Roughly six months before the first votes are cast it already seems like the presidential contenders have been at it forever. Much has happened, or not happened, in the last six months.
Most strikingly, any hope by Senator John McCain that he would be seen as the inevitable heir to George Bush evaporated as Rudy Giuliani rose to the top of the polls, McCain’s fundraising proved lackluster, and the tsunami of immigration opposition rolled through the base. Although it is both premature and silly to write him off months before the Ames straw poll, he’s finding the path to the nomination rough going.
We also have seen the further deterioration of the Bush presidency. Presidential candidates’ criticism of the war’s mismanagement, Alberto Gonzales, and the immigration proposal seemed to shift the race from a contest to see who could best defend this administration to who can best explain how he would be an improvement over the current President.
What did not happen, at least not yet, is the emergence of a breakthrough candidate from the second tier. Neither Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter nor Mike Huckabee has made a leap to even the high single digits, although Huckabee has received good reviews for his debate performances. What about the top contenders?
For Romney, his fundraising and debate performances have given his campaign life and his campaign sees the immigration frenzy that has overtaken the GOP as a big break, putting McCain on the defensive and allowing him to appeal to the conservative base. As spokesman Kevin Madden notes, “It takes about two minutes of any Q and A session on the campaign trail to realize that immigration is a very important issue to voters. There is a great deal of animosity towards this current immigration agreement, and the core fault that most folks point to is that it is unfair. It unfairly sides with those that have broken the law over those that have abided by the laws. Senator McCain has been rather dismissive of these concerns raised by voters, but that’s a very big mistake.”
However, the pounding on Romney’s “flip flop” problem and the sense that he may be too polished and not tough enough to take on the world’s villains may limit further progress. With Fred Thompson’s entry, those seeking a reliable conservative may latch onto a less vulnerable candidate with greater presence. It would not be surprising to see Romney attempt to “differentiate” himself from Thompson by stressing his own executive experience (“the best narrative for the ‘why’ he is the best choice for president,” according to Madden) and questioning Thompson’s relatively light resume.
For McCain two strong debate performances and a bounce in the polls led to expectations in April that he had regained his footing as media pundits trumpeted the McCain “surge.” Then came immigration reform and the firestorm in the political base. The campaign’s response that “border security” voters were not in his corner to begin with has some truth, but with many polls showing immigration as one of the top issues for Republican primary voters the anti-amnesty crowd may prove to be a large chunk of the primary electorate.
Despite the recent immigration furor, McCain spokesman Kevin McLaughlin says they are “very happy” where they sit. McCain’s campaign remains focused on the initial primary states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, where his poll numbers remain strong. “Three yards and a cloud of dust” — slowly and steadily building a ground game is McCain’s current approach.
Nevertheless, McCain’s decision to go after Romney (who trails him in the national polls and had a less impressive second than first debate performance) in personal, biting terms left some scratching their heads. Had he sacrificed the high ground and unnecessarily boosted an opponent? “Political gift” was how the Romney camp greeted this tactic.
For Rudy Giuliani the last few months saw the fall from stratospheric poll numbers to a comfortable first place in the national polls. Communications Director Katie Levinson says that the campaign was under no illusion that his 20-point early lead would hold up and is “extraordinarily pleased” where they are now. The transition from 9/11 hero to candidate was not without its bumps, including a rocky first debate, but he found his footing with a well-received speech to evangelicals in Houston and in the second debate, with an assist from Ron Paul. His claim to be the best economic conservative in the race gained traction with a stamp of approval from the Club for Growth.
As for the social issues, the Giuliani camp certainly hopes that Grover Norquist got it right in a recent Rolling Stone interview when he said, “What brings social conservatives to the Republican party is not some list of 20 things that James Dobson would like to see.” If, as Norquist suggests, conservatives will be satisfied with support for parental control, respect for religion, school choice, and good judges, Giuliani can continue making his case on the big issues: aggressive tactics against terrorists, tax and budget reform, leadership and electability.
Thompson will likely pull support from Giuliani as well as the other candidates, but the test will be whether his congenial image and light resume will compare favorably with Giuliani’s record and public image. As Levinson explains, Giuliani’s campaign thinks it has a winning formula based on Giuliani’s “leadership” credentials and appeal as an executive who “can get it done at the end of the day.”
Thompson himself will have his work cut out for him. Voters will need to know him, not just a character, as well as his positions. Time, money, organization, and hard work will be needed to establish Thompson’s own niche in the race. He must more clearly define a rationale for his candidacy other than the “conventional conservative who has been smart enough to avoid others’ mistakes.” If he does fill the niche of Washington outsider and offers innovative ideas for recapturing Republican competency and conservative ideals, it will make for a very interesting race.
As we head into the summer months Thompson’s entry will no doubt result in a further tightening of the race. We can look for key tests of the candidates’ strength: the second quarter fundraising results at the end of June and the Ames straw poll. By the fall Newt Gingrich may join the fray, further scrambling the field and proving that everything we know today may change overnight.