Even before the votes are counted, over the Republican Party a "thick darkness broodeth" -- words from a Victorian hymn, for a party with a Victorian tendency. But one Republican, who is not running for anything this year, will emerge from this bruising season with enlarged prospects. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's hopes for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination have been enhanced by Virginia Sen. George Allen's difficulties.
Romney's most formidable rival for the Republican nomination is John McCain, who needs a crowded field of Republican aspirants to prevent the conservative majority of the party's nominating electorate from quickly coalescing around a single candidate. Allen once seemed likely to compete with Romney for conservatives' support.
But Allen, who makes no secret of finding life as a senator tedious, is fighting ferociously for another term, a fate from which his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, is close to rescuing him. As a result, Allen is dabbling in literary criticism. He has read, or someone has read for him, at least some of Webb's six fine novels, finding therein sexual passages that have caused Allen -- he of the football metaphors, cowboy regalia and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco -- to blush like a fictional Victorian maiden and fulminate like an actual Victorian man, Anthony Comstock, the 19th-century scourge of sin who successfully agitated for New York and federal anti-obscenity statutes and is credited with the destruction of 160 tons of naughty printed matter and pictures.
Webb, a highly decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam combat, includes sexual scenes in his fictional depictions of young men far from home and close to combat, something about which he knows a lot and Allen does not. Allen says the scenes are demeaning to women and evidence of flaws in Webb's character.
This ham-handed grab for women's votes may help Allen win but will not help him escape the perception that, as a presidential aspirant, he is problematic. His ragged campaign has made him seem accident-prone, and by Tuesday he probably will have burned through all the money he could raise. But to be competitive in the nomination contests that begin with the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, a candidate probably needs to have at least $60 million by December 2007. Allen would have to raise that amount in 60 weeks. A million dollars a week is a daunting challenge.
Allen's radically reduced prospects will make it less likely that McCain can duplicate his 2000 triumph in New Hampshire's primary. As one seasoned New Hampshire Republican says, "It is difficult to capture lightning in a bottle twice." It will be particularly difficult for McCain to do so because there is apt to be a spirited New Hampshire contest on the Democratic side. This would draw independent voters who were crucial to McCain in 2000, when he thrashed George W. Bush, receiving 115,606 votes (48.53 percent) to Bush's 72,330 (30.36).
But Bush won the Republican part of the Republican primary, in this sense: New Hampshire independents can vote in either party's primary, and 34 percent of McCain voters identified themselves as independents. A 41 percent plurality of the Republicans voting favored Bush, 38 percent favored McCain.
If one discounts President Truman's brief interest in seeking a second full term in 1952 -- he renounced running on March 29 -- and the ineffectual attempt by his vice president, Alben Barkley, to secure the nomination, 2008 will be the first election in 56 years with neither an incumbent president or vice president seeking a nomination. If you do not discount the Truman and Barkley episodes, 2008 will be the first such election since 1928.
So the presidential field is uncommonly open, and there is a palpable desire in the country to shuffle the political deck. In their new book "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008," Mark Halperin of ABC News and John F. Harris of The Washington Post suggest why:
"When the current President Bush completes his full second term, it will be the first time since James Madison and James Monroe almost two hundred years ago that back-to-back presidents both served all eight years of two elected terms. Put another way, two of the most divisive figures in this country's history will have commanded the White House for sixteen consecutive years."
Such circumstances should entice many aspirants into the race. Yet with Allen much diminished and perhaps out of contention, and with Rudy Giuliani not yet doing serious groundwork for a national campaign, the Republican field is already down to two. That is good for only one of them: Romney.