The 2008 election is a year and a half away, but the money and the media attention have been pouring in earlier than ever before. While the Democratic primary has essentially become a Clinton-Obama-Edwards race, two tiers of Republican candidates are still vying for the nomination and several possible contenders remain undeclared. Much can and will happen during this still-early stage, but the Republican picture is slowly coming into focus. Thus far, Rudy Giuliani (R-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), and Mitt Romney (R-MA) have emerged as the heavyweights of the GOP field.
Rudy, relying on high name recognition and the strength of his performance on 9/11, has been leading the polls for months now, though currently in the midst of a slide. While a vast majority of voters are aware of Giuliani by name, many are only now finding out what he stands for, as his issue stances and personal life have become a larger part of the campaign dialogue. Rudy, who supports abortion rights, lived with a gay couple for a time during his tenure as mayor, and has traditionally opposed gun rights, has also had a tumultuous personal life. Currently on his third marriage, Giuliani’s second wife found out her husband was leaving her when she saw the press conference on TV.
It is still entirely possible that Giuliani’s resume will propel him to the nomination. A former Associate Attorney General and US Attorney, Rudy took over a city larger than some countries and induced a miraculous turnaround, culminating with his resolute response to September 11th. Voters were reminded of Rudy’s more bulldog-like qualities during the second Republican debate when Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) blamed American involvement overseas for the 9/11 attacks and Rudy responded with an incredulous and firm rebuke, winning him the loudest applause of the night. In baseball terms, Paul hung a curveball and Rudy knocked it out of the park. That’s the Rudy the Giuliani campaign wants voters to keep in mind. Indeed, his admirable record and his appeal to independent voters—which may prove vital in what may be a close election—may outweigh some of his more questionable traits.
Sen. John McCain was initially seen as this year’s establishment candidate—a title of great importance in typical Republican primaries. This year, however, has been an exception. Rather than exuding an aura of inevitability, the McCain campaign has been taking on some water of late after a lackluster first quarter of fundraising and some slippage in the polls. The Senator’s age has also been a concern to many voters. If elected, McCain will be 71 years old at the time of his inauguration, making him the oldest President to ever enter office. Indeed, despite his old image as a straight-talker and a media darling, McCain’s image has lost some of its luster this time around. During a recent speech at the Hoover Institution, McCain came off as eloquent, but not charismatic. One can only wonder if a McCain-Obama matchup would be a replay of Clinton-Dole ‘96. Would youth and charisma outweigh substance and strength?
Many conservatives have sworn they would never vote for McCain, believing him to be trustworthy on only two issues: Iraq and fiscal restraint. Recognizing this limitation, McCain has attempted to capitalize on his strengths by turning these issues into the focal points of his campaign. This, coupled with a well-organized campaign machine, may be enough to propel him to victory. There may be too many strikes against him to reverse the damage already done, however. One needs only mention McCain-Kennedy (the amnesty proposal), McCain-Feingold (the campaign finance reform), or the Gang of 14 (the senators who brokered the judicial compromise) to make conservatives cringe. The question is, will Republicans judge him based on his record—apostasies and all—or see him as the paramount war-time President? Will they shun the Maverick or elevate the war hero?
Former Gov. Mitt Romney rounds out the top tier of GOP contenders. Though Romney has tried to fill the emptiness on the Right left by Sen. George Allen’s defeat, he has not yet established himself as the next standard-bearer for conservatism. Rather, Romney has opened himself up to serious charges of flip-flopping. Romney, once “effectively pro-choice,” claims to have had a change of heart while studying stem cell research and cloning proposals in Massachusetts. Some have attributed this to political positioning; others have labeled it a sincere conversion. But even if Romney convinces people that he is a man of his word, he has a second towering obstacle in his path to the White House: his Mormon faith. Many liberals see Mormonism as a ridiculous ideology; many Christians see it as a cult. Romney has repeatedly claimed that the American people only care that their leader is a person of faith—but not any particular one. One must wonder, however, if this is anything more than wishful thinking. If even a small percentage of voters are turned off by Romney’s religion, that may be enough to swing a close election to the Democrats.
Despite these limitations, Romney has begun to win over voters. Like McCain, he has an excellent campaign organization and, unlike McCain, had a massive haul in the first quarter of fundraising. Romney is also the only major Republican candidate to still be married to his first wife—something that contrasts sharply with Rudy Giuliani’s tabloid past. Moreover, Romney has stellar management credentials, backed by a renowned business career and a resume that includes rescuing the 2002 Winter Olympics. Now that he’s running for president, Romney has not only had brilliant performances in the debates, but has advanced policy positions designed to cut spending, combat nuclear proliferation, and expand an overstretched military. His strategy is beginning to bear fruit: Romney has recently opened up small leads in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But just like Giuliani and McCain, the ability to frame will be a prerequisite for a Romney victory. If he can paint himself as the innovative leader prepared to fix a mismanaged war and a ballooning budget, Romney will be a serious contender for the White House. But if the public sees him as just another Massachusetts flip-flopper—and a Mormon one, at that—Romney will be remembered as another “also-ran.”
The major candidates’ perceived weaknesses have left room for someone else to jump into the top tier. Yet, none of the declared candidates have been able to make that leap thus far. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) has perhaps come the closest after a stellar job in both debates. But Huckabee’s campaign organization is virtually non-existent and he’s raised very little money at this point. And none of the other candidates have proven themselves to be a threat to the top three. The persistence of such a vacuum has left room for another candidate to potentially jump into the race: former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN). The current conventional wisdom is that Thompson will announce his candidacy in late June.
A Thompson campaign would undoubtedly shake up the race. The attorney-turned actor-turned Senator-turned actor is already third in most national polls, beating out Mitt Romney. Indeed, Thompson has already won several recent straw polls from coast-to-coast. With his plain-spoken style, booming voice, and powerful stature, many have deemed him the second-coming of Ronald Reagan—and with the conservative track record to match. Speaking about Thompson’s charisma, McCain once said something to the effect that he would have won the 2000 election if he had only had Thompson’s voice. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
But Thompson may not prove to be the cure for what ails the Republican base. Thompson’s Senate record does not match McCain’s—though it also lacks the glaring blemishes—and he has a reputation as a lazy campaigner. Rumors abound that he would rely heavily on the internet to spread his message and solicit donations. That strategy may indeed be a good fit as Thompson is an avid blogger. Once Thompson throws his hat in the ring, the additional scrutiny will either lead to his confirmation as the next Republican nominee or leave conservatives still longing for a savior.