Narrowing the GOP Field

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

The Christian Conservative Battle: Sam Brownback vs. Mike Huckabee

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

The Illegal Immigration Battle: Duncan Hunter vs. Tom Tancredo

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

The Veteran Statesman Battle: McCain vs. F. Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

Two days to go. Let the games begin!

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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.