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The Race to the White House: The GOP Campaign Takes Shape

Part One of a Two-Part Series
WDPAC Insider's Bulletin - February 2008

It’s been a year since presidential hopefuls from both parties began establishing “exploratory committees” and got the 2008 presidential campaign officially underway. Any reasonable observer of the political landscape at that time knew this campaign was going to be unlike any in recent memory: for the first time since 1952, the presidential campaign would not include a sitting President or Vice President; there would thus be no one universally accepted as the “heir” to the nomination of either major party. Consequently, at one point or another along the way no fewer than 19 women and men have offered themselves as contestants in the 2008 race to the White House. Among the eight on the Democratic side are two firsts: the first female candidate with a real chance to win the nomination of a major party; and the first African-American candidate with a similar opportunity.

On the Republican side going in, the lack of a natural successor to President George W. Bush made it likely the Republican coalition would fracture of natural causes and indeed it has. No one candidate of the 11 whose hats have at one time or another been in the ring has been able to unify the “wings” of the conservative coalition that is the beating heart of the national Republican Party let alone the entire coalition. The one candidate who was supposed to bring that sort of order to the GOP universe … former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson … flopped following his long-expected and delayed entry into the race and he dropped out after a poor showing in South Carolina’s critical first-in-the-south primary.

All four of the other “major” Republican contestants: Arizona Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have always been viewed as “damaged goods” by some significant element of the conservative coalition. As a result, the GOP race has taken some unexpected twists and turns as the campaign unfolded.

John McCain, a maverick by any reasonable standard and thus an unlikely early frontrunner (apparently owing to his strong showing in the 2000 campaign) unexpectedly tanked in mid-2007. Left for dead at the side of the political highway, the McCain campaign, in an equally unexpected turn of events, rose like the phoenix from the ashes and, with victories in the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida primaries, roared back to frontrunner status. With victories in nine Super Tuesday contests on February 5th including decisive wins in most of the largest prizes – California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York – McCain’s position atop the Republican field is unquestioned as the campaign moves into its next phase.

When this all began, many experts thought Mitt Romney would have a tough time catching on despite a stellar resume and a great business and political pedigree. The thinking was pretty simple: his Mormon faith would sink him with evangelicals, an important constituency in the GOP’s candidate selection process. His “conversion” to social conservatism would earn him the ire of centrist Republicans who had been his allies, and be greeted with skepticism by the culturally conservative voters whose ranks he professed to join. Nonetheless, Governor Romney surprised everyone by winning the first “caucus” of them all – the first fundraising report of the 2008 cycle – and by sprinting to the front of the GOP pack in the first-in-the-nation caucus (Iowa) and primary (New Hampshire) states. He then surprised everyone for a second time: by finishing second in both places he was deprived of the momentum he needed to adequately propel his candidacy though tough contests in South Carolina and Florida and on Super Tuesday, his solid victory in the intervening Michigan primary notwithstanding. While the Governor’s victories in six Super Tuesday states placed second to McCain’s nine, his performance was actually pretty lackluster – Romney won none of the high profile contests, none of the big prizes, and none of the “Bible Belt” states of the south. Nonetheless, Governor Romney lives to fight another day if he chooses to do so – he’s second to McCain in delegates won to date and he remains the Republican leader in available resources.

Mike Huckabee entered the 2008 presidential sweepstakes as a “second tier” candidate who some thought had potential to break through into the top tier … and he did. His out-of-nowhere victory in the Iowa caucuses demonstrated both the passion and the power of the evangelical voters who fueled it, and what Senator McCain has since publicly acknowledged as Huckabee’s considerable skills as a campaigner. So too did Governor Huckabee’s surprising display of strength in Super Tuesday contests: he prevailed in five southern and Border States including the third largest prize of the day – Georgia. What Huckabee has yet to show, however, is any real appeal beyond the narrowly-focused albeit politically muscular evangelical community. It’s not for any lack of effort: his promotion of the FAIR Tax (a national consumption tax to replace the income tax), populist economic rhetoric (remember “a President who looks more like the guy you work with than the guy who laid you off”?), and criticism of what he called the Bush Administration’s “bunker mentality” foreign policy has simply not gotten that done. Why? Huckabee’s startling Iowa victory earned his record as Arkansas Governor more vigorous critical scrutiny by his political opponents and the media. His economic populism and not-so-subtle criticism of the Bush foreign policy came under attack from both economic and national security conservatives, and to make matters worse, as even the Super Tuesday results affirmed, the Governor’s support among evangelicals is anything but universal.

Mayor Giuliani was never supposed to get out of the gate despite the high esteem in which he continues to be held for his leadership on and in the aftermath of 9/11. The experts said that despite his tax cutting, crime solving and welfare reforming record as New York City’s chief executive, his colorful personal life would combine with his support for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control to sink him in the Republican primaries which are dominated by social conservatives. Well, Hizzoner surprised the political world too … he rose in the polls and was the national frontrunner among Republicans for months; he raised a lot of money and he even captured some surprising conservative endorsements (not the least of which was that of the Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition). With Giuliani long camped out in Florida for its January 29th primary and the media’s and our attention fixed on the candidates who were competing in and winning contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, contests on which the Mayor elected to pass, Giuliani wasn’t able to sustain his position either in Florida (he finished a distant third) or in the national polls. We’ll leave it to the experts to decide if it was the Giuliani campaign’s “Florida first” strategy or something else that sealed its fate.

So here we are, a year into it, and the race for the Republican presidential nomination appears at long last to be taking some shape. The pundits didn’t anticipate the strange twists and turns that would come to define the roller coaster ride that the GOP journey to their nominating convention became. And the ride may yet run all the way through the spring and summer before it comes to a full stop in Minneapolis in September … after all, Super Tuesday has come and gone and the frontrunner has little over half of the magic number of delegates needed to win the nomination. But, at least for now and as hard as it may be to believe, the Republican race now has a single frontrunner with some real momentum behind him and actually appears to be headed toward the outcome most experts predicted at the start.

Part Two Coming Soon: The Democrats’ Presidential Contest