Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The fluidity of the Republican field

Following up on yesterday's post about dissatisfied Christian conservatives, it's no wonder that they can't find a clear favorite in the '08 Republican field. Republican voters in general can't seem to find one, either. This GOP presidential race is unusually fluid - a rare departure for Republicans, who typically coalesce early around an anointed frontrunner - and the latest fundraising figures have done little to clarify the situation.

The money stats for the third quarter of 2007 won't be officially known until Oct. 15, but it's already clear, from the early reports, that none of the top GOP candidates are outdistancing the competition during the run up to the roller-coaster primary season. The state of play currently looks something like this:

Rudy Giuliani, buoyed by his national name ID, leads in most national surveys of likely Republican primary voters, but he is trailing in the polls that assess GOP sentiment in the early primary states. Mitt Romney is lagging badly in the national polls, but he is the top dog in most of the early primary states (Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire), although not in others (South Carolina). Fred Thompson has debuted in second place in the national polls, but his summer fundraising numbers are reportedly unspectacular, and his performance on the stump (see below) continues to be underwhelming. John McCain, the one-time frontrunner, is said to be $2 million in debt, but he's still breathing, even though it's tough to see where he will break through. Mike Huckabee is winning plaudits for his communication skills - he has performed well in the debates - and he's getting some early vice-presidential buzz, but he's still not raising the requisite money for an extended primary run. And so on.

The only clarity this week is that Newt Gingrich has finally ended his long, slow tease and announced that he will not run for president after all (no surprise there); he's blaming the campaign finance laws.

So what happens next? That all depends...

On whether Giuliani can hang on to his broad national support, once conservative GOP voters learn more about his liberal stances on gay rights and abortion rights.

On whether Giuliani can persuade those conservative voters to ignore his liberal stances and focus on his potential strengths in an autumn faceoff with Hillary Clinton.

On whether Giuliani can do sufficiently well in the gatekeeper primaries (especially Iowa and New Hampshire), and thus position himself to win on friendler turf (Florida, with its transplanted northeasterners on Jan. 29; New York, California, and New Jersey on Feb. 5).

On whether Romney can finesse his well-earned reputation as a flip-flopper, overcome Christian conservative skepticism about his Mormon faith, hang on to his early poll advantages in the gatekeeper primaries, and thereby allow him to ride a wave of momentum, and media coverage, into the aforementioned Giuliani-friendly states.

On whether Thompson can show a pulse and get a clue (the other day, echoing the well-known Bush delusions, he appeared to insist that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003, then insisted later that he was referring to the 1980s), both of which might help make a case for his electability.

On whether Thompson can stay alive in the earliest primaries, at least until he gets to friendler South Carolina, a state that he, as a southerner, can ill afford to lose.

On whether McCain can somehow find a way to score a big surprise in the New Hampshire primary - a daunting task, considering the fact that GOP conservatives still distrust him, and considering the fact that the state's swing-voting independents (who can choose to participate in either the GOP or Democratic contest) appear far more motivated to cast ballots in the Democratic race this time around.

No doubt there is a Republican spinner somewhere who will insist that this unusual fluidity is symptomatic of a vibrant and vigorous party (although I have yet to hear anyone say that). And, actually, Giuliani's attempts to downplay his liberalism on social issues by trumpeting his electability is shaping up to be a heckuva story. (A Giuliani strategist does some trumpeting here, under the "2008 General Election" heading.) But to put Republican prospects into perspective, consider this:

Mitt Romney, the GOP's fundraising champ this year, is expected to report about $10 million in new donations for the third quarter. Whereas, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is now reporting, for the third quarter, $27 million. All told, Democratic presidential candidates have raised nearly twice as much money as their Republican counterparts during 2007. As a snapshot of the national mood, that comparison says it all.


Speaking of Hillary, however, she might have bought herself a bit of trouble last Friday when she said this: "I like the idea of giving every baby born in America a $5,000 account that will grow over time, so that when that young person turns 18, if they have finished high school, they will be able to access it to go to college, or maybe they will be able to make that down payment on their first home.”

A "baby bond"? With the federal government ponying up four figures for each birth? Hillary floated a version of this idea in a 2006 speech, although, at the time, she was suggesting $500. A new poll has already reported that 60 percent of Americans oppose the idea, as well as a plurality of Democrats.

And talk about conservative catnip - how hard will it be for the GOP to frame that as a "government handout," an ignonimous successor to George McGovern's 1972 idea of giving $1000 to every American? (For instance, here's blogger Phil Klein at The American Spectator: "She's still the radical college student fantasizing about establishing a leftist utopia.") Despite the Republicans' current woes, nothing buoys their spirits more effectively than being served up a fat pitch down the middle of the plate.

Meanwhile, from another angle, I questioned Hillary in my latest Sunday print column.