A few months back, Republicans were troubled by the prospect of House and Senate retirements, the huge fundraising advantage for Democrats in the Presidential race and Congressional races, and the continued political overhang of the Iraq war and the President's low popularity. It is of course still possible, if not likely, that Democrats will significantly increase their Senate majority, hold the House, and win the Presidency. But the dynamic of the political races have taken a recent turn favorable to the GOP. And for that, the Republicans can thank Hillary Clinton.
The Hillary juggernaut is a boring story
Pretty much everybody, except Barack Obama and John Edwards, now thinks Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. She has opened a lead of 20-30 points in most national opinion surveys. She leads in the polling in every early primary state, and pretty much everywhere else as well. If she wins in Iowa, she is the certain nominee of her party. Even if she loses Iowa, it is hard to see how this would prove fatal to her campaign.
The Clintons are a political machine, and this presidential race has been 40 years in the making. The campaign has been meticulous, and cautious, and boring, but has enormous fundraising power, a national campaign infrastructure built on two prior presidential runs, plus the Clintons' star power. Finally there are powerful media sycophants who have been part of the Clinton team since 1991, as the two Clintons have traded access for reliably favorable coverage.
Barack Obama has raised a lot of money and genuinely inspired some people, particularly younger Americans. He could win Iowa. But compared to the Clinton political machine, his campaign has been an amateur hour routine, replete with foolish comments on foreign policy issues betraying a candidate only three years removed from the Illinois State Senate. John Edwards is running because he seems to have lost interest in anything but running for President.
If Obama surges in Iowa, where he has over 3,000 people working for him in the state, it will be at Edwards' expense, not Clinton's. And you can be sure Hillary will not cede the state to Obama, understanding the knockout punch she can deliver there.
The coverage is shifting
As the pundits and media have all but anointed Hillary, attention has shifted to the GOP race for the Presidency which has been significantly under-covered the past year. One recent survey found there have been approximately twice as many stories about the Democratic race as the Republican race by national papers, wire services, national and cable networks so far. This disparity has obvious explanations: the media is not neutral in the contest between the two parties. Why should their coverage of the Presidential race be any more balanced than their coverage of the war in Iraq?
As the American military effort in Iraq has made progress in recent months, the media has been relatively silent on the story; better no coverage than favorable coverage of the Bush administration. Another example of such a news blackout has been the relative lack of attention paid to the campaign and election of Bobby Jindal as the new Governor of Louisiana. Jindal is a dark-skinned Asian American, the kind of candidate that might be expected to give the New York Times the vapors. But the paper's coverage suggests that racism still lives in Louisiana, and that Jindal was elected mainly because these are desperate economic times there. Assume Jindal were a Democrat: how do you suppose the Times would cover his election?
GOP nomination is up for grabs
The media like a close election contest, in the same way that baseball writers like to cover a tight pennant race. And the GOP race offers that in spades. There are scenarios that lead to victory for Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and perhaps even John McCain, who was declared prematurely dead for not the first time a few months back. Some paths to the nomination are obviously more mine-laden than others. Jay Cost thinks Rudy, Romney and Thompson are all potential nominees, but not McCain .
There is now even a dark horse of sorts, with a mini boomlet for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who has emerged from the second tier of candidates by an impressive series of debate presentations and by exhibiting a sense of humor. Huckabee is now a serious contender the VP slot, if the nominee is a northerner with some issues with "values voters" and Southerners (Rudy or Romney), and he actually has an outside shot at pulling an upset in Iowa. If Huckabee won Iowa, it would probably end the Romney effort, which is relying on a series of wins in Iowa, and New Hampshire, and Michigan to boost him into national contention before the collection of February 5 big state primaries. A Huckabee win would also be good news for Fred Thompson, whose campaign has been underwhelming so far, to be generous. It would put Thompson in competition with the under-funded Huckabee for the right to square off with Giuliani instead of a Thompson-Romney fight for that spot.
A Romney defeat would also be very good news for Rudy Giuliani , since it would badly damage if not eliminate his best-funded opponent, and the opponent with perhaps the clearest strategy for derailing Rudy, who remains the current front runner for the nomination in the national polls. Like a race for a playoff berth in the NFL, Romney has been the one candidate who could control his own destiny by running the table early. Rudy Giuliani will not win Iowa and does not need to win it, but he is close behind Romney in New Hampshire, slightly ahead of Romney in Michigan, and about even with Thompson in South Carolina. He needs to win somewhere before February 5, and if he doesn't, then his hope is that the first few contests have different winners, and he is a close second in several of them. Were Rudy to win New Hampshire, I think he will be the nominee. I think Rudy can win South Carolina with New Hampshire momentum, especially if enough conservative candidates stay in the race to that point (likely) to split the vote, and then he can follow it with a big sweep on February 5th in the populous coastal states to clinch it. No one yet knows when New Hampshire and Michigan will vote, and both states have similar dynamics at the moment, with Rudy and Romney the principal contenders. Thompson, a regional candidate to this point, needs to break through somewhere early to have a chance, and have Romney damaged before South Carolina to win that state. John McCain has to hope for some of that old New Hampshire (and maybe Michigan) magic to propel him back into the race. This is unlikely to occur but not impossible. McCain has one thing working for him that Giuliani also has: the best head-to-head numbers versus Hillary Clinton at this stage of the race .
It should be obvious from this quick once around the candidates, that the GOP race appears to be wide open, and the Democratic race less so. If Obama trounced Hillary in Iowa, that would change the dynamic of the race but probably not its final outcome. I would guess the Hillary camp is already vetting VP nominees: Bill Richardson, Evan Bayh, Wesley Clark, and Jim Webb have all been mentioned.
Campaign story lines
The media has been intrigued by the "firsts" offered by the Democratic candidates - a woman nominee and President, and an African American nominee and President. But the case can be made that if Rudy Giuliani, a social liberal, and pro-choice candidate can be nominated by the Republicans, that this is an even bigger shock to the political system. It would certainly not fit with the pundit class models which have been comfortably wrapping Republicans into a neat box for a few decades, and would suggest that Republicans think national security is the key issue at this time, and can live with candidates who do not meet their expectations in all areas.
Where do independents go in the primaries?
One consideration I have not seen addressed elsewhere is that if Clinton wins Iowa, and wraps up the race early, independent voters, who are allowed to vote in either party's primary in some states by selecting that party's ballot, may find taking a GOP ballot of greater interest than voting in a Democratic race that is all but decided. Independents swung heavily to the Democrats in the 2006 Congressional races and Barack Obama, in particular, has drawn a lot of interest from younger unaffiliated voters. But if Obama is not a real contender after Iowa, then this will benefit Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who are both perceived as more centrist than other Republicans, with appeal to independents. This could help either or both candidates in several early states, and in the general election as well.
Hillary unites the GOP
The other shot-in-the-arm for the GOP in recent months has been the realization among Republicans that Hillary Clinton is the likely nominee. Nothing unites the GOP faithful more than a race against a Clinton, particularly Hillary. I expect that when it becomes clear who the GOP nominee is, that the party's fund raising problems will begin to disappear. At that point, the nominee to be will be perceived as the head of the party, not a lame duck President with low approval ratings.
Finally, on the congressional front, the GOP has had some success recruiting top tier candidates for two open Senate seats: former Governor Mike Johanns in Nebraska, and Congresswoman Heather Wilson in New Mexico. This may limit the extent of the party's likely losses in that chamber next year, when the GOP has to defend 22 of the 34 contested seats. In addition, a GOP challenger outspent by 5 to 1 still came within 6% of winning an open house seat in Massachusetts in a district that has been about a 60% democratic district in recent years.
Overall, Hillary Clinton's ability to pull into a big lead at this stage of the race has energized Republicans, freed up some independent voters to consider GOP nominees in that party's primaries, and created more media attention for the GOP race, providing national exposure to its candidates.
For the GOP, Hillary may be the gift that keeps on giving until next November.
Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.