What a Long, Strange Trip

Posted: Sep 20, 2007 12:01 AM
What a Long, Strange Trip

WASHINGTON -- The 2008 presidential-election cycle is full of odd anomalies reflecting the electorate's deep divisions and doubts about the candidates and their uncertainties about the future.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, for example, has an almost prohibitive lead over her nearest rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, but polls show that, in the larger electorate, she has the highest voter negatives of anyone in the race.

A recent Gallup Poll asked Americans to rate the top candidates on a temperature scale to measure how they felt about them, with zero being the coldest and 100 being the warmest.

Gallup said last week that nearly as many Americans rated her "totally cold" as those who rated her warm. The survey confirmed many months of polling that shows nearly as many Americans have a negative view of Clinton as have a positive impression.

Gallup said this obviously raised questions about her electability in the general election and suggested her strongest rivals (Sen. Barack Obama was seen as the warmest of the Democrats) would stand a better chance of winning the presidency in the fall of 2008 than someone who was so intensely disliked by nearly half of all eligible voters.

It seems that Democrats have a tendency to nominate candidates who are not terribly warm or likeable. Think John Kerry, aloof, cold, gloomy, or Michael Dukakis, arrogant, sanctimonious, humorless.

But Republicans have many of their own anomalies, too.

We can start with the strangest turn in recent political history: The GOP's front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, is from New York City, the bastion of American liberalism, whose highest elective office has been mayor.

This is a dramatic change in a right-of-center party where conservatives have had a lock on the nominating process since 1964, and its nominees have been senators, vice presidents, former veeps and governors.

But Giuliani wasn't just any mayor. He was the widely acknowledged hero who led the city's dramatic comeback from the 9/11 attacks, a man who rescued and ran the financial capital of the world. He cut taxes, restored law and order and has made the war on terrorism/keep our country safe the basis of his candidacy -- hardly a squishy, soft New York liberal.

Even so, he still faces another anomaly in his race for the nomination. If things stand where they are now in the Republican contests, it looks like Giuliani will lose the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries, and possibly the South Carolina primary, to Mitt Romney, who is running fourth in most of the national polls.

Presidential candidates rarely lose so many early contests and then go on to win their party's nomination.

But Romney, a successful venture capitalist before he was governor of Massachusetts, has invested heavily in these early contests, believing they will pay off in a spurt of momentum that will help him race past Giuliani and newcomer Fred Thompson in the later contests.

Giuliani is running in these early primaries, of course, but he has all but conceded them, expecting to sweep the later contests in the Northeast, the Midwest, Florida (where he has a wide lead) and in delegate-rich California. That is quite a gamble, even for a skillful poker player like Giuliani, but it is the hand he has been dealt and the polling numbers seem to be going his way -- for the time being.

The other anomaly running through this 2007-2008 cycle is the closeness of the race between the two parties despite a war opposed by a majority of Americans, an unpopular Republican president and voter disapproval of the economy.

If we are in such an anti-Republican environment, as analysts say, why isn't Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, crushing the GOP's front-runner in the head-to-head polls?

On the contrary, Giuliani has the edge in some of them. Clinton has the edge in others. But no one has a slam dunk in any of the surveys.

Meanwhile, as the presidential campaign sprints into the fall, many political variables are up in the air and they could change the environment in next year's election.

The first variable is the Iraq war, which Democratic leaders are betting will get worse. But if Gen. David Petraeus is right about progress being made there -- and I think he is -- things will likely get better next year when the headlines will be about U.S. troop withdrawals and improving conditions on the ground.

The second variable is the U.S. economy's gradual recovery from the housing downturn and credit crunch, and the stock market's likely rise in response to signs of increasing real-estate sales.

If both developments occur -- as I think they will -- we will be facing another close presidential election where, if Clinton is the nominee, you have to like the GOP's chances.