someone like John Kerry said "Howdy!" with a New York accent? Why should it be any different here? I think a smarter choice for Hunter would have simply been "Black communities" or "Black neighborhoods" or even "lower income neighborhoods." There's no need to get all fancy with the terminology. Don't be so afraid of being politically correct. Just talk! Hunter's awkward remarks illustrate the trepidation that exists among many Republicans who sincerely would like to extend an olive branch to Black voters, but really aren't sure how to go about doing so.

2. If the Alan Keyes of 2007 is the same as the Alan Keyes of 2004, then that explains why Barack Obama may not be sufficiently versed in the lore of national politics. Keyes was Obama's opponent in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. I listened to Keyes during the debate last week and tried to maintain an open mind. While he spoke with great force and passion, I could see how he'd register as an asterisk in most polls. In other words, Alan Keyes was and is a very weak candidate. For example, at the start of the debate Keyes said that the absence of the four main Republican candidates was not necessarily an affront to the Black community. I'm sure that went over well with the audience. Anyway, the point is, has Obama truly been tested on the national stage? I'm not talking about voting records, daily news cycles, and fundraising. I'm talking about running a strong campaign against a strong challenger for a federal office. Running up the score against someone like Alan Keyes does not count.

3. Blacks have more in common with religious conservatives than at first glance. Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback won lots of applause from the crowd when they talked about the importance of strong families and traditional values. So many Blacks grew up in one-parent homes or homes where both parents spend so little time at home with their children because of work. Time spent away from the home is time spent away from their children, who then have more time to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Black voters get this.

4. Libertarianism has some degree of palatability among Blacks when it is phrased in a way that shows its relevance to the Black community. Ron Paul consistently received cheers and strong applause after almost every time he took the microphone. His libertarian stance regarding the "War on Drugs" clearly resonated with many of the voters in the audience. The way he was able to tie in government inefficiency, the failure of this endeavor, and how it disproportionately affects Blacks was a masterstroke that demonstrated a high degree of familiarity with this issue beyond the usual "let's build more prisons" or "let's bolster enforcement" cliches.

5. Blacks are just as angry about illegal immigration as White Republicans are. Tom Tancredo illustrated how illegal aliens were driving down wages for everyone, including Blacks with blue collar jobs. Tancredo was not using illegal aliens (read Mexicans) as a convenient scapegoat, but the crux of his argument cannot be denied. Strains on government services and increased crime are not the only issues impacted by illegal aliens; how they take lower paying jobs and decrease wages affects lower income families particularly hard. Are Democrats on the wrong side of illegal immigration?

6. Don't ever judge a book by its cover. I do not have any official statistics regarding the attendance of the forum. However, when the camera panned to the audience, I noticed a lot of Whites in the seats. Even though this forum was primarily about "Black" issues, it seemed that about 25-35% of the people in the audience were White. And because this debate was on PBS (instead of BET), there were surely many more Whites watching the debate from their own homes. Republicans who were weak-kneed about entering the Black lions' den were probably pleasantly surprised that the crowd was not nearly as hostile as they may have anticipated. This just goes to show that political opportunity is everywhere if you're willing to take a chance.

7. There is a wing of the Republican Party that does not believe racism is an issue today. Tom Tancredo refused to go along with the other candidates who partially attributed issues of Black unemployment, Black imprisonment, and Black poverty to racism. Tancredo instead blamed failing schools, failing communities, and failing homes with poor values for the plight of so many Blacks. While his argument has some degree of credence, comments such as these cause Tancredo and his political brethren to represent the wing of the Republican Party that Blacks think of when they say "they don't care about us."

8. Mike Huckabee is probably the single most dangerous Republican candidate in the field. I cannot understand why people continue to talk about him only as vice presidential material. Huckabee is a talented speaker, is right on almost all the issues conservatives hold dear, and could attract increased support from Blacks and moderates because he does not come across as a hardcore partisan even though he is most definitely a part of the conservative religious right. Huckabee was able to deftly strike the right balance between acknowledging racism and showing how poor Blacks had a lot in common with poor Whites. His answer regarding the death penalty was very moving, as his thoughtfulness provided a nice contrast from capital punishment advocates who simply say "those people deserve to die for their heinous crimes." If I were a Democrat, I would be very, very afraid of this candidate because I think he could put more blue states in play than Giuliani could while keeping the red states red. In light of all the frustration among evangelical voters regarding their "top four" candidates, Romney and Thompson in particular should be very worried about Huckabee's potential strength.

To me, these eight lessons and observations provided far more news than the fact that the "leading" candidates were "unable" to attend. It will be interesting to see if any of these candidates try to follow up with Black voters by campaigning in their neighborhoods and churches in the future. Even though it may seem daunting at first, I think they'd be pleasantly surprised.


New Hampshire Debate Analysis (R)

The Republicans debated tonight in New Hampshire on Fox. Of all the debates I've seen so far, be they Democratic or Republican, this debate was by far the most substantive. I really hope future debates will have as many meaningful exchanges as this one.

Debate format

There were 8 candidates on stage. Fred Thompson was not one of them. The debate lasted about an hour and a half and featured questions from the moderators as well as occasional questions from random voters in a local cafe. The questions from the random voters were hit and miss, as one of the voters struggled to get his question out while another one gave Mitt Romney a verbal punch to the jaw. I think Fox was trying to make this debate and the politicians seem more accessible by opening it up to random voters to participate, but I think it ultimately turned out to be time that could have been better spent having the moderators ask more questions.

Regarding the technical aspects of the debate, it seemed that some of the candidates were having trouble hearing the questions. This seemed to be more of a problem when the moderators were trying to talk over chatter or applause from the audience.

The candidates themselves seemed pretty disciplined at first in regards to adhering to the time limits established for the debate. But as the debate progressed, some of the candidates became a bit more longwinded and should have been reined in.

As for the debate questions, most of them were very sharp and did not make it easy for the candidates to revert to their talking points. However, the hypothetical question about Iranian nukes was too complex to be meaningful. The moderators themselves were tough and did a good job of asking the right candidates the right questions. Ron Paul got a lot of time to talk about Iraq, Huckabee got a good chance to talk about abortion, and Giuliani got a good opportunity to talk about terrorism. The candidates clearly did not get equal time, but the ones who got shortchanged on time were generally the candidates who are either in major trouble or should simply withdraw from the race. One thing I did not particularly like, however, was how one of the moderators immaturely twisted Ron Paul's response about Iraq to ask him if "the US should take its marching orders from Al Qaeda." This is an example of the bias that makes the Democrats stay away from Fox.

There was one subject that I was surprised they didn't address. In light of the foiled terrorist plots in Germany, why weren't there any questions about whether the United States was fighting on the right battlefield in Iraq? If President Bush says we're in Iraq to defeat terrorism, how do you reconcile our fighting there with terrorists trying to bring down one of our allies thousands of miles away?

Also, why were there so few questions about President Bush, the man they are trying to succeed and the current leader of the Republican Party?


Thank you for playing. We have some nice parting gifts for you...

Duncan Hunter: Of all the candidates at the debate, Duncan Hunter was the least significant. His poll numbers are anemic and his responses lacked passion. He didn't get a lot of time to participate in the debate, but he wasted a lot of the time he did get to take potshots at Democrats, including using a rehearsed line to take a cheapshot at John Edwards. Aside from this joke and promising to build an 800-mile border fence in six months, he didn't really say anything memorable. I'm really not sure why he's even still in the race. Tom Tancredo is a more viable candidate that shares his signature issue of illegal immigration, and Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are more credible candidates that share his other major issue of security. How much longer will future debate organizers continue to extend invitations to him? By the way, the moderators missed a good opportunity to catch him flatfooted when he talked about the Larry Craig saga and said that one difference between Republicans and Democrats is that when Republicans screw up, they either resign or are kicked out. But when Democrats do it, he said they are promoted to committee chairmanships. So why are Republican Senators Ted Stevens and David Vitter still sticking around? Seems like a lot of sloganeering from Hunter tonight, including ridiculing last Friday's dinner at Guantanamo Bay, which included "honey glazed chicken and rice pilaf." Is he really running for President?

Sam Brownback: He was clearly upstaged by Mike Huckabee yet again. After his humiliating defeat at the Ames straw poll, Brownback decided to stay in the race and cited his foreign policy experience as one of the reasons why. Well, not only did Huckabee come across again as the more compelling pro-life candidate, he also came across better on foreign policy and leadership. Brownback had a chance to flex his foreign policy chops in response to a question about Iran, but his response was muddled and meandering. After the sharp exchange between Huckabee and Paul (more on that later), Brownback was the next candidate to jump into the fray and you could almost feel the electricity and excitement in the air dissipate when he spoke. I really don't see how Brownback can continue his candidacy when his chief rival is so much stronger and so much more appealing. Part of Brownback's problem is that he is coming across as a single-issue candidate like Tancredo even though his senatorial experience suggests there is more to him than that. So if another candidate is stronger than he is on his main issue and seems to bring more to the table than he does, it's easy to see why Brownback is in so much trouble.

Tom Tancredo: While he didn't have a terrible night, I feel he simply got overshadowed by so many other candidates on stage. Tancredo is clearly running on the far right, as he expressed no reservations about torturing terrorism suspects because "defending America" was more important. His outrage over illegal immigration and how other politicians (including his rivals) didn't seem so concerned about it until it was politically expedient was sincere. I doubt his message was well received by the New Hampshire crowd, although voters in Iowa may be more receptive to it because Iowa's Republicans are more conservative than New Hampshire's.

Not their best night...

Mitt Romney probably hurt his cause the most tonight. He really seemed off his game. His responses lacked focus, he pandered (did you know he's conducted 462 campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire?), and he gave off an aura of throwing stones in a glass house. He really went after Rudy Giuliani, but did not seem credible attacking New York as a "sanctuary city" when Romney had similar cities in his state while he was governor and had illegals doing landscaping work at his own home. He also got into a lot of trouble when he said the military surge in Iraq is "apparently" working. John McCain attacked that statement and the moderators picked up on that later when he later said the surge "looks like" it's working. Romney hasn't said much about Iraq in the past, but he better hone his message on this soon because these types of statements will quickly turn off the supporters he has worked so hard to gain. He did a good job of speaking in generalities, but did not offer much in terms of specifics. And that hurt him. Also, he really got wounded by the angry voter who took offense to Romney's comparison of his five sons' service to his political campaign with the voter's son's service in Iraq. Is Romney becoming the unlikable candidate?

Rudy Giuliani was a bit disappointing tonight. He is clearly the lone moderate in the field, but he did not embrace that. When his conservative credentials were challenged, he often deflected the questions or answered them in ways that didn't require him to defend or explain himself, such as talking about "states' rights" in response to the right to carry handguns on college campuses. "States' rights" seems to be a clever response Republican candidates use when talking about controversial issues that they don't want to be pinned down on, presumably because they don't want to hamstring themselves in the general election. The Confederate flag is another example of this. Remember how Bush and McCain talked about "states' rights" regarding taking the flag off the South Carolina Statehouse? You can support the flag or you can oppose the flag. Citing "states' rights" as a way to avoid stating your support or opposition to something is a bit weak, in my opinion. Anyway, I got the sense that Rudy Giuliani was running solely on his tenure as New York mayor and his leadership on September 11. He even compared releasing the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to releasing illegal immigrant prisoners in New York. If Republican voters were looking for substance, Giuliani likely disappointed them tonight. He used a few buzz words, such as "liberal media, surrender, the terrorists' war against us, etc.," but I think the audience was in the mood for something a bit more substantive than that. He also took a shot at Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards for not having led a city, a state, or a business. This may be true, but what's the point of mentioning this at a Republican primary debate? Unless he's trying to turn independent voters away from Obama, I'm not really sure why he invoked their names tonight. (Keep in mind that independents are allowed to participate in the New Hampshire primaries.) Curiously, he said "he's not running on what he did on 9-11." But if that's the case, then why should he be viewed as the national security candidate? And does anyone actually believe 9-11 is not a major part of his candidacy?

Flying high, feeling good...

John McCain really helped right his ship tonight. He had some funny lines (including one early on about it being past Fred Thompson's bedtime) that weren't rehearsed and spoke with a lot more vigor. Perhaps he was trying to allay fears that he's too old to be President? He also demonstrated the most leadership and made a very effective attack on both Romney and Giuliani by saying "he doesn't want to manage; he wants to lead." Other candidates were praising him for his leadership and his "honor." One of his best moments was in response to a question about torture. He invoked Colin Powell and said that the people who were against torture were the ones who have worn the uniform while those who supported torture had never served. That was a strong attack on the so-called chickenhawks that talk tough about war and the military, but never served. Even though this took place right after Tancredo's defense of torture, this was a very effective attack against Romney and Giuliani. McCain was also candid about why Republicans were in trouble and how some of them are even in prison now. Has the "Straight Talk" bus pulled back into the station? Have the pundits written him off too soon? Could he really be the steady conservative that Republicans are looking for? He looked much more presidential and sincere than both Giuliani and Romney for sure. One question I had about him was his remark about how the American hostages were released by Iran on the same day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. McCain suggested that the hostages were released because the Iranians feared Reagan. Someone will undoubtedly fact check this assertion.

Mike Huckabee probably entered the top tier by virtue of his solid performance tonight. Mitt Romney should be very afraid. Huckabee covered all his bases. He deftly worked the "life" angle by invoking the lost miners of Utah, he worked the humility angle by telling voters about a lesson his mother taught him when he was a child ("if you break it, you buy it"), he placated evangelicals by saying the United States is "one nation under God", and he pleased independents and fed-up voters by not throwing out a lot of red meat and empty slogans. He and Ron Paul had a very powerful, memorable exchange about Iraq tonight that will certainly make the rounds on You Tube. Another strong moment for Huckabee was his response to a question about illegal immigration. He said that Americans should not penalize illegal immigrants for doing what their own ancestors did several generations beforehand. The nativist wing of the party probably didn't like that, but I think he impressed a lot more moderates and independents with this truly compassionate conservative response. In a poignant moment, Huckabee was deferential to McCain by sincerely praising his "honor." Could a McCain-Huckabee ticket be in the works? In my estimation, Mike Huckabee should be the one Republican that the Democrats most definitely don't want to run against because he is a consistently powerful speaker and is able to credibly run as a "change" or "outsider" candidate.

I don't know how to classify Ron Paul. He definitely won the war of ideas even though he may not have won the actual debate.

Aside from Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul was probably the most authentic candidate on stage. And he was definitely consistent. The arguments he make seem to be at odds with most Republicans, and I fear they are not well received because Paul is much more intellectual in his presentation of ideas. He really shined when talking about Iraq. One of his best lines was how "the people who are telling us that there will be a bloodbath if we leave Iraq are the same people who said we'd be greeted as liberators and that oil revenues will pay for the war." When the moderator condescendingly asked how the United States could gather intelligence about terrorism if the FBI and CIA were defunded, Paul didn't miss a beat as he reminded the audience that the billions of dollars the nation has spent on the FBI and CIA still failed to prevent 9-11. "We need intelligent people interpreting our intelligence information" drew wild cheers. He also had some harsh words for Republicans and reminded them of their obligations to the Constitution. Paul certainly had a lot of fans in the crowd and he gave them a lot to cheer about. The other Republicans on the stage probably want Paul to drop out of the race, but his ideas are quite compelling and intriguing. Ron Paul might be at 1% in most national polls, but I get the sense that his real support is far higher. I sincerely hope he continues to be invited to future debates because even though there are no other candidates advocating his positions, I think his genuine appeal is far greater.

What now, Democrats?

I had previously suggested that Democrats boycott Fox to pressure it to improve its journalistic standards, but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps the best way to change the system is to take advantage of the system? The Fox moderators were much tougher than the moderators of CNN, ABC, NBC, and the special interest groups. The Fox moderators also did a good job of allowing news to happen by letting some of the candidates go at each other for an extended period of time. The Democrats need to have a forum in which they can do this as well. Even though they might not like Fox, Fox would at least afford them the opportunity to answer the tough questions they aren't getting at the other debates.

Also, the Democrats would do well to engage in more substantive dialogues in future debates. So far, they have generally avoided attacking each other too harshly and have spoken in platitudes, generalities, and indirect insinuations. Several of the Republicans seemed "presidential" at tonight's debate, but I haven't seen many "presidential" candidates among the Democrats. In a general election, the presidential and substantive Republican will probably be a much more appealing candidate than the cozy and vague Democrat. Obviously, Hillary Clinton probably won't heed this advice as she can afford to maintain the status quo and use that to cruise to the nomination. But if any of the other candidates, including the so-called "second-tier" candidates, want to have a chance at the nomination, they will have to take off their mittens and actually engage the other candidates.

What's up, Fred?

Even though the very first question of the debate was about Fred Thompson and even though he ran a campaign ad shortly before the debate started, I did not really get the sense that his presence was looming overhead. I think part of the problem for Thompson is that some moments of the debate were so compelling and intense that Thompson got overshadowed or forgotten. Also, because of the generalities and empty statements that came from Romney and Giuliani during the debate, I think voters may be a bit more suspicious of Thompson as well. Is he all sizzle and no steak? I cannot stress enough how much Huckabee, McCain, and Paul helped themselves tonight by speaking honestly, not filibustering, and answering questions directly and thoughtfully. Showing off, buzz words, generalities, and canned lines seemed to fall flat tonight. Perhaps Thompson's announcement about his announcement was too cute by half?

Must see TV! The exchange of the night!

Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee had a very powerful and memorable exchange about Iraq. It was a civil debate that showcased both politicians' ability to think on their feet. Here's a rough transcript of what happened:

Mike Huckabee: "We can't be divided. We are one nation under God. It's our obligation to correct our mistake."

Ron Paul: "The Republican party will continue to lose elections because of our foreign policy."

Huckabee: "Losing elections is not as important as losing our honor."

Paul: "When you're in a hole, stop digging! How much do we have to pay to save face?"

By this point, the other candidates were itching to have their say. Sam Brownback was allowed to jump in next, but the intensity that had characterized this exchange would soon be lost.

Final scorecard

John McCain has made himself relevant again.

Mike Huckabee should be taken seriously.

Ron Paul is not going away and continues to intrigue.

Mitt Romney fell flat and lost any momentum that he had been building.

Rudy Giuliani's halo is probably going to wear off because of this debate.

Fred Thompson better blow everyone away because Huckabee is about to fill the role that Thompson is trying to fill.

Sam Brownback is out of his league and is clearly being outclassed by his main rival.

Tom Tancredo is an ideological purist, but he is bit too far to the right to be viable. He's like a conservative Dennis Kucinich.

Duncan Hunter needs to pull a Tommy Thompson and leave.


Ready, Ames, Fire!

Per the Washington Post, Mitt Romney won the Ames Straw Poll while Mike Huckabee took second. Here are the results:

1. Romney: 4516 (31.5%)
2. Huckabee: 2587 (18.1%)
3. Brownback: 2192 (15.3%)
4. Tancredo: 1961 (13.7%)
5. Paul: 1305 (9.1%)
6. T. Thompson: 1039 (7.3%)
7. F. Thompson: 203 (1.4%)
8. Giuliani: 183 (1.3%)
9. Hunter: 174 (1.2%)
10. McCain: 101 (1%)
11. Cox: 41 (.1%)

Total ballots cast: 14,302

Before providing my analysis of these results, allow me to crow about predicting wins by Tancredo and Huckabee in my previous post.

Having said that, here's what I think about the results:

Mitt Romney won the contest as expected. Whether he beat expectations or not is anyone's guess. He did invest a lot of resources into Ames, however, so he might not be pleased with how much this "victory" cost him. The departures of Giuliani and McCain made this victory more of a Pyrrhic one than a genuine one. The tricky part for Romney now is to translate his Iowa success into South Carolina success. Seeing that he is well positioned in both Iowa and New Hampshire, if he can go three for three by snagging South Carolina, he might back Rudy Giuliani into a serious corner before Super Tuesday even begins. Could Mitt Romney really be the Republican presidential nominee? Six months ago, I couldn't see it. But now it looks quite plausible.

Mike Huckabee won Ames by coming in second. He did the best job of beating expectations and should benefit from a strong infusion of campaign cash. The importance of Huckabee's performance in the straw poll cannot be overstressed. By placing second ahead of Christian conservative rival Sam Brownback, he likely eliminated Brownback from the race. In addition to that, the media attention that will follow Huckabee may pose a serious threat to Mitt Romney. I think Huckabee is a more genuine conservative than Romney is, so Romney better hope the media don't begin comparing them side by side. Huckabee's fundraising has been lackluster, but if he's able to catch a spark in terms of campaign donations, Romney (along with Fred Thompson and John McCain) could be in serious trouble.

Sam Brownback is obviously disappointed. While coming in third is nothing to sneeze at, he placed lower than the candidate who was occupying the same piece of political real estate--Mike Huckabee. How can he convince people to donate to his campaign because he's the best candidate to carry the Christian conservative mantle in light of Huckabee's stronger showing? I don't expect Brownback to stay in the race much longer.

Tom Tancredo did an excellent job of beating expectations. Seeing that he has traditionally been mired in the 1-2% range in most polls, these straw poll results have to be sweet vindication for him. The 10-candidate field is going to shrink over the next few days, so he'll have a better chance to get his message out. He is still not yet positioned to take on the frontrunners, but he's getting closer. His strong showing should serve as a warning to the other Republicans that the illegal immigration issue still matters to an awful lot of Republicans. The other candidates (particularly the top-tier ones) would be wise to start speaking Tancredo's language, otherwise future voters will punish them by supporting Tancredo instead. On a related note, someone responded to my recent post Why Minorities Don't Vote Republican by saying people should ignore Tancredo's "fringe" candidacy. However, the strength of Tancredo's performance here suggests anything but a "fringe" candidacy. For better or for worse, there is a large segment of people in the Republican Party that support Tancredo and his rhetoric and that is very off-putting to people who are suspicious of the Republican Party's commitment to people who are not White, heterosexual, English-speaking, married, Christian males.

Ron Paul did reasonably well. The fact that he did better than McCain, Giuliani, and Fred Thompson means something because they are all far better known. No, those candidates did not participate in the poll, but he still did far better than they did. His performance suggests he is reasonably viable. A smaller field of candidates will better allow him to get his libertarian message out. I am intrigued by how he will fare in the New Hampshire primaries in January, seeing that the voters there have a libertarian streak. (The state's motto is "live free or die.") Could he be a spoiler candidate? Or could voters tire of Rudy McRomney and just take a chance with Paul?

Tommy Thompson is one of the clear losers in this poll. He said he would drop out if he did not place in the top three. Well, he didn't even place in the top half. I expect him to drop out of the race shortly. He just didn't seem to impress many voters in the debates and had one too many stupid excuses for his gaffes to be taken seriously, in my opinion. Thompson is like the new Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor who dropped out of the race a few weeks ago. When Tommy Thompson drops out, people will be shocked and lament Fred Thompson's premature demise. Nobody knows who this guy is. Enough said.

Duncan Hunter must be heartbroken by these results. He's handsome, authoritative, and a perfect fit for conservatives on defense, immigration, abortion, spending, cultural issues, and terrorism. But he fared worse than two candidates who weren't even participating in the straw poll. The writing's on the wall. It's time for him to exit, stage left.

Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain are all mired in the 1% range. These candidates were all penalized for not participating in the straw poll. Fred Thompson in particular should be careful about this because of the rumors that he's a lazy candidate. In politics, just like dating, you have to swing to hit. That means hitting the campaign trail, pressing the flesh, giving speeches, and fielding questions from anxious voters until the wee hours of the morning at town hall meetings and private parties.

Even Rudy Giuliani should not take his support for granted. I think more than 1.3% of Iowa's Republicans support his campaign. But they won't if he doesn't work for it. If Giuliani allows Romney to win Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be under incredible pressure to win one of the other early states before Super Tuesday, where he is more likely to fare better. Giuliani is the lone moderate in the race, so he doesn't have to worry about another candidate stepping on his turf. But if he's not careful, he risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Simply put, McCain's showing is an embarrassment. Of all the declared candidates, he fared the worst in the poll. That's not good for the morale of his struggling campaign, but I expect him to write this off as a byproduct of the tumultuous period he was having this summer. Having said that, it would have been a huge psychological boost for him if he had placed higher than at least one of the other top-tier candidates who did not participate. Losing to Duncan Hunter is not a good way to go about energizing your supporters.

John Cox is irrelevant.

To summarize:

Huckabee and Tancredo are the big winners.

Romney and Paul did okay.

Brownback, Hunter, Tommy Thompson, and McCain are the big losers.

Giuliani and Fred Thompson got out what they put in.

Look for Brownback, Hunter, and Tommy Thompson to drop out in the coming days.


Narrowing the GOP Field

The Republican field is oversubscribed right now. Even with the departure of Jim Gilmore, the invisible candidacy of John Cox, and the rumors about Newt Gingrich, there are still 10 candidates remaining. There's obviously not enough room for all of them, and conventional wisdom says that the ones with the money will be the ones who survive the longest. I don't view it that way. I think the Republican field will be winnowed down by the candidates' identities and positioning, rather than their campaign warchests. The reason why I say this is because I think there is a lot of redundancy among the Republican candidates. This weekend's Ames Straw Poll should eliminate several of the pretenders and otherwise unviable candidates. Here's my take on how Ames is creating a sort of playoff dynamic among the GOP candidates.

The Christian Conservative Battle: Sam Brownback vs. Mike Huckabee

There's just not enough room in the race for both of them, as they occupy much of the same turf. Both are strongly opposed to abortion and are reliable cultural conservatives hailing from the same part of the country. Both candidates have really been duking it out as of late. Ames will eliminate one of these candidates, and the winner's next opponent will be Mitt Romney, who is trying to occupy the role of the family values conservative. (I would use the term "Christian conservative," but that evokes conversations about his Mormonism, so "family values conservative" is probably a politically safer term for him to use.) My thinking is that Huckabee will defeat Brownback because even though voters genuinely like Brownback and should be pleased with his voting record, Huckabee's stronger debate performances and his executive experience as Arkansas' governor should make him the more appealing candidate to carry the Christian conservative mantle.

The Illegal Immigration Battle: Duncan Hunter vs. Tom Tancredo

Even though both candidates are considered to be in the third tier, their main issue (illegal immigration) is most definitely a top tier one. None of the top four candidates (Rudy McRomney + Fred Thompson) have really made illegal immigration and border security the center of their campaign. Thus, I think there's an opening for Hunter or Tancredo, but not both of them. I expect voters to reward one of these candidates so they can continue to give a voice to this contentious issue. Hunter has more experience than Tancredo, but Tancredo seems to be a more passionate speaker and debater. Despite Hunter's experience and solidly conservative voting record, I get the sense that he's more congressional material than presidential material. I expect Tancredo to win this battle and become a real thorn in the side of the top tier candidates. I also can't help but wonder if Tom Tancredo is the Republicans' version of Joe Biden for the Democrats in that he has the passion, voters' admiration, and the right voting record, but people don't view him as a credible (read: electable) candidate. Because conservative voters keep poking holes in the "conservative" armor of the top four candidates, look for either Hunter or Thompson to challenge their conservative credentials more strongly. Either one will likely push all the other candidates to the right on illegal immigration. I believe the winner of the Hunter-Tancredo battle will fight Fred Thompson in the next round. Voters think Fred Thompson is the only true conservative in the race, but they probably really mean he's the only viable conservative. If Tancredo or Hunter can pull off a top 5 finish, Fred Thompson had better sleep with one eye open because he may have someone else encroaching on his conservative turf.

The Veteran Statesman Battle: McCain vs. F. Thompson

Neither of these candidates is participating in the straw poll, but the results will be highly revealing for both campaigns. McCain is likely skipping Ames because he doesn't have the financial resources to compete in Iowa right now. Thompson is skipping Ames because he's not even an official candidate and is therefore under no obligation to participate in the poll. However, if McCain does better than Thompson in the poll, look for McCain to get a lot of favorable media coverage and a stay of execution for his campaign. And in addition to this, the media will also begin to pile on Thompson with "all sizzle and no steak" stories and question his true strength. I believe Thompson would have been better off formally declaring his candidacy, participating in Ames, and setting extremely low expectations. That way, if he didn't do so well in the straw poll, he could always attribute that to a lack of preparation time. But because he has delayed formally entering the race (perhaps too much), the halo above him is starting to lose its glimmer. But if Thompson finishes much more strongly than McCain, McCain will be in serious trouble. He might not even make it to the caucuses this winter. The loser of the McCain-Thompson battle will not be dead, but I think he will be seriously wounded. The winner of this battle will likely become the establishment candidate and the direct challenger to Rudy Giuliani.

The People vs. The Pocketbook Battle: Paul vs. Romney

People generally expect Mitt Romney to win the straw poll, so the real battles are for second place. Ron Paul barely registers in the polls and has spent far less money advertising than Romney has. So why do I include them together? Because this pits two major forces in politics against each other: the power of money (Romney and his barrage of campaign ads) vs. the power of people (Paul's legion of supporters online). If Romney does not win the straw poll in a rout despite all his fundraising and advertising, it will be considered an embarrassing loss. If Paul does not place in the top half of the finishers, people will conclude that his support in the blogosphere doesn't mean anything. If Paul beats expectations and Romney disappoints, the race will be in even more chaos than it is now. If Paul does a better job of beating expectations than Romney, all the second-tier candidates will win, such as Huckabee and Tancredo, because it will show that fundraising is not as important as ideas and positions. If Romney does a better job of beating expectations than Paul, I think that will benefit the top-tier candidates instead because it will show that money and campaign organization matter. Because Paul is such an unusual candidate, I can't really predict how well he will do. But I will say this: Nobody has more riding on this poll than Mitt Romney.

The Traditionalists vs. The Pragmatists Battle: Iowa Republicans vs. Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani consistently sits at the top of the polls and has the GOP moderates all to himself. However, moderates are a dying breed, it seems. Giuliani has raised a good amount of money and has broad electoral appeal. However, he's not participating in Ames, perhaps because he doesn't think he can beat Romney (and wants to spare himself the embarrassment) and because McCain won't participate either. Skipping Ames presents Giuliani with the risk of total rejection by Iowa Republicans who feel he's blowing their state off. Giuliani will not win the straw poll, but if he performs worse than expected, his opponents will spin the results as Giuliani being out of touch with conservatives (I am still waiting for that shoe to drop on that one) and he may run the risk of not winning the caucuses next winter. The Iowa voters will remind the media that name and cash alone cannot generate support; old-fashioned campaigning and pressing the flesh are what it takes to be successful. Giuliani needs to be careful. Despite his broad electoral appeal, he is not leading in Iowa or New Hampshire and Fred Thompson is giving him a run for his money in South Carolina. Giuliani would have been better off participating in Ames and spinning his poor results as a function of being a moderate candidate in a conservative state. That would have been less damaging. Now he's at the mercy of voters who may want to penalize him for dissing their popular presidential tradition.

Two days to go. Let the games begin!


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.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.