Maybe illegal immigration doesn't matter that much after all?
Maybe the Reagan coalition is in fact dead.
Mike Huckabee won Iowa and John McCain is leading in New Hampshire. Neither candidate is in step with the GOP base on immigration, with John McCain voting for social security benefits for illegal aliens and Mike Huckabee supporting in-state tuition for illegal alien students. (Both have also made statements that their opponents have characterized as being pro-amnesty though both deny they are pro-amnesty.) Tom Tancredo's own effort fizzled and his endorsement of Mitt Romney didn't carry the former Massachusetts governor to first place in Iowa. Listening to conservative talk radio hosts, the passion they brought to defeating McCain-Kennedy not once but twice is missing from their electoral analysis.
In short, has the anti-illegal immigration bubble burst?
Or do we have an unusual Iowa electorate believing what they want to believe about Mike Huckabee and ignoring his past positions as well as his dumbfounding statements on foreign affairs, and the Yankees of New Hampshire simply wanting to stick it to Romney because he was, until today, the frontrunner?
Are we now into the long, long campaign, or just watching the petering out of the GOP tide of the past quarter century?
In 1976, Ronald Reagan refused to take early losses as a reason for exiting and made Gerry Ford go the distance. Every step of the way Reagan fought for ideas, and refused to accept defeat. He didn't win that nomination battle, but he did win the war for the GOP's heart. Because he refused to quit and because he believed in the ideals of small government, low taxes, liberty and a strong defense.
To survive another second place finish in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney has to communicate to the GOP that he believes in Reagan's ideas and Reagan's coalition --in tax cuts and originalist judges, in a strong national defense and secure borders, in restrained domestic spending, the protection of the unborn and traditional marriage, and of course, free trade and victory in the war.
McCain flunks the tax cuts' test, voted for the Gang of 14 and against the Federal Marriage Amendment. Huckabee is against free trade and the free market when it comes to the governance of corporate America. Huck's a big spender, and a soft-on-crime, serial commuter-of-sentences.
Huckabee is so anti-Reagan coalition that his main campaign guy, Ed Rollins, declared the coalition to be dead.
Romney's comeback has to be linked to the viability of the coalition that Reagan assembled in 1980 and Gingrich re-energized in 1994, and to the announcement that he is in the fight to stay. The former Massachusetts governor said as much on Thursday night when he declared it the first inning of a 50 inning game and congratulated Mike Huckabee, but he needs to say so again and again and again: He is going the distance and will insist on giving Reagan conservatives a candidate they can vote for, not the least distressing of the alternatives still standing.
Romney and his supporters also have to talk candidly about what Senator Obama's big win in Iowa means --a completely different campaign than the GOP had expected, a campaign wherein Obama will stress a generation-jump away from the politics of the Vietnam era. It will be difficult for a long-time D.C. insider like Senator McCain to stop Obama. It will be impossible for a candidacy built on the narrow base of evangelical Christians that Huckabee built in Iowa to do so.
Romney has to shift the discussion to not only who can win in November but also why it is so important to win: Four or five Supreme Court vacancies. Expiring tax cuts. Democratic majorities eager to spend and spend and spend. A border which is still far from secured.
And most importantly, a commander-in-chief who understands the threats abroad and who can win the right to succeed the president and extend the determination of George W. Bush to prevail.
Yes, Senator McCain understands the war, but it is very doubtful that he can beat Obama.
Huckabee almost certainly doesn't get the jihadist threat any more than he does the borders of Pakistan, and he can't carry ten states much less the red states Bush put together in '04, which is why Democratic strategist Susan Estrich was declaring her intention to dance at the Inaugural Ball if Huckabee got the GOP nomination.
Wyoming, New Hampshire and Michigan Republicans have to decide if the coalition and what it stands for are worth fighting for. If they do, they will follow the lead of the editors of National Review and get behind a Romney comeback.