Showing posts with label rudy giuliani. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rudy giuliani. Show all posts

9/10/2008

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.

1/20/2008

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.

1/16/2008

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?

1/10/2008

After New Hampshire: Where the Republicans Go From Here

The New Hampshire primaries have had a tremendous effect on the presidential race, as the results ensured that the major candidates will not be forced out quickly. An Obama victory would have severely wounded Clinton and forced her to enter Super Tuesday after losing Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. A Romney victory would have eliminated McCain and made him even money against Huckabee.

But this did not happen. Instead of delivering two knockout punches, New Hampshire delivered yet more jockeying and forced radical changes in political strategy. Romney, for example, has suspended his ad buys in South Carolina and is now concentrating on Michigan. And Clinton is retooling her message so that it's less about "I" and more about "we."

So where do the candidates go from here? Here are my thoughts on the Republicans, whose race is as muddled as ever:

John McCain is now in much better shape and has one of the easier paths to the nomination, in my estimation. McCain has the advantage of being the lone statesman in the field and he is unimpeachable when it comes to national security and Iraq. To his credit, he did not waver when it came to supporting the surge in Iraq and he can claim some independence in that he was not afraid to criticize the mission there when it wasn't going well. Independents and even moderate Democrats still view him as less conservative than he really is, and they have a lot of respect for him. This would suggest a great level of crossover appeal in a general election.

McCain won the Michigan primary in 2000, so he is obviously a well known and highly regarded candidate in the state. Voters who may have been worried about his electability should have had those fears vanquished by his strong showing in New Hampshire. However, he will be going against Romney, whose father was a popular governor there. Romney is wounded, but I think he still has the inside track to victory there. McCain probably needs to place at least a close second in order to maintain his momentum. Should McCain actually win, Romney would become John Edwards and it would be difficult to see how he could continue. That's what Rudy Giuliani does not want to have happen, obviously, because the more crowded and unsettled the field is, the better off Giuliani is. The nomination race would then come down to McCain and Huckabee in South Carolina, where it's entirely possible that neither candidate will eliminate the other, given how they draw from two totally different bases.

McCain should continue to run on strength, leadership, and statesmanship. Giuliani may have the strength and leadership issue because of September 11, but McCain can trump him by combining his military service record with his statesmanship. I would also recommend that he stress his electability and even try to peel off some of Huckabee's supporters by stressing how he is post-partisan in that he has a proven record of working with people across the aisle and forging practical solutions. Democrats should be very cautious about McCain because he would be one of the more difficult candidates to run against in November.

Mitt Romney has the unique problem of being nobody's favorite, but everybody's second choice. He himself has referred to winning a bunch of "silver medals." The problem is, you have to win the gold if you want to be a winner. Placing second in New Hampshire effectively ended his hopes of being able to compete in South Carolina because his loss, combined with Huckabee's strength, essentially ceded the state to him. Obviously, should Romney win Michigan, he'd get a second shot at South Carolina, but by then it might be too late because Huckabee is working the state hard.

Michigan is a winnable state for Romney, but he will need to do more than run on his father's record there. An economically depressed state, the economy is likely weighing heavily on Michigan voters' minds. So rather than stressing how conservative he has become on social issues (Michigan is a moderate state), I think voters there would respond better to a message of fiscal discipline and competence regarding economics. Voters in the big steel and automotive industries there are thinking about pocketbook issues, so I'd recommend that he talk about his record of turning failing businesses around, creating economic prosperity, and being a no-nonsense manager. The challenge for him, however, is that he would have to discuss these issues while being able to convey sincere empathy for the voters he's trying to reach. I believe his perceived artificiality and emotional distance are what's causing a lot of voters to withhold their support for him because they don't think he's "concnerned about people like me."

Losing Michigan would unfairly add the word "loser" to the Romney brand and he would be ridiculed for not being able to carry what should be fertile territory for him. Then there would be a risk in the future that he would be seen as someone so desperate to win that he would say anything, thus further reinforcing the flip-flop and credibility problems he has. However, how could Romney continue his campaign, aside from continuing to finance it on his own? McCain bests Romney on strength, and Huckabee trumps him on authenticity and social issues. This leaves economic issues, but again, Romney is not "warm enough" when he talks about what should be his strongest issue. Is it possible for Romney to be the nominee even if he doesn't win anything? (Wyoming doesn't count.) My guess is that by consistently placing second, he could be seen as a moderately acceptable alternative consensus candidate that doesn't really inspire anyone. But what kind of momentum would that create in a general election scenario?

Mike Huckabee has become a formidable candidate whose path to the nomination is a bit less complex than some of his rivals' because of Romney's inability to connect with social conservatives and Thompson's lackadaisical campaign. Thus, he has fewer rivals who threaten his base. Huckabee's challenge, however, is to broaden his appeal. Romney has run some tough ads criticizing Huckabee for his immigration positions and the tuition assistance he offered for the children of illegal immigrants. And he raised a few eyebrows when asked to comment about international affairs. When asked about his foreign policy acumen at the recent Fox News debate, he listed the names of some of the countries he has been to. However, simply going to a country does not a foreign policy guru make. Republicans who do not want to lose their national security and tough on terrorism advantages in the general election are going to have to think about Huckabee very carefully because Hillary Clinton could easily portray herself as tougher than he is, and Barack Obama still has the advantage of opposing the war from the start.

But is this as much of a liability as one would initially think? The three Democratic candidates with foreign policy heft (Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson) all failed in their presidential bids and John McCain was on life support last summer. And foreign affairs did not seem to weigh too heavily on voters' minds in the Iowa caucuses, so perhaps Huckabee might not be penalized too heavily for this.

To counter this weakness, Huckabee is seen as authentic and has the ability to present himself as the "compassionate conservative" that Bush never was. He can also appeal to voters who like his approach to politics even if they don't agree with his actual politics. Economically struggling voters in Michigan might find his empathy to be sincere and respond to his populist message. It seems like Michigan for McCain, Romney, and Huckabee is the same as Iowa was for Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in that all three candidates could just as easily place first or third. Huckabee doesn't have to win Michigan to remain competitive. However, he would love to place ahead of Romney on his home turf because that would mean Romney lost to Huckabee twice. In that case, Romney would have to seriously reconsider his campaign because losing twice to Huckabee would force him to accept the fact that voters simply view Huckabee as a better candidate. So Huckabee will compete in Michigan.

McCain and Huckabee have been quite gracious towards each other in their interviews, the debates, and even in their victory/concession speeches. I don't expect the two of them to hit each other hard in Michigan because they both would like to get Romney out of the race as soon as possible. And also, Huckabee doesn't need Michigan as much as McCain does. South Carolina is where McCain and Huckabee would finally have to run against each other. South Carolinians remember the way McCain was slimed in 2000, and there are a lot of military voters here who respect his support for the mission in Iraq. So South Carolina is not hostile territory for McCain. Huckabee is clearly trying to shore up support among social conservatives, as is evidenced by his pro-life campaign ads that have started making the runs here. So while McCain wins the military vote and Huckabee wins the social conservative vote, they will have to compete directly with each other for the anti-tax vote while hoping Fred Thompson's shadow doesn't loom as large as was once feared.

Rudy Giuliani is still stuck in the parking lot because he has placed all his chips on Florida. I can only wonder how future presidential scholars will look at the Giuliani campaign model. While it may be cheap because he can focus all of his advertising and campaign appearances in one state, it's highly risky because he only gets one chance to get it right. And in addition to that, because he's not currently a major part of the national dialogue, he risks being forgotten or eclipsed by another candidate.

The conventional wisdom says that a divided conservative opposition is good news for Giuliani because his rivals' votes would be dilluted. And this conventional wisdom also says that Romney is Giuliani's worst nightmare because of his deep pockets. All of this remains true. However, this divided opposition is also giving Giuliani's rivals many opportunities to improve their standing in voters' minds as they rack up primary victories and strengthen their own electability arguments. When Giuliani settled on his Florida strategy, Huckabee was still an obscure candidate with great debating skills and McCain was busy licking his political wounds. Now they are both crowding Giuliani out and are getting favorable media coverage while Giuliani is left gasping for oxygen.

On top of that, McCain's national security credentials are stronger than Giuliani's and Huckabee has the social conservative voters that Giuliani can't win. It is quite possible that Giuliani could lose to both of these candidates even if the vote is split.

Fred Thompson's campaign all comes down to South Carolina, but it looks like it's too little too late for him, unfortunately. His problem is that he took the bride down the aisle, but never said "I do." Like Giuliani, it may be too late for him because he is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Second place won't cut it for Thompson this time. He needs to win South Carolina in order to stay alive, but I'm not so sure he even wants to.

Ron Paul finished with a lower percentage of the vote in New Hampshire than in Iowa and has confirmed that his support is not as strong as the straw polls and online polls may have suggested. He will not win the nomination, but remains a player only because he could serve as an effective spoiler candidate who draws angry Republicans and independents away from McCain and Giuliani. I cite those two candidates because they have positioned themselves as the most hawkish on the Iraq War.

As far as ranking the candidates, I'd have to say Huckabee is the frontrunner with McCain second, Romney third, Giuliani fourth, and Thompson fifth. Thompson and Romney have the least margin for error and the clock is ticking for Giuliani as well. McCain and Huckabee are on the verge of becoming Clinton and Obama because of their collective political strength, compelling storylines, and the contrasts they represent.

1/07/2008

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%

1/06/2008

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.

Semi-predictions

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.

1/04/2008

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.

1/02/2008

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%

12/27/2007

Bhutto's Assassination: The Political Impact

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated just hours ago after a campaign rally in the town of Rawalpindi. This attack will have a significant impact not just on American foreign policy, but also on the American political scene.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza argued a few minutes ago that Rudy Giuliani will benefit from Bhutto's assassination because it would shift the political dialogue back to terrorism and national security. Cillizza was roundly criticized in the comments section after his post for appearing insensitive to the tragedy and placing politics above mourning.

Before I go any further, I must stress that I strongly disagree with those who criticized Cillizza for assessing the political impact of this tragedy. The fact is, politics never sleeps. And while it may appear unseemly at times, politics is always in play whenever a tragedy happens. It happened with the JFK assassination and LBJ's succession. It happened with the Columbine shootings and gun control. It happened with the 9-11 attacks and war. It happened with Hurricane Katrina and the inefficiency of government. And it's going to happen again with this.

The job of a political analyst is to assess the political impact of news that affects this nation. Again, while that may seem crass, that is what we are charged with doing. In light of this terrible assassination, our thoughts and prayers are most certainly with Bhutto's family and the Pakistani people. But we must not forget that there will be consequences for this, and that we should seek to assess these consequences. That's what we as political analysts do.

As for the impact of this attack on our politics, there will be some serious questions about the financial assistance the Untied States sends to Pakistan. And there will be renewed skepticism about President Pervez Musharraf's ability to govern Pakistan effectively and his commitment to holding free and fair elections next month.

Regarding the presidential race, I disagree with Cillizza. I believe the renewed focus on national security and terrorism will benefit John McCain more than Giuliani even though Giuliani will certainly benefit more than most other candidates. The reason why is because John McCain is well-positioned to win New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani is not going to win Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Michigan. He will have to wait until Florida to possibly win a state. McCain could snatch Giuliani's national security mantle and start racking up victories before Giuliani even gets on the scoreboard. Independent voters in New Hampshire who were planning to vote for Obama may decide to vote for McCain instead. (More on Obama later.)

McCain is also a much more credible on national security and military affairs than Giuliani is. And McCain still has a lot of appeal among independent and Democratic voters just like Giuliani does. But McCain has the better resume and also has the experience of having run for president in 2000. And finally, McCain is closer to the Republican base than Giuliani on abortion and gun rights.

This news could not have come at a worse time for Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Neither Mike Huckabee nor Mitt Romney has much foreign policy experience. However, Mitt Romney is in serious danger of being overtaken by McCain in New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee could be eclipsed by Romney in Iowa, but because both of them are weak in terms of foreign policy experience, it's a wash. And because this news changes the subject from moral values and Christianity, that further disadvantages Huckabee but is a net positive for Romney because the questions about Mormonism will be shoved off the front pages and Romney seems to have more going for him in the eyes of voters than simply social issues.

As for the Democrats, this news may prove fatal for the campaigns of John Edwards and Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton is going to make a strong case that now is the time to have a firm, experienced, steady hand in the White House. Even voters who don't agree with Clinton's overall platform will have to acknowledge the merits of this argument. My thinking is that voters only respond to messages of "change" and "inspiration" when they feel safe. But when they feel threatened, they will be more likely to err on the side of caution and stay with what's familiar. Aside from his poor campaign skills, that's one of the main reasons why John Kerry lost to George Bush in 2004. The "change" Kerry was offering was a bit too risky to too many voters "during a time of war," as Bush cleverly framed it.

Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden will also look more attractive in light of this tragedy, as each of them is highly experienced. However, I believe Joe Biden is the best positioned to truly make some noise in the Iowa caucuses. Richardson's credibility is suspect because his Iraq policy is often seen as overly simplistic or unreasonable (getting all the troops out, "no residual forces") and Dodd is so far at the back of the pack that not many people are really listening to his message even though he is obviously quite intelligent. Biden has been prescient about issues of foreign policy in the past and his Iraq plan was widely praised. He also correctly identified the threat posed by Pakistan at a recent debate. He is polling fourth in most Iowa polls. Voters who are seeking experience, but don't like Clinton may view Biden as an alternative.

Iraq has been off the front pages for the past few weeks, which has benefited Congressional Republicans. For the presidential race, when domestic policy is off the front pages, that benefits the candidates who are seen as having foreign policy heft. These candidates are McCain, Giuliani, Clinton, Biden, Richardson, and Dodd. Talk about Christmas, changing our politics, family values, and corruption in Washington will have to take a back seat to talk about foreign affairs and strength for the next few days. For the sake of Obama and Edwards in particular, they had better hope that the political dialogue returns to domestic policy before the Iowa caucuses next week because voters want to feel secure before they want to feel inspired.

12/16/2007

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...

11/29/2007

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?

11/28/2007

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.

11/26/2007

Republicans Eating Their Own

The Republican presidential race has been particularly difficult to analyze because there is no clear frontrunner. Rudy Giuliani is leading in the national polls. Mitt Romney is leading in the early state polls. Mike Huckabee is making a serious run at winning the Iowa caucuses on a shoestring budget. John McCain is showing signs of life in New Hampshire. Fred Thompson is performing well in South Carolina. And Ron Paul is unquantifiable because his support is cobbled together from a variety of unlikely constituencies.

This disarray has led to a variety of campaign strategies. Rudy Giuliani, for example, has been trying to bide his time until Super Tuesday when he could virtually run the table despite potentially losing Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan. Mitt Romney is placing all his chips on Iowa and New Hampshire with the hope that victories there would create enough momentum to stop Giuliani. Mike Huckabee can be a giant-killer in Iowa and take Romney out of the race with a victory there. Fred Thompson could perform well in South Carolina, which could validate him as the South's preferred candidate who would be a foil to the moderate Giuliani. John McCain could win New Hampshire and Michigan, thus taking out Romney and providing a more conservative alternative to Giuliani with stronger national security credentials. And Ron Paul's shadow campaign has produced some astonishing results in terms of fundraising, so nobody really knows just how well he'll perform and where his support lies.

Earlier in the race, the Republicans were commonly using Hillary Clinton as a convenient foil. Scaring Republican voters about "another Clinton presidency" and "Hillarycare" was an easy applause line and an effective way to fill the GOP candidates' campaign coffers. It was common for them to bash Clinton in their presidential debates, much like the way the Democratic candidates bash Bush in their forums. Last month I wrote about the psychology behind the Republicans' attacks on Clinton. In that post I listed six theories on as to why Republicans needed her. Those reasons still stand, but the sixth idea I mentioned has taken on a whole new meaning in light of how nasty the Republican race has become:

"If the Democrats nominate someone other than Hillary Clinton, the Republicans would be scrambling to find a new political villain."
Republicans seem unaware of the fact that by attacking Clinton so much, they may be contributing to her own demise...in the Democratic primaries. Questions about her electability are surfacing again as her lead in the polls dwindles and she receives more negative media coverage. A Clinton defeat would be the death knell for Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in particular because their convenient bogeyman would no longer exist. And the longer they spend attacking Clinton instead of promoting their own agendas, the more they risk being seen as emperors having no clothes in the event that Clinton does not secure the nomination.

And the increasing disarray among the remaining GOP candidates is only making this situation worse. Now the Republicans are turning their firepower on each other. And in some cases, they are beating each other up with the same Clinton club. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in particular are going at each other's throats. Not wanting to be left out of the fireworks, Fred Thompson called Mike Huckabee a "pro-life liberal," implied that Giuliani is not credible when it comes to gun rights, and accused Romney of "manufacturing ideas" when it comes to abortion.

Because there is no consensus frontrunner on the GOP side of the ledger, it is safe to say that Republican voters and their loyalties are splintered. As these candidates bloody each other, they risk driving up their own negatives and alienating various parts of the Republican base. Conservatives most certainly don't want to be reminded of Giuliani's social liberalism or Mike Huckabaee's tax increases. These voters don't want to be reminded of Romney's flip-flops on abortion or Fred Thompson's federalist approach to gay marriage. How will the eventual GOP nominee heal this fractured base and energize them in time for the general election? And what if their opponent is not Hillary Clinton? Media coverage already seems to be shifting in Obama's favor.

The main points I'm getting at in this post are that 1) repeatedly attacking Clinton is akin to investing all your money in a company that is at an increased risk of going bust, 2) the crowded and confused field is creating a restive Republican base will be harder to inspire, 3) the Republicans' attacks on each other are further alienating this already restive base, and 4) the longer they spend attacking Clinton and each other, the less reason voters will have to vote for them as opposed to voting against someone else. And this will only succeed in decreasing voter turnout. Imagine what a depressed GOP vote would mean for Senate and congressional races next year!

What's happening in the Democratic race to the nomination is clearly affecting the Republican race. You don't hear the Democrats attack Giuliani and Romney nearly as often as the Republicans attack Clinton. The Republicans' bravado and "Democrat Equals Hillary" mantra may placate individual segments of the base, but it could also be setting them up for total disaster next November. Turning their guns on each other also doesn't help.

11/18/2007

Lame Political Discourse: Part 2

I had written about the absurdity of our political dialgue back in September when South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to "surrender to the terrorists." An excellent piece written this weekend by David Broder brings up this the idea of the sorry state of our political dialogue once again, but he addresses it from a different angle. This column was about the missed opportunities from the Democratic debate last week. No, he's not talking about the opportunities Barack Obama missed to score political points on Hillary Clinton or how Chris Dodd could have broken out more. Instead, the loser of these missed opportunities, Broder argues, is the American people. And the media are complicit in this dereliction of civic responsibility.

Let me explain. In his column, Broder talked about the driver's licenses for illegal immigrants question that has been the subject of much discussion among politicos since Hillary got bogged down by it two debates ago in Philadelphia. He talked about how Bill Richardson said he supported this idea and justified this seemingly unpopular position with facts. He cited public safety and rattled off statistics about how traffic fatalities and the percentage of uninsured drivers in his state went down because of extending driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

The moderator moved on, and that's where one of these missed opportunities took place. Broder asks, "what about public safety?" How would the other candidates have responded to that? Richardson brought up a valid argument. Shouldn't the electorate have the right to know how the other presidential candidates feel about sacrificing public safety so that illegal immigrants can't obtain driver's licenses?

To be fair, after Broder praised Richardson for backing up his arguments with pesky facts and statistics, he criticized Richardson for failing to do so regarding another major issue of the day:

"On driver's licenses, Richardson offered such proof, but in another case, he did not. His 'solution' to Iraq is to pull out all U.S. troops and contractors within a year and leave it to 'an all-Muslim, all-Arab peacekeeping force, with some European forces, headed by the U.N.'

Well, it's a nice idea, but such a force exists only in Richardson's imagination--and none is likely to materialize. But he is not called upon to explain."
Broder is absolutely right. And that's what brings me to the main point of this post. Why don't voters demand more of their politicians in terms of their policy positions? Why are we so content with platitudes, slogans, generalities, and promises, but so turned off by statistics, logic, nuance, and details?

This is why our politicians are tasked with leading this nation. They are supposed to be smarter, more worldly, more prescient, and more pragmatic than we are. Any Average Joe can say "no new taxes" or "cut off the war funding now," but how many people can articulate why we can't invade North Korea or institute economic sanctions against China? Unfortunately, though, it seems that we are not demanding this from our politicians anymore. Instead, we are content with generalities like "we have to get tough on China" or "we cannot allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon." Whenever a politician does attempt to go into the gory details of the complex relationship between Russia and the United States, voters shut down. They like their politicians to be personable and engaging, not wonky and well-versed. And the media don't bother following up on these issues either. Why go into a dry discussion about fiscal responsibility and risk alienating voters when you can simply say "I will balance the budget" or "I will defend marriage"?

So here are a few of these other "missed opportunities" that I hope future debate moderators and regular voters find the courage to ask in a public forum:

Questions for Republicans:

1. When you say "we have to fight them over there so they don't follow us here" in regards to continuing the fight in Iraq, exactly how do you anticipate the terrorists "following us" here? If the terrorists are coming across the Mexican and Canadian borders, then shouldn't that mean we should place a higher priority on border security? Or are they going to sneak bombs onto ships? If so, doesn't that mean we should ramp up our port security? And if the terrorists are going to try and hijack another US-bound airplane, then shouldn't airport security procedures be enhanced? And if terrorists are already in the United States, wouldn't it be better to have more military forces stationed back home so that they can more easily apprehend or kill them? And what about terrorists from other countries? Do terrorists live in Syria and Egypt? If terrorists do live in those countries, why aren't we sending troops there? Or is it not a problem because only terrorists from Iraq are inclined to follow us here?

2. When you say "I won't raise your taxes," how do you plan to pay for the Iraq War and other government programs? We currently have a trade deficit and a budget deficit that is the largest in American history. You can't simply cut pork and eliminate waste to achieve fiscal solvency. You're going to have to either cut social programs or increase revenue somehow. Bush already passed tax cuts. The economy has grown, but the deficit has only gotten larger since then. So it would seem that another approach is needed. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes, but is it wise to never consider this as an option?

3. You commonly criticize Democrats for wanting to institute "socialized medicine," but what do you say about families who don't make enough money to afford private insurance? What do you say about families who are unable to afford their premiums when they have a serious or chronic illness? What do you say about people whose illnesses are not covered by private insurance? Do you think that it is a good idea for for-profit companies to be responsible for providing health insurance? After all, these companies don't want us to get sick because that means less profit for them. Is health care an issue that should have nothing to do with capitalism?

Questions for Democrats:

1. When you say "cut off the war funding immediately and don't give Bush another dime," exactly what will happen to the troops who are already stationed in Iraq? Yes, they will be forced to end their missions much more quickly than they would if Bush were in total control, but are you prepared to deal with the possibility that the troops might be made more vulnerable because of insufficient ammunition or a lack of fuel for their vehicles? How would the troop withdrawal take place? Who will protect the convoys, the bases, the embassy, and the airport? And what would happen after we left? Would leaving make Iraq safer for everyone than staying?

2. You say you don't want to use our taxpayer dollars to finance what you term an illegal and unconstitutional war in Iraq. But when you say you want to "protect a woman's right to choose," is it fair to use taxpayer dollars to finance the termination of human fetuses and embryos via abortion--a process that many people find equally repulsive? What makes one type of forced monetary support of killing okay and another one not okay?

3. You commonly talk about increasing fuel standards for vehicles and rail against SUVs because they use too much oil and pollute the environment. But if the issues of pollution and climate change are as critical as you say they are, why are you so averse to imposing a gas tax or higher taxes on vehicles that have poor fuel efficiency?

Questions for specific candidates:

Hillary Clinton: You said that your vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization was a vote for "aggressive diplomacy." In light of how George Bush used his war authority regarding Iraq, how can you credibly say that you think it's best to "ratchet down tensions" as you did in the last debate when all the evidence from the past suggests the exact opposite? Is identifying a foreign military "a terrorist organization" ever an effective way to prompt a nation to open diplomatic talks with you?

Rudy Giuliani: It is common for you to criticize the French or to compare Democrats with the French in a negative way. If France is so unhealthy for the United States, would you support a reduction in trade with France? Would you support imposing tighter visa restrictions on French nationals who wish to come to America? Is it a good use of our taxpayer dollars to support France? Why should we maintain such positive relationships with a country that is, according to your own insinuations, so dangerous for America? And if you become president, how would you reconcile your past negative insinuations about France when it comes time for you to work with the French president or seek France's cooperation in the pursuit of American objectives abroad? If such remarks are actually counterproductive to our national interests, then why do you continue to make them?

John McCain: You said that the only way out of Iraq is "victory." Exactly what is "victory" and how can it be achieved? "Not cutting and running" is not a strategy for "victory." And as a self-identified "fiscal conservative," how do you plan to pay for this war without plunging America deeper into debt? Would taxes have to be raised? If not, which government programs would you cut?

Barack Obama: You have talked about the importance of "talking with our friends, as well as our enemies." North Korea is one of our enemies. Are you prepared to go to North Korea personally to engage in talks with Kim Jong Il since he would never fly to Washington to meet you? And if so, would it be responsible for the American president to place himself in such danger?

Bill Richardson: You have talked about implementing an "all Muslim peacekeeping force" in Iraq. How do you deal with the fact that such a force would undoubtedly include Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites? How would this peacekeeping force ameliorate the situation in Iraq while remaining cohesive? How would you ensure that these soldiers remain loyal to the peacekeeping force itself, rather than switching loyalties to their ethnic brethren?

Mitt Romney: You commonly talk about the importance of "small government" and "personal freedom." Would you consider the mandatory health insurance plan you instituted in Massachusetts an example of "small government?" If this policy goes against your philosophical views on the role of government, then why did you sign it into law? Or do you believe that sometimes "big government" has a role in people's lives? And if this health insurance policy is good enough for Massachusetts, is it not good enough for the nation in general? If it is good enough for the nation in general, then how is that different from "socialized medicine," which you routinely criticize?

I doubt any of these candidates or politicians in general will ever be tasked with these questions. But I think judging our leaders by their responses to these types of questions would be far more beneficial to our nation than one-liners, slogans, easy-to-digest generalities, winning the daily news cycle, and canned lines.

It might make for good television and nice storylines, but our nation is suffering for it.

11/14/2007

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.

10/19/2007

Broken Brownback and Blue

Republican candidate Sam Brownback is expected to drop out of the presidential race today. Given the way things have been going for his campaign since August, it is easy to understand why.

When his campaign was over:

I remember writing about the battle between Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee shortly before the Ames straw poll back in August. I argued that there just wasn't enough room for both of them and that whoever won this battle would advance while the loser would be running on borrowed time. Huckabee ended up placing second while Brownback placed third despite his perceived superior campaign organization and all the time he had invested campaigning in the state. Immediately after the straw poll, I speculated that Brownback would drop out soon.

But he decided to stick it out. And the longer he remained in the race, the more obvious it became that he should leave. And to top it off, his prolonged departure ironically only further elevated his chief rival Huckabee because it reminded voters and pundits of the fact that Huckabee was more viable than Brownback was.

When his campaign was really over:

Brownback raised less than $1 million in the third quarter, which was far less than his rivals. Even worse, he had less than $100,000 on hand. You simply can't run a campaign on such a pittance. His disappointing Ames showing undoubtedly dried up his campaign contributions. $100,000 is not nearly enough money to dig yourself out of such a deep hole at this stage of the game. A Porsche 911 is worth more money than his campaign bank account.

When his campaign was really, really over:

At the economic debate that took place earlier this month, Brownback was asked what the main economic threat to the United States was. Brownback cited the decaying family structure as the nation's biggest economic boogeyman. When he started talking about "families having one mom and one dad," the moderator tried to get him to answer the actual question by reminding him that she asked him to identify an economic issue. Brownback continued to make the argument that the family was an economic issue. He may have a point, but the business wing of the Republican Party that was watching this debate likely was not amused. This disconnect exposed Brownback as a one-dimensional candidate who had no depth on any issues aside from those that are dear to evangelicals.

Just end it already!

After that debate, Brownback said that he would drop out of the race if he placed lower than fourth in the Iowa caucuses. While it may be useful for politicians to lower expectations, there comes a point where it can become ridiculous. There are generally only three tickets out of Iowa. And there are four superstars and one rising star in the Republican field. You have Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee in the race. Simply put, Sam Brownback was not going to beat any one of these candidates, let alone two.

How this affects the rest of the field:

Mike Huckabee is obviously the main beneficiary of Brownback's demise. Seeing that they were virtually carbon copies of each other as far as most of the issues were concerned, Huckabee would be a logical choice for a Brownback endorsement if he were able to get over his obviously bruised ego.

For evangelicals and general conservatives who do not trust Mitt Romney (either because of his religion or because of his recent transition to the conservative right) and/or are not impressed by Fred Thompson, Huckabee provides a credible alternataive. I've been hearing rumors of a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, but I really think Huckabee has the legs to make a real run for the top of the ticket. His numbers in Iowa are moving way up, and he is getting traction in South Carolina as well. Mitt Romney should be very, very worried about this. If Huckabee were to place second in Iowa despite Romney saturating the Iowa airwaves with ads, Romney could conceivably become the new Brownback because of how much of his own money he has spent on this campaign. Also, if Huckabee places higher than Thompson in Iowa, Thompson will be finished. How could Thompson, once considered the conservatives' savior, explain losing to Huckabee in Iowa? His donors would flee.

Rudy Giuliani also does not benefit from Brownback's departure. As the field of candidates decreases, the ease with which candidates can distinguish themselves increases. Candidates receive more talk time in the debates when there are fewer candidates to go around. Social conservative voters are still a big deal, and Giuliani has not yet firmed up this support. As long as there is a gaggle of candidates on stage, nobody can clearly emerge as the alternative to Giuliani. Brownback's departure makes this task just a little bit easier. It also temporarily refocuses the media's attention on social conservative issues, which Giuliani still treats gingerly.

Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo are going to be the next two candidates to be pressured to drop their presidential bids. They just don't have the money, the buzz, or the gravitas to warrant their campaigns at this stage. Hunter sounds more congressional than presidential and hasn't really expressed his vision for leadership. And Tancredo seems to have little depth beyond illegal immigration. Aside from the hardcore anti-illegal immigration voters, they do not represent any particular wing of the GOP that is not better represented by another more viable candidate.

10/09/2007

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.

9/17/2007

Giuliani's Precarious Campaign

Rudy Giuliani is generally considered the frontrunner among GOP presidential hopefuls based on his standing in most national polls. His standing in the polls has defied conventional wisdom in that a pro-choice, thrice married, New Yorker who is sympathetic to gay rights would never be nominated by a party that has a base that is very much pro-life and anti-gay rights. But it turned out that something else trumped his positions on social issues which explains his polling strength: electability.

Rudy Giuliani has a unique ability to make the electability argument. As a moderate from a blue state, he could put a lot of states into play that most of the other Republican candidates could not do. Giuliani could seriously contest states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and even California. And even if he doesn't win those states, he would force the Democratic nominee to invest time and financial resources in defending his (or her) turf. How well Giuliani could keep red states red is another issue, but his argument about the blue states is credible. A $300,000 ad buy the Democratic nominee must purchase in Los Angeles or Newark is a $300,000 ad buy that can't be used in St. Louis. Or Cleveland. Or Milwaukee.

Tying into this is Giuliani's rationale that because of his probable appeal in blue states, he is able to beat Hillary Clinton. He's been attacking her quite a bit over the past few weeks, including this most recent attack over her criticism of General Petraeus.

So it seems like Giuliani's campaign for the GOP nomination boils down to: 1) being buoyed nationally by September 11, 2) being the Hillary-slayer, and 3) being able to turn blue states a bit more purple.

This is a very risky strategy for the former mayor.

First of all, despite Giuliani's strong national poll numbers, he is not leading in any of the early voting states except for South Carolina, where he is suddenly in a dogfight with newly minted rival Fred Thompson. If Mitt Romney, currently running first in Iowa and New Hampshire, wins both states, Giuliani will have his back against the wall. And to make matters worse, Michigan has moved its primary up to January 15, which is after Iowa and New Hampshire, but before South Carolina. This is a terrible development for the Giuliani campaign because Mitt Romney was born in Michigan and his father was a former governor of that state. Needless to say, Romney is winning the money chase and polls in Michigan. If the primary contest dates hold steady (e.g., South Carolina doesn't move up its primary), Mitt Romney may very well go 3 for 3 and be almost impossible to stop despite the swath of Super Tuesday states that are perceived to be states where Giuliani is expected to do well.

Mitt Romney has really complicated Giuliani's path to the nomination. Giuliani will need to contest one of the early states beyond South Carolina if he wants to improve his chances at the nomination. However, Giuliani did himself no favors by not participating in the Ames straw poll back in August. Iowa voters have long memories and may penalize him for not showing up. So perhaps Iowa is out of reach for Giuliani. This leaves New Hampshire, which is right next door to the state where Romney served as governor.

As for Fred Thompson, if he is able to win South Carolina while Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan, the nomination fight may turn into a two-man race between Romney and Thompson while leaving Giuliani out in the cold. The benefits of the momentum and good press that can be generated by winning the early voting states cannot be overstressed. This also goes to show that national polling numbers don't mean anything if they aren't backed up by strong polling numbers in the early voting states.

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 the Norman Hsu controversy, 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. If I were Giuliani, I'd think twice before launching broadsides at her because such attacks may only make her appear less appealing to the Democratic voters she needs to even make it to the general election.

The longer the Hsu controversy remains in the news, the rosier it makes the other Democratic candidates look--especially Barack Obama. And voters who supported Clinton primarily because of her experience may defect to Richardson, Biden, or Dodd. In a nutshell, should any other candidate wrest the nomination away from Clinton, the Republicans could then decide that ideology matters more to them than electability. 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. And if this happens, the conventional wisdom about Giuliani's chances will finally vindicate itself.

9/08/2007

The Conservative Sweepstakes

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

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

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

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

Mitt Romney

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

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

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

Mike Huckabee

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

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

Fred Thompson

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

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

Jockeying

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

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

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

So who's up and who's down?

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

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

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

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

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

What about John McCain?

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

After the semifinals

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

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.