Recently, it has seemed that Hillary Clinton has the Democratic presidential nomination all sewed up. But now a few observers are beginning to question that, pointing to her recent evasive answers on various policy questions (e.g. keeping combat troops in Iraq, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants). But the polls haven't (at least not yet) reflected much concern among likely Democratic primary voters, who continue to support Clinton over Barack Obama and John Edwards by impressive margins -- save in a few early-primary states like Iowa, where heavy spending by Edwards has had an effect.
Over in the Republican Party, however, with barely two months to go before the primary voters begin weighing in, the battle among the major contenders is still remarkably even. For several months it was a three-way race, with Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney all very definitely in contention and their support, in many states, comfortably split among the three.
The conventional -- and plausible -- explanation was that none of the three had managed to win the support of the huge bloc of religious conservatives who make their home in the GOP and have dominated its nomination processes for 30 years.
All three candidates swear that they are conservatives, but Giuliani's position on the social issues (abortion, gay rights, etc.) is, frankly, liberal; McCain hurt himself badly by supporting an immigration "reform" that would have legalized the status of millions of illegal aliens; and Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts (not to mention as a Senate candidate against Ted Kennedy) contains suspicious traces of softness toward various liberal positions.
The solution for all this, from the conservative standpoint, was supposed to be the belated entry of former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee into the race. Thompson's record in the Senate, if not electrifying, was certainly a conservative one, and his stated positions on various issues since have been equally acceptable to conservatives. There was clearly a chance that, when he declared his candidacy, he would turn out to be exactly what conservative Republicans had been waiting for.
But when Thompson finally threw his hat into the ring in early September, it didn't turn out that way. To be sure, he quickly joined the front-runners in what is now a four-way race. In several states, among likely Republican primary voters, he may even be the front-runner. (In others, he has done well but lagged slightly behind Giuliani.) But he assuredly hasn't routed his three somewhat more liberal rivals, and it now appears that he may not do so.
Why not? It's probably mostly a matter of style. Thompson is laid-back, soft-spoken and gives the unfortunate impression of not having thought very hard about some of the issues. (He admitted not giving much attention to the Terri Schiavo case -- the brain-damaged woman from St. Petersburg, Fla., who was taken off life support following a whirlwind of controversy -- though it had riveted the nation for a month.) Where is the genial repartee, the impish wisecrack, and the easygoing smoothness of Ronald Reagan? Granted, Reagan is a model no candidate can easily live up to, but conservatives can dream, can't they?
Realistically speaking, it may not matter much. Anyone who follows American politics knows that 2008 is probably going to be a Democratic year, in terms of both Congress and the presidency. So the contenders for the Republican nomination may not be doing much but arguing over the arrangement of the deck chairs on their Titanic. But the Republican primary voters are going to have to pick a candidate anyway, and in this situation it's a good question whether they ought to nominate the candidate who will wage the most aggressive, albeit losing, battle (probably Giuliani), or the one who will most forthrightly proclaim the party's conservative principles and accept an honorable defeat, trusting the voters to tire of the Democrats quickly.
Thompson may yet show the spark that would electrify Republican primary voters and lead on to victory next November. But time is short, and he hasn't done it yet.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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