In November 2008, somebody will be elected president of the United States for the ensuing four years. Barring a miracle, it will be either one of four Democrats (Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd or former Sen. John Edwards) or one of five Republicans (Sen. John McCain, former Sen. Fred Thompson, former Govs. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee or former Mayor Rudy Giuliani). In the cyclical nature of American politics, and given the Republicans' recent run in office, the Democratic nominee will be the likelier winner in November, but of course nothing in politics is ever certain.
Looking at this field of nine, its most remarkable feature is its drabness. All nine have held high office, and may perhaps be said to have discharged it well. But not one stands out as exceptional, as (say) Franklin D. Roosevelt did in his four races or Dwight D. Eisenhower in his two. It is true that the winners of presidential elections have often been relatively colorless; Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter come readily to mind, as well as your own pet villain. But it is hardly rare to find, even among losing presidential candidates, figures who generate more electricity than the crowd listed in the first paragraph above.
Confining ourselves, for the purposes of this column, to the Republican race, the one recent development of note has been the belated but rapid rise of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. How can we account for it? Huckabee first came to national attention as a distinctly minor contender for the nomination. He comes from a small state, served as its governor without racking up any notable achievements, and has a personality that is pleasant without being in any way particularly impressive. He has no record in foreign affairs, or for that matter on any major domestic issue, that could possibly be called noteworthy. Yet here he is, leading the pack in Iowa and scoring impressively in national polls. How come?
Look at the Republican presidential field as it existed in (say) mid-summer. It consisted of McCain, Romney and Giuliani. In a party that is overwhelmingly conservative, all three proclaimed themselves staunch conservatives. But McCain had turned off conservative Republicans with his disastrous support for what amounted to amnesty for illegal aliens, and Giuliani's record as mayor of New York was replete with support for policies (like abortion) offensive to many of them. Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts was perhaps a bit cleaner from a conservative standpoint, but even he was vulnerable to the charge of having "flip-flopped" on certain tender issues.
Small wonder that political observers held their breath when, just after Labor Day, Fred Thompson, a border-state former senator with a generally conservative record and an affable personality, threw his hat into the ring. Would conservatives see in him the champion they had been looking for, and so signally failed to find, in Romney, Giuliani and McCain?
Surprisingly (at least to this observer), they didn't. Thompson has gone through all the right motions, avowing conservative positions on all the key issues, but likely voters in the Republican primaries have remained largely unimpressed. One major reason may be that his personal style is simply too laid-back. Many people suspect that he just doesn't have enough "fire in his belly" to be a strong presidential candidate. And even a good many conservatives wonder whether his ideological purity is more than skin-deep.
Suddenly a good many people began noticing the hitherto obscure former governor of Arkansas. With one or two odd exceptions in his political history (which, you can be sure, are now getting ferocious attention), his views and conduct have been impeccably conservative. He has, as already noted, a pleasant personality. And, perhaps more to the point, given the power of religious conservatives in the GOP, he is an ordained Baptist minister.
So why not Huckabee? Perhaps this "minor" candidate is, inherently, just a little too minor for comfort. It may be that one of the "major" candidates (my own wild guess would be Romney) can come across in the primaries as sufficiently conservative, yet also from a broader and more impressive background than Huckabee. But in a year when the Republicans are bordering on desperation, don't count the little guy out.