These lines, by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, might as well have been dedicated to Messrs. Giuliani, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, Brownback, Tommy Thompson, Hunter, Tancredo and Gilmore:
When I was coming down the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I do wish he’d go away
But, in the case of the Republican presidential primary, there are two men who aren’t there: former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). But their presence — or absence — haunts the GOP primary nonetheless. Until they make their respective moves to enter or foreswear entering the primaries, they will freeze a critical segment of conservative Republicans who are withholding their affections from other suitors, waiting for Mr. Right to arrive.
In fact, most polls indicate that these two gents account for between 15 and 20 percent of the vote in trial Republican primary heats. Not since Gen. Colin Powell froze the action in 1996 (as he sold books and pondered running) has a non-entrant so paralyzed the active crop of candidates.
Conservatives find themselves facing an unpalatable choice of Giuliani, socially liberal but conservative on everything else, or McCain, socially conservative but liberal on everything else (except Iraq, where he is merely stubborn).
Some even are voting for Mitt Romney, but most seem turned off by his Mormon faith. While this artifact of bigotry is obscene, it appears to be freezing the former Massachusetts governor below 10 percent in the polls. (His recent fundraising success might backfire if a large proportion of his donations are from his co-religionists, stoking the paranoia of some voters).
And, even worse, real conservatives like Huckabee, Brownback, Tancredo, Hunter, Gilmore and Tommy Thompson can’t get their campaigns untracked because Newt and Fred are sitting on their potential voter base.
Thompson, at least, seems to realize that he is tying up traffic and appears committed to a reasonably prompt evaluation of his prospects and a decision on running. Newt apparently hasn’t read the new calendar of primary elections and fancies that he can stay out until September before making a decision.
If Gingrich were to run, he would make an excellent sparring partner for Giuliani. Tough on terror and socially conservative, Newt’s marital history is no more checkered than Rudy’s. The big difference between them is that Rudy can beat Hillary and Newt can’t. But his entry into the race, apart from making Hillary’s day, would at least create a real choice among Republicans.
Thompson, who conceivably could defeat Hillary — he is a blank slate at the moment — would also be a strong candidate. He would immediately eclipse Romney and drive the anti-Giuliani social conservatives who are now backing McCain to his candidacy. It would be the classic media match-up: America’s Mayor against the “Law & Order” prosecutor. Thompson’s solid record of exposing corruption in Tennessee and prosecuting campaign-finance violations by the Clintons in Washington would be very attractive to voters.
But they each have an obligation to clarify their intentions. It is not fair or reasonable to palsy the process, as they are now doing, by having one foot in and the other one out of the circle. Beyond appeals to their sense of decency, always awkward in politics, they must consider that the ongoing speculation is not doing their ratings for decisiveness and strength any good. As Hillary marches toward the nomination, Republicans want a clear alternative.
In the meantime, their lack of decisiveness is making it impossible for any alternative to Giuliani to emerge as a conservative challenger. How long will social conservatives let these two men block the emergence of a right-wing alternative? How much patience are they supposed to have? If the right wants a Mr. Right to run, it needs to tell Newt and Fred: Either run or get off the pot.