Today, Wednesday, five different candidates still retain a real (if in some cases remote) chance of winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States but within a week one or more of those contenders may have been forced from serious competition.
It’s an ideal moment, in other words, to review the GOP “Big Five” with an eye to where the conventional wisdom is wrong, and the “secret weapons” that each of them possesses.MITT ROMNEY
Common Misconception: The hostility to his campaign stems from anti-Mormon bigotry
Truth: Romney has effectively neutralized anti-Mormon bigotry with his superb December 6th speech – the sterling high point of his campaign, for which he received near universal acclaim. Nevertheless, for such an affable, accomplished and attractive candidate, Mitt still attracts startlingly high negative ratings: according to Rasmussen Reports, fully 47% of voters say they will “definitely” not vote for Romney in November; only Hillary Clinton herself (with an identical 47% of core opposition) provokes comparably poor reactions. The widespread hostility to Romney bears less connection to charges that his religious commitment is dangerous or “cultish,” than to fears that he has no real commitment at all. He is seen by many suspicious voters as a “phony” – an empty suit who’ll do anything to get himself elected. Kenneth Anderson of the Hoover Institution (himself a former LDS missionary, and hardly an anti-Mormon bigot) wrote of Romney in The Weekly Standard: “He is (in my humble opinion) a man of principles so pragmatic that he lacks any unshakeable political foundation, save that he ought to be president of the United States. He is a politician of the moderate center who has sat down with his consultants in the calculus of management consultants everywhere and concluded that winning the presidency must mean dropping his moderation – itself principally a means of winning office in liberal Massachusetts – and reinventing himself as a man of the right.”
Flip-flops doomed the last candidate from Massachusetts (the unlamented Jean Francois Kerry), but at least that feeble Democrat could point to consistent themes over a long career: anti-war activism, liberalism on all social issues, faith in big government programs to remake society, support for “national health care,” and so forth. Romney would find it difficult to link his failed 1994 Senate campaign with any of the themes he’s attempting to use in his presidential candidacy. Fourteen years ago, he wasn’t just on the other side of the abortion issue; he was on the opposite side of virtually every public controversy. And he took those positions not as some college student or youthful idealist, but as an already wealthy business leader and the Republican nominee for the United States Senate. This inconsistency goes along with the sense that the candidate’s too perfect, too slick, too polished and leads to the conclusion that he’s just a smooth-talking salesman trying to sell a bill of goods (himself) to the gullible public.
His Secret Weapon: An increasingly obvious ability to get tough.
For all practical purposes, the Mittster could lock up the GOP nomination with convincing wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Team Romney understands the potential importance of these early primaries – and so do most of their rivals. If Mitt kills the Huckabee dream in Iowa, and terminates the McCain surge in New Hampshire, he becomes the clear front-runner despite any last minute stop-Mitt campaign by Rudy, Fred or others. It therefore makes sense for Romney to place all his chips on the two early states, even to the extent of going negative with saturation TV advertising slamming his major opponents and mailings that make even more distorted and dishonest charges against them. The results in Iowa and New Hampshire will indicate whether his harsh tactics pay off, but there’s at least a possibility that it’s precisely this sort of toughness – this willingness to use his own money to play hardball politics—that will persuade some wavering conservatives that Romney deserves their support.
His aggressive posture toward Huckabee and McCain plays against the image of a pampered patrician who’s never had to fight for anything in his life, and makes Romney look a bit more like the sort of gutty street fighter who could rough-up Hillary or Obama. When wounded candidates complain about negative campaigning by their opponents, they usually sound weak. Romney’s un-secret weapon involves his deep-pockets (with estimated worth of at least $250 million), while his secret weapon involves his apparent willingness to use some of his resources to knee-cap opponents. His passionate, focused, relentless pursuit of the White House may make up for his lack of passion or focus on any specific issue.
Common Misconception: He’s a one dimensional Bible-thumper who can appeal only to Evangelicals in the South and Midwest
Truth: In an election in which the term “elitist” has become a dirty word, Huckabee enjoys a serious advantage as the least elitist candidate of them all: a humble, witty, soft-spoken guy who became the first male in family history to graduate from high school. Romney’s the son of a Governor and auto executive and he studied at Harvard and Stanford (and BYU), McCain’s the son and grandson of prominent Navy admirals; Rudy’s been part of Manhattan high life and the legal power elite for so many years that he’s disconnected from his Brooklyn roots, and Fred’s more associated with Hollywood (and his glamorous young wife) than his hardscrabble upbringing in Tennessee. Huckabee, however, comes across like the ultimate underdog and an ordinary guy – so ordinary, that he even battled (and conquered) a serious weight problem that most Americans can understand. It’s not just Christian zealots who recognize Huckabee as “one of us”; I’ve spoken to non-religious Russian immigrant Jews who love him because he’s down-to-earth, plain-spoken and unpretentious non-celebrity. For the work-hard-to-get-ahead strivers who represent the heart and soul of the GOP, there are obvious, powerful points of identification. In this context, his embarrassing fumbles in reacting to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination haven’t destroyed his campaign: anyone who wanted a candidate with foreign policy credentials would have turned away from Huckabee long ago.
Huckabee’s criticism of stratospheric corporate salaries and unrestrained free trade may offend conservative opinion leaders, but it doesn’t necessarily alienate conservative voters. The fact that he’s such an obvious underdog – deemed unready for the presidency by innumerable pundits of right and left alike – only adds to the sense that he’s connected to the “little guy,” not the elites. Remember, three other Southern governors swept to the presidency with no foreign affairs expertise or credibility: their names were Carter, Clinton and Bush. President Bush famously failed a pop quiz on his knowledge of foreign leaders, but nonetheless managed to relate to salt-of-the-earth Americans. Huckabee, whose only college degree says “Ouachita Baptist University,” not Yale or Harvard, will receive more forgiveness than the current incumbent for wrongly suggesting that Afghanistan is on the eastern border of Pakistan. In any event, his populist campaign has already proven more powerful than anyone predicted, with support that reaches well beyond the “Christian Right.”
According to most polls in Iowa, he’s proven especially appealing to women—with a kinder, gentler tone that puts him in the lead among female voters of all religious persuasions, not just Evangelicals. If he can tie Romney among men, Huckabee can easily win the caucuses. In my own state of Washington – the least churched state in the union, by the way – Huckabee has attracted surprising support and the beginnings of an organization and could easily compete with Romney and Rudy at the caucuses on February 5th, if his campaign is still viable at that point. If he loses in Iowa, however, Huck almost certainly collapses as a national force: facing the obvious question: if he can’t win there, where can he win?
His Secret Weapon: Those Missing-in-Action Evangelicals.
While it’s wrong to write off the Huckabee campaign as a solely religious movement and while his base of support extends well beyond the Christian community, it’s disillusioned Evangelicals who could come back into the political process to help him win early primaries. During his years in the White House, Karl Rove spoke incessantly about “three million missing Evangelicals”: Christian conservative voters who initially intended to vote for Bush but felt disillusioned by last minute 2000 revelations about his drunk driving arrest. These believers ended up staying home and turned a solid Bush victory into a dead-heat with Al Gore. Rove and his boss dedicated much of the first Bush term to drawing these believers to the polls in 2004, and according to many analysts they made the difference in many states (including Ohio and Florida) in providing the President with his margin of victory over John Kerry. Two years later, bitterly disillusioned with the scandal-plagued and spending-crazed Republican Congress, these “Missing Eavangelicals” went AWOL once again and handed the Democrats control of both House and Senate.
They may have been disappointed and disenchanted with Bush over drunk-driving, but they felt utterly disgusted by Mark Foley and Jack Abramoff. If they get energized to re-enter the process in 2008 it can make a huge difference in both the general election and the struggle for the nomination. In caucuses and primaries, an enhanced turnout can easily tip the results and Huckabee has a real chance of reaching first time voters, or infrequent voters, who would come out for no other candidate. If he mobilizes big turnouts from outsiders (motivated by enthusiasm in churches and elsewhere) he could easily appeal to 5 to 10% of the GOP electorate that doesn’t regularly vote in primaries. The conventional wisdom on Huckabee—that his campaign will slide straight down hill after Iowa – may prove as unreliable as the assumption that without major funding he could never become a top tier candidate.
If Huckabee captures Iowa (and with that victory gets his face on the cover of news-magazines and the top of network news) he could conceivably earn January wins in South Carolina, Florida, even Michigan: in all three states, he’s been leading at one time or another in the polls. At that point, he’d be competitive in at least some of the big states that choose their delegates on February 5th. It may be true that Huckabee would have a tough time competing in a general election, but it’s premature to rule out a competitive struggle for the GOP nomination.
Common Misconception: His moderate stance on social issues is killing his campaign.
Truth: It’s personality, not policy, that’s damaging his candidacy. Polls show Rudy still drawing strong support from religious conservatives who may disagree with his past positions on abortion, guns, gays, or immigration. They’ve been willing to forgive Hizzoner for his unorthodox attitudes because of his tough-guy image and his heroic leadership after 9/11; other skeptics have felt reassured by Rudy’s consistent shifts to the right on all social issues – his emphasis on appointing strict constructionist judges, establishing border security, promoting adoption and so forth. Meanwhile, it’s been intimate rather than ideological concerns that have slowed the Mayor’s momentum: especially the embarrassing revelations about the peculiar funding of a security detail assigned to protect him while he began the adulterous relationship (with his current wife) that spelled the end of his second marriage. The legal problems of former Giuliani pal and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik also tainted Rudy’s resolute crime-buster image. Meanwhile, his inconsistent performance in televised debates dented the argument that he alone had the brass and sass to take on Hillary Clinton: when he engaged in a juvenile spat with Mitt Romney over “sanctuary cities” versus a “sanctuary mansion,” Rudy looked petty and mean and small. If a candidate can’t stand up effectively against the genial, smooth Mitt Romney, then he looks vastly less credible as a counterweight to Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other bad guys.
His Secret Weapon: The Primary Schedule For months, the Giuliani campaign has written off Iowa and New Hampshire and it’s increasingly willing to abandon his unlikely contention in South Carolina. According to this strategy, as long as Rudy maintains his strength in national polls, he can afford to let others win the early contests before he grabs Florida on January 29 and then competes successfully in the multitude of big state primaries on February 5th. The surprising strength of Huckabee, Romney and now McCain makes Giuliani’s hold on Florida look more and more tenuous, raising the question of whether he can continue his campaign without winning the Sunshine State, or whether that battle will represent “Rudy’s Last Stand.” Actually, a quick look at the schedule suggests that barring an unexpectedly total collapse of public support, Giuliani will probably be able to compete all the way to the convention.
In part, that’s because February 5th will bring him several “home games” that he can easily win: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Best of all, these big Northeastern states (with heavy concentrations of Giuliani’s fellow Italian-Americans, by the way) award their delegates on a “winner take all” basis, while most of the other major delegations will be split among supporters of various candidates. Most of his rivals have already conceded New York and New Jersey to Rudy, and abandoned the field: this means that even if he doesn’t do particularly well in the same day battle royal in California (which splits its delegates based on outcomes in each Congressional district), Rudy will still emerge as one of the big winners of “Tsunami Tuesday.” There’s also reason to believe that his superior organization and strong polling numbers will deliver a rich harvest of California delegates—insuring that after the first stage of the primary process, he’ll either lead the overall delegate count or else stand in second place. In any event, he’ll almost surely accumulate enough support to remain a factor in the nomination struggle all the way to the convention in Minneapolis.
Common Misconception: His maverick streak may endear him to Democrats and Independents but he can’t win in GOP primaries because he’s not a real conservative.
The Truth: McCain’s conservative credentials are much stronger than his critics realize: the American Conservative Union which rates the voting records of all Senators and Representatives gives him a lifetime rating of 83 (meaning he took the “conservative” position 83% of the time). By comparison, Senator Fred Thompson (who bills himself as “The Consistent Conservative”) achieved a lifetime Senate rating of 86 – hardly a significant difference. To place these numbers in context, consider the many Democratic Senators aspiring to take over the White House: Obama and Dodd get liftetime 8’s; Hillary draws a 9; John Edwards gets a 10 and Joe Biden earns a 14. In other words, John McCain, for all his controversial “independent” tendencies, voted the conservative side 70% more often than even the most moderate Democratic alternative. Moreover, McCain’s positions on the issues about which he’s most passionate—winning the war in Iraq, cutting government spending, promoting school choice, curbing the influence of lobbyists who demand corporate welfare – have not only been courageous but prophetic.
His campaign has revived in part because the surge in Iraq (which corresponds to a strategy McCain began promoting at least four years ago) has been such an obvious and undeniable success. Meanwhile, the long-standing support for immigration reform that was supposed to kill him among conservatives, may actually work in his favor. Obviously, conventional wisdom greatly overestimates the impact of this issue on the electorate in general: if pushing a hard-line against illegal immigrants represented the top priority for most (or even many) Republicans, then Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter would be fighting for the GOP lead, rather than dropped-out and irrelevant, respectively. All polls indicate that among both the nation at large and among self-identified Republicans, clear majorities favor a path to legal status for some immigrants who entered this country illegally. Even if you discount all such surveys, it’s still obvious that some of us in the GOP back a more realistic line on immigration than the simplistic “send-‘em-all-home” demagoguery that has so far dominated the campaign.
With four other major candidates (Romney, Thompson, Giuliani and now Huckabee with his laughable “I’ll get rid of all 12 million in a 120 days” proposal) competing for the support of immigration extremists, McCain offers an alternative that will appeal to those who crave more than slogans and posturing (not to mention the crucial 45% of Hispanic voters who supported President Bush in 2004). In any event, his new emphasis on “border security first” has helped to satisfy most voters, excepting of course those angry hardliners who’d never consider backing McCain under any circumstances. His campaign remains under-funded and his age (71) could hurt him in both primaries and the general election, but if the Arizona Senator wins the New Hampshire primary (as he baldly and boldly predicted he will), he becomes an instant contender in South Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Nevada, California and throughout the country. If he loses to Romney in New Hampshire, on the other hand, it’s hard to see how his candidacy survives.
His Secret Weapon: Straight Talk and Stature
Everyone – conservative, libertarian, moderate, liberal, you name it – will find some issues where John McCain’s taken a position that seems maddening, irrational, and utterly wrong-headed. For me, I’m particularly annoyed by his stubborn stands on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve (he’s voted consistently against development of crucial new petroleum resources that would impact only 4% of the total protected ANWAR territory), his opposition to aggressive interrogation of terrorist suspects (even though he provided crucial Senate support for electronic monitoring of their communications), and his refusal to back elimination of the death tax (though he does support raising the total exemption to $10 million and authorizing a modest rate of only 15% on estates above that level—greatly reducing, if not eliminating, the devastating impact of inheritance taxes on family businesses).
The point is that McCain is cantankerous, ornery, opinionated and occasionally courageous. His refusal to pander distinguishes him from most other members of the U.S. Senate and makes him stand out in this year’s field of candidates in both parties. Consider his principled (and altogether admirable) opposition to ethanol subsidies, a deeply unpopular position in Iowa – the first crucial state on the primary calendar. On the air, I’ve asked Rudy and Romney and Huckabee to speak out against this obvious rip-off of public resources, or to endorse desperately needed trims in the appallingly bloated $80 billion budget for the Agriculture Department, but they’ve all refused to touch the issue. Obviously, this craven reluctance relates directly to the prominence of agricultural interests in early primary states (particularly Iowa and South Carolina) so that only McCain speaks truth about today’s farm subsidies: they waste taxpayer money, benefit agribusiness vastly more than they help the family farmer, and need major cuts. There’s something refreshing, even bracing, about the old warrior’s willingness to tick people off and to defy political correctness of both the liberal and conservative variety. Whatever your disagreements with the man, McCain lets you know where he stands – and this propensity for clarity over convenient obfuscation compensates for his quirkiness on many issues. Most importantly, McCain can provide lucid explanations and thoughtful defenses even for decisions that seem outrageous to many. Yes, he voted against the Bush tax cuts (twice) but his logic at the time demanded that they should be accompanied by corresponding spending cuts.
If we cut taxes without cutting spending, he reasoned, then there’d be no popular pressure for spending reduction and, given the general fecklessness of Congress, it would never get done—an argument that proved prescient. Yes, his “Gang of Fourteen” caper frustrated a Republican strategy to strip Democrats of their ability to filibuster judicial appointments. But McCain’s leadership led directly to the confirmation of long-stalled, strict-constructionist Bush-appointees to the appellate courts (including Priscilla Owen, William Pryor, Janice Rogers Brown and, eventually, Brett Kavanaugh). The Gang of 14 also helped make possible the relatively smooth Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito, and prevented any threat to the filibuster power that is now wielded, crucially, by Republicans who suddenly find themselves in the minority. This background helps explain the truly extraordinary endorsement of McCain’s Presidential candidacy by Joe Lieberman—the number two man on the Democratic ticket a mere eight years ago. McCain’s potential bi-partisan appeal represents no small asset in an era when Americans express weariness at inside-the-beltway bickering. There’s also the matter of stature and historical significance: if Romney, Huckabee, Thompson, Edwards, Obama, Richardson, Biden, Dodd, or most other candidates fail to win their parties’ nomination for national office (now or in the future), they’ll rate scant mention in the history books and make little mark on our national memory.
How much do we recollect the long-term significance of Orrin Hatch or Richard Lugar or Bill Bradley or Paul Tsongas or Lamar Alexander or Harold Hughes, who all made once well-regarded races for the presidency in the recent past? Among current contenders, Hillary’s already earned her historical status for her wildly controversial eight years as First Lady, and Rudy managed dazzling, unforgettable achievements as a transformational mayor of New York City. McCain, however, won his renown on the national stage, without the damaging impact of major personal or political scandal, and his whole story (going back to the famous POW days) gives him iconic and heroic status no other candidate can match. When you ask his Senate colleagues about him, many will confess that they hate his guts but quickly add that they respect his intensity, his dedication, his undiminished fire for his ideals. In any event, Congressional insiders concede that McCain (who indeed seems “McVain” or “McLame” to his detractors) unquestionably qualifies, for better or worse, as one of the most effective and influential Senate leaders of the last fifty years. That prestigious standing won’t matter if he falls short in New Hampshire, but if he comes roaring back into the thick of the race it could help differentiate him from his rivals in the later primaries.
Common Misconception: As a successful Hollywood actor, he can deploy the charisma and glamour to jumpstart his late-launching presidential campaign.
The Truth: Most pundits proved fatefully and fatally wrong about Thompson’s viability because they don’t understand the difference between a Hollywood leading man and a character actor. Thompson earned a good living and achieved considerable popularity as a character actor, specializing in key supporting roles as gruff, authoritative, take-command officials or officers. He never served as principal star in any movie, or got to play the romantic lead who gets the girl, or the sympathetic protagonist who represents the audience point of view. Ronald Reagan worked for nearly thirty years as a leading man – sometimes appearing in mediocre movies, true, but almost always commanding one of the principal parts and inspiring adulation and affection from legions of fans.
Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger (despite his distinctly limited acting range) also qualified as a major star and leading man so that when he suddenly muscled his way into politics, his rallies and public appearances seemed glamorous, exciting, glitzy, even magical. Remember, both Reagan and Schwarzenegger inspired active, devoted fan clubs around the world and drew squeals of excitement from admirers who would wait for hours for the chance to see or touch them. If there ever was a “Fred Thompson Fan Club” based on his appearances in “Law and Order” or “Hunt for Red October,” the members of that club would have constituted a very odd lot indeed. In short, political operators and major commentators foolishly expected enchantment and thrills from Fred’s campaign because of his Hollywood connections, and then expressed disappointment because they got a crusty, aging character actor, not a magnetic leading man.
His Secret Weapon: Low Expectations.
The same way that ridiculously high expectations hurt the early stages of Fred Thompson’s campaign the current low expectations associated with his leisurely race might actually bring him back into contention. There’s only a dim chance for the tall Tennessean to actually bag the nomination but he could come back to center stage for a while with better-than-anticipated performances in the first few primaries. To give new life to the Thompson campaign, he’d need to finish a strong third in Iowa (entirely possible) and New Hampshire (much less likely), then finish first or second in South Carolina (difficult, but hardly unthinkable). If by that time Romney’s been badly damaged or driven out of the race (by failing to win Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina) and Huckabee’s struck out in subsequent primaries after capturing Iowa (possible, maybe even probable), then Fred could emerge as the new consensus choice for conservatives who want some alternative to an ongoing battle between Rudy and McCain.
Obviously, several things have to break just right or Fred is, as they say, dead, but politics is full of even stranger stories, and Thompson benefits as an obvious second choice for many people currently invested in Romney or Huckabee. The more likely development involves Fred’s rapid disappearance after flimsy showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire (fourth place or lower in both states). In that case, many observers suspect he would withdraw and, most likely, endorse McCain, a personal friend and one of his closest colleagues from his Senate days (Thompson co-sponsored the dubious and useless McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform.”). He also might re-emerge as a potential running mate for any of the four front-runners, though Thompson easily could shock the world by turning aside a chance for a term as Veep, preferring a return to his lucrative film career and family responsibilities as the father of young children.
Considering all the misconceptions and secret weapons of the five top candidates, what’s the most likely outcome tomorrow night and through the next two fateful weeks?
Though Romney victories in Iowa and New Hampshire hardly count as certain, they still appear likely, forcing the rapid disintegration of both Huckabee and McCain as viable national contenders-- though they might each score surprise (and largely meaningless) victories later in the season (if they can keep their campaigns afloat). That leaves Rudy with a solid shot at winning truckloads of delegates on Tsunami Tuesday on February 5th and battling Romney through the Spring and, quite possibly, all the way to the convention. That confrontation could become particularly dramatic and riveting if the Democrats settle their nomination in short order (with the expected Hillary coronation by February 5th, at the latest) and the GOP battle emerges as the primary focus of mass media and political junkies everywhere.
In one area, at least, conventional wisdom provides no misinformation: the nomination struggle in 2008 looks exciting, substantive, unpredictable, entertaining, and, in many ways, unprecedented. Happy New Year!