The GOP has traditionally been the party of political primogeniture. From Ronald Reagan to George Herbert Walker Bush to Bob Dole to George W. Bush, Republicans have nominated the man who could best lay claim to being the natural heir, either by virtue of his service to the party or his ability to ring up early endorsements and financial backing from the party faithful. In George W. Bush's case, he literally was the eldest son of the last Republican president and inherited much of the support his father had amassed over decades.
But 2008 is different. There is no clearly anointed candidate in the field. The one who looked like he might best fill the role, Sen. John McCain, has been too much of a party dissident on bedrock Republican issues like tax cuts to easily become the party favorite. Although he still might pull off a victory in the early primaries, it's far from certain at this point.
And the other major candidates are even less in the mold of a natural successor. Former Sen. Fred Thompson has little claim to the mantle. An eight-year senator and former Republican congressional staffer, he did little in office, and even less since leaving Washington, to earn the right to be the party's standard-bearer. But he's also a movie star with folksy appeal, whose on-camera persona exudes conservatism.
Mitt Romney, winner of the first Republican straw poll in Iowa this week, captured the governorship of Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the union, largely by running away from traditional Republican issues. His recent conversion to social conservative may be genuine, but many Republicans would like to see Romney's conservative credentials seasoned a bit more. Still, he's articulate and good-looking, with plenty of money -- his own and what he's been able to raise -- to run a tough race.
But he's also snubbed fellow Republicans. In 1994, Giuliani endorsed Democrat Mario Cuomo for re-election as New York governor over Republican State Senator George Pataki, who ended up winning the close election.
Giuliani also spans the ideological spectrum on other issues. He's a hawk on defense and foreign policy; moreover, one with chutzpah. He once had Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat ejected from a Lincoln Center gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, which earned him a reprimand from the Clinton administration but plaudits from Republicans who considered Arafat a terrorist and corrupt thug. But on social issues, Giuliani is clearly the most liberal of the Republican pack.
All of this makes the Republican race more interesting than the Democratic contest. Hillary Clinton's early lead in both fundraising and opinion polls makes her anointing seem almost inevitable, despite the media's continued fascination with Barack Obama. Few people, including the pundits, however, are confident they know how the Republican race will turn out.
Some might argue that it doesn't much matter whom the Republicans pick; 2008 is destined to be a Democratic year. Maybe. But the lack of an heir-apparent nominee just might become an advantage next November if Republicans pick someone with broader appeal than the usual, safe GOP niche.