After last night’s debate plus the Fred Thompson appearance with Hannity, an earlier impression of mine is firming up, namely that this race might have two stages, with a five-man race (bear with me on that) eventually narrowing to a two-man race. The five? In alphabetical order: Giuliani, Huckabee, Hunter, Romney, Fred Thompson.
What about McCain (you ask)? He’ll be out of the race before the first real vote is cast. He’s a national hero and a man of real conviction, but the bloom is off his political rose.
Of the others (i.e., the five who will survive the first cut), Hunter and Huckabee don’t appear to have much chance of winning, but they continue to impress in debates and fora, and they both have nothing to lose by staying in the race for as long as possible. As Gilmore (a VERY good man and public servant), Tommy Thompson (at one point a fantastic governor), Paul, Tancredo, and Brownback fall by the wayside, those two (Hunter and Huckabee) can continue to live off the land while looking for openings. Huckabee speaks very well, well enough to make people overlook his somewhat troubling record. And Hunter can score on defense, immigration and, in the one departure from classic free-market conservatism, on trade (on which a significant constituency exists, in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, for his form of targeted semi-protectionism).
Romney, meanwhile, was NOT good last night. But he is well financed and well organized, especially organized in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he is a supremely intelligent and accomplished man. That keeps him in the race past the first cut, too. But the reaction to him I keep hearing is “dark-haired Ken doll.” He just seems too programmed to be inspirational, and not philosophically distinct enough (or consistent enough) to have a numerous, deeply committed cadre of followers.
Eventually, that leaves a two-man race, Giuliani vs. Thompson. Guiliani, in effect, has the entire social moderate-to-liberal wing of the party to himself. That, plus his great recrod as mayor and his can-do image of competence and toughness, makes him a very, very formidable contender. Fred Thompson, meanwhile is the best short-form communicator in the field (although his longer speeches need to be DELIVERED in a way that comes across as more focused and more thematic), with a great voice and an imposing presence, plus an air of common sense backed by direct, commonsensical words, plus a record and message that is solidly mainstream conservative without coming across as strident. Indeed, the words “common sense” ought to come more often from his mouth, if he can do it without sounding forced. And he gives the distinct impression that he is somebody who thinks for himself and refuses to be programmed by anybody else. Thompson somehow sounds like he is both from “the south” and the mythical “middle America” at the same time. In other words, he is not merely a regional candidate.
Frankly, I think that in terms of the ability to actually do a good job as president, this Republican field is deep and impressive. But, (purely in terms of political analysis as opposed to my own policy preferences, etc.), as candidates able to navigate both the primaries and the general election, Guiliani and Fred Thompson stand out.
And of the two, Thompson is by far the steadier and the least able to be effectively attacked by Hillary’s machine.
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