The State of the Race: The Republicans

The most remarkable aspect of the 2008 Presidential race at the moment is its unpredictability. Hillary Clinton, is now in an unexpectedly tight fight and could easily lose to Barack Obama, something she probably never anticipated.  Possibly waiting in the wings is another political heavyweight, Al Gore, who could jump in if either or both of the frontrunners stumble.  Even the forgotten John Edwards is enjoying a bit of a publicity bounce this week after Ann Coulter's obnoxious comments about him at CPAC last weekend.

On the Republican side, as Noemie Emerie has written, we are seeing the rise of the metro Republicans, a collection of candidates who are not Southern in orientation, and not rubber stamps on social conservative base issues: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Senator John McCain, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  Further back in the race at the moment, are two more traditional conservative candidates: former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and perhaps waiting for his chance if none of the leaders catches fire,  former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Giuliani has made the case for himself as a decisive and tough leader in times of crisis. He means not only 9/11, but also his triumph of turning a city considered unsafe and ungovernable into one that works. McCain, of course, has a long history of military service to his country and experience in the Senate, particularly on defense issues and foreign policy.  Rommey has had a long successful career in the private sector, and turned around the Salt Lake City Olympics when those games were mired in scandal. Both Giuliani and Romney have won elections in states that rarely elect Republican candidates.

All the political opinion polls show weak approval ratings for President Bush, most in the low to mid 30% range. The President's low ratings are clearly tied to a large extent to the Iraq War.  The Republican candidate worst hurt by the President's low ratings and the low approval for the Iraq war is Senator McCain.  As with the surprising signs of an impending collapse of Hillary Clinton's long sought Presidential bid, McCain seemed to be positioned as a front-runner for his party's nomination in 2006. He campaigned across the country for Republican Senate and House candidates, earning support from many elected officials by so doing. There is also a history of Republicans selecting the next in line, for their White House bid -- the candidate who has "earned" his spot. Bob Dole, the first George Bush and Ronald  Reagan, all fit this pattern.

McCain now trails Rudy Giuliani in all polls of Republican voters, and the gap has been widening.  Arguably if the Republicans nominate Giuliani, a candidate who has a record of being pro-choice, friendly to gays, supported handgun control, has been thrice married, and hails from New York, it would be a bigger deal than the nation electing a woman or an African American president.  But don't expect to read that story in the mainstream media, all abuzz about the breakthrough ceiling-busting candidacies of Clinton and Obama.

Michael Barone examined state-by-state polling data on Giuliani against Hillary Clinton from last summer. It showed Giuliani competitive or ahead in several northeastern states the GOP has consistently lost since 1992: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. Even in solidly Democratic New York (with 23 of 29 Democratic members in its Congressional delegation, and wins by Eliot Spitzer and Clinton in the 70% or more range last November), Rudy was running about even.

Giuliani was also a solid candidate in the tight Midwestern states: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. But those states are always hard fought over. States like New Jersey and Connecticut have been all but written off by the GOP in recent Presidential elections, and New York was considered impossible. A series of new Quinnipiac polls confirm Rudy's strength in key match-up states.  

The last two Presidential elections were very close in the Electoral College. George Bush won 31 states, and 271 Electoral College votes in 2000 (270 needed to win), and had he lost any of them, Gore would have been elected President. Everyone is aware of Florida, but New Hampshire was a very close win for Bush as well. On the other hand, Gore won many states by small margins: Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon, New Mexico and Minnesota among them.  A shift of a single percent in the popular vote, and Bush would have won much more decisively in the Electoral College.

In 2004, 47 of 50 states voted the same way as in 2000, and Bush won the Electoral College with 286 votes. New Hampshire shifted to the Democrats, Iowa and New Mexico to the Republicans, all three states with very close races for a second straight election, as also occurred in Wisconsin. Bush benefited from the redistricting following the 2000 census which added a net 7 Electoral College votes to states that voted Republican in both elections. In 2004, Bush would have had to lose a big state -- Ohio (which he won by 2%) or Florida (which he won by 5%) -- to have lost in the Electoral College, or a combination of a few smaller states he won narrowly -- Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado.

As in 2000, Bush lost more Electoral College votes in the close state races in 2004, than he won, including New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Oregon.

Pragmatic Republican and conservative voters might take a flyer on Giuliani despite less than 100% comfort with his views on the issues or his personal life story, since he might be the most likely candidate to break the Electoral College balance that the nation entered into in the 2000 election. Given that the GOP lost control of both Houses of Congress in November and is unlikely to regain control of either body in 2008, especially having to defend 21 of 33 Senate seats up that year, a loss of the White House would be disastrous for the Party.  With a Democrat in the White House, liberals would regain the ability to choose Supreme Court justices and replace the most likely retirees, liberals John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The stakes go beyond the next presidential term and the next Congress, too. The loss of control of several state houses and legislative bodies in 2006 means that Democrats might control the redistricting process in several states following the 2010 Census. That could come close to ensuring Democrats control the House of Representatives for another decade.

Wednesday, I met Mitt Romney for the first time, and asked him what states he would bring into play for the Republicans. While Giuliani brings the Northeast into play, Romney believes he would bring several Midwestern states into the Republican column. Romney's father was a popular former Governor of Michigan. Romney's brother has won a statewide race for the Board of Michigan State University. Kerry won Michigan by only 3% in 2004.

Romney also said he thought he could carry Wisconsin and Minnesota, and solidify Iowa and Ohio, both narrow GOP wins in 2004.  He expressed skepticism about his ability to win California, which some people have suggested might be in play with Giuliani as the nominee. In the past, McCain has also run or polled well in some of the same Northeastern  and Midwestern states that Giuliani and Romney might shift to the GOP column (winning the Michigan GOP primary in 2000 and 5 of 6 New England state primaries that same year).  In the case of all three candidates, there is the promise of expanding the GOP base, by moving moderates and independents back into the party.  The GOP long-shot: Huckabee and Brownback, fail on this count.

Romney showed an unusual trait for a politician by refusing to pander to the audience he addressed Wednesday, a group of Jewish Republicans. While Barack Obama made sure to touch every base on Israel related issues at his AIPAC event,  and only added extraneous comments on Iraq to get a few licks in at the White House, Romney began his talk by arguing that the primary threat to this country was Islamic radicalism, rather than  exclusively addressing threats  to Israel. And rather than repeat Obama's boilerplate on stepping up diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, Romney addressed the spread of the Wahhabist ideology around the globe, funded by Saudi Arabia, a country which seems to get a pass in most political discussions these days. Romney stressed he has been only 4 years in politics, and the rest of his adult life in the business world, so he would bring a different orientation to budget and tax issues, and managing the Executive branch than might others.  

At the moment, Giuliani is running well among social conservative voters, if not their leadership, who have spent years attempting to vet potential party nominees on the issues that matter to the leadership. Some in the mainstream media, such as the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune have already begun to attack Giuliani, on his managerial style and business practices, perhaps out of fear that were he the nominee, he might well win, and reverse the Republican Party's recent slide.

There has also been some sliming of Mitt Romney over his Mormon faith. A particularly disgraceful article by Mormon-hater Damon Linker appeared in the normally more sober New Republic on this subject, suggesting Mitt would take orders from church elders in Salt Lake City were he elected. By this logic, Rudy Giuliani would report to the Pope were he elected, and newly elected Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison is now reporting to his Sunni masters in Saudi Arabia.

On the Republican side, the race is still too early to call, though Giuliani would have to be considered the favorite. It is unclear how well any of the three leading candidates is doing in the fundraising sweepstakes so far, though there are rumors McCain is struggling despite a large donor base from his 2000 race. McCain, who would be in his 70s were he elected, may seem a bit tired.

There is no clear favorite in the earliest GOP primary states, despite Giuliani's lead in the national opinion surveys. So candidates who are better organized on the ground in those states, such as McCain, could still recover.  Romney has much of the Jeb Bush team from Florida in his camp in that important state.

Romney is trying to position himself to the right of McCain and Giuliani, sensing that conservative primary voters may be unhappy with all three of the leading candidates on one issue or more, but may be more in line with Romney's more traditional GOP positions on some issues than with the other two. 

In any case, the GOP has three attractive candidates who would all be competitive in a national race . And none of them have the stench of inauthenticity of the current Democratic front-runner:

Richard Baehr is the chief political correspondent of American Thinker.