Nominating the Next President: The Frontrunners and the Wingmen

Not for the first time in the current Presidential election cycle, the momentum appears to have shifted in each party's race. The current national frontrunners, Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans,  appear to be on their heels, fighting off challenges from the new frontrunners in Iowa, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee.  With but 31 days until that first caucus, both nominations are anything but secure for the national frontrunners.  Here is my assessment of what might happen.

The Democrats

The conventional wisdom for months has been that a Clinton victory in Iowa would effectively end the race. For once, the conventional wisdom appears to be right about something. Clinton's lead in Iowa the last few months was always small, while her lead in other states has been much larger. If neither Obama nor John Edwards could knock her off in Iowa, they would gain no traction, nor get the media attention necessary to get the bump required to close the gap elsewhere.

Various surveys taken in Iowa have shown that Edwards, who has worked the state harder and longer than the other candidates, and who ran there once before in 2004, has the most support from those who have participated in prior caucuses. Obama supporters, were the least likely to have done so, which makes sense given that his support level is skewed towards younger (often first time) voters. 

Given the unpredictability of who will turn out on caucus night, and the odd nature of the caucus process,  where voters can switch their support if their preferred candidate fails to garner 15% of the first vote taken in each caucus, second choices matter. Clinton, in these same surveys, was less favored  as a second choice  than either Obama or Edwards. While the "Obama now leads in Iowa" story is exciting to the political junkies covering the race, most of whom want a competitive contest and  have no love for Hillary Clinton, (unless they are already part of her team: think CNN), it is possible that  Edwards will win Iowa, and not Obama.

What is working against this potential outcome is the drumbeat about Obama as the new leader there. Those who for one reason or another (there are many to choose from), do not want Clinton to be their party's nominee, may decide to vote for the candidate perceived to be the most likely to knock her off in Iowa.  This at least gives Obama an opportunity not only to win, but to win decisively, which would be even more harmful to Clinton's message of the inevitability of her victory.

What is as important as the new direction of the polls in Iowa is what has happened in New Hampshire, where the primary follows the Iowa caucus by only five days. There, too, the momentum is clearly away from Clinton. Both Obama and Edwards have rallied in the granite state. Obama now trails in some surveys by only 7%, and Edwards has registered in the high teens for the first time. A victory in Iowa would likely catapult Obama into the lead in New Hampshire, and  an Edwards victory in Iowa would make a New Hampshire follow through win at least possible. In 2004, John Kerry came from a double digit deficit to pass both Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt to win Iowa and then immediately shot to the lead and to victory in New Hampshire, where Dean had held a huge lead before Iowa.

So the question becomes this: if either Obama or Edwards sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire , does that mean Clinton's campaign will fold up and she will be forced to give up her 40 year ambition to be President?   I think not.

The Clinton campaign is built for the long haul. The Clintons have already run two successful national campaigns.  Bill Clinton may be the most effective retail politician in the country, and is overall a big asset to his wife's campaign, despite the occasional miscue (e.g his misleading and almost certainly false statement this week that he was always opposed to the Iraq war). The Clinton campaign is also very well funded (as is Obama's) and built to compete in big state primaries, where her own name and the Clinton brand already carry a lot of weight.

The Clintons also have a very effective war room operation, which has probably dug up whatever there is to be discovered about potential GOP opponents in a general election, but also about anyone who might deny her the nomination of her own party.  There are risks of course in leaking dirt about Obama or Edwards, given the unique nature of their appeal and situation.  Obama has tried to promote a message (however true it might be) that his campaign and presidency will rise above partisanship. And of course he is African American, a group with strong ties to the Clintons. Leaking material on Obama might help Hillary win the nomination, or it could backfire and antagonize part of a key Democratic voting block in both the nominating process and general election. In the case of Edwards, it is always easier to go after a white male, but since his wife is very ill, there are risks here too..

More than one political pundit has speculated that this week's damaging leak in Politico about Rudy Giuliani's security detail expenses for visits to the Hamptons as Mayor  may have been a Clinton operation. This would have been a twofer for the former First Lady -- an attempt to knock out one of the two strongest potential General Election opponents (McCain is the other), and also change the subject from her slippage in the early state polls. Since Giuliani was the candidate set to run against Hillary for the open New York State Senate seat in 2000, this kind of information could have been accumulated at that time.

Obama would clearly be the bigger threat to Clinton for the nomination if he wins the early races, since his race probably trumps her gender as a glass ceiling breakthrough, and his freshness as a national figure undoubtedly trumps her decades of political visibility, which has resulted in high positives, and also very high negatives for Clinton in all national surveys. 

The biggest stumbling block for Clinton, if the race comes to be seen as wide open, and a marathon rather than a one (Iowa) and done, is that both Obama and Edwards currently run better than Clinton  in the early head to head match-ups against the leading GOP candidates (Giuliani, Romney, Thompson and McCain. Huckabee has risen rapidly but too recently for these surveys to yet include him!).

The current betting line suggests that Hillary is still an overwhelming favorite (68% chance, to Obama's 22%, and Edwards 5%).   I think this overstates the likelihood of her winning.  If Obama wins Iowa, I think Clinton will still be favored for the nomination, but the race will be closer to 50-50.

The Republicans

Handicapping the Republican race may be easier than figuring out how the BCS standings    will come out each week, but not by much.

For many months, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has maintained a fairly steady lead in the national polls, which in the last two months has widened a bit.  The second place candidate has changed from month to month, however. The Republican race has been far more fluid than the Democratic race.  This is attributable to several factors, including the late entry of Fred Thompson into the race, the  rise of Mike Huckabee from the second tier of candidates to the leader in Iowa, the resilience of John McCain (the wrong guy to ever write off), and Mitt Romney's strategy to gain national traction from a string of early wins. 

The biggest surprise to many of the national pundits however is that Giuliani is still  a serious contender for the nomination this late in the game . I have argued for over a year that were Giuliani to be nominated by the Republicans, it would be a bigger glass ceiling breakthrough than an Obama or Clinton presidency. The Republicans in the last decade and a half, are perceived to have shifted from a small government low tax and spend party to one dominated by social conservatives, many from the South. To nominate a pro-choice former Mayor of New York City is the definition of breaking the mold.  In the case of Giuliani, his main appeal is not the promise of a return to small government conservatism, but to be a strong leader in terms of national security.  But this does not mean it will happen.

Part of what has kept Giuliani afloat is the division among the candidates battling for the designation as the real conservative in the race. Mitt Romney has tried to run to Rudy's right on social issues, and Mike Huckabee is now doing it with more legitimacy.  Fred Thompson has been the big disappointment in the race, never gaining any traction, though it appeared he could run to Rudy's and Romney's right on social issues and to Huckabee's right on economic issues.

I have argued before that the last thing the GOP needs in 2008 is a Presidential standard-bearer who hails from the South.   This is not because the South is unimportant to the party. It is very important. Rather, the Party needs to move beyond the South to win, and after the 8 years of turmoil with President Bush,  a non-Southerner would likely offer a greater chance to expand the base enough to win the tight Midwestern and Western states (Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania,  Minnesota, Wisconsin,  New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, among them).  A Governor from a small Southern state, such as Huckabee, might be an excellent choice for the number two  spot on the national ticket, but it would be difficult to argue that he is the best qualified  to lead the nation on national security matters, which will probably demand paramount national attention for years to come. 

National security, of course, is the Achilles heel of the Obama campaign as well. A candidate only three years removed from the Illinois State Senate, with no executive experience in government of any kind,  may not be an ideal candidate to deal with the gravity of the Iranian nuclear issue, or the difficulty in navigating the right approach in Iraq, regardless of what one's views were in 2002.

At this point, Huckabee appears to be in very good shape in Iowa. He has benefited from Thompson's weakness. Romney has already spent millions in Iowa, and seems to have topped out. It may be difficult however for Huckabee to use an Iowa win, if it comes, to win New Hampshire also, where he trails badly and where both John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are working the state harder and are stronger than they are in Iowa. A Huckabee victory in Iowa, may in fact result in a McCain or Giuliani win in New Hampshire, as Romney support leaks to these candidates, as well as to Huckabee. But for the moment, writing off Romney would be a serious error. He is just behind in Iowa, and well ahead in New Hampshire, and has far more financial resources than Huckabee down the stretch. 

There are simply too many scenarios on how the early states will play out on the GOP side. South Carolina, Michigan and Nevada are all close, and the leader in each state is in the 20s. Were one candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, that could change, but that seems less likely today than a month ago. Rudy Giuliani has built his firewall around a win in Florida on January 29, but Huckabee is showing signs of being competitive there as well. It is not until February 5, where Giuliani has overwhelming leads in California and some big Northeastern states, to be able to safely call a winner in a state.

This tangled situation suggests the race will not be decided before February 5, and possibly for a long while thereafter. At some point, a conservative will emerge as the single alternative to Giuliani. Romney would probably be the toughest challenger for Rudy in that role, given his funding, discipline and organization.  Huckabee may turn out to be the flavor of the month, but not withstand the scrutiny for the long haul, except as a ticket balancer

There is one scenario that no one is considering. That is that Giuliani  falters, due to the continued character attacks from the Democrats , and their media flacks (e.g. the New York Times). If that occurs, John McCain could become the centrist alternative in the race.  Could Huckabee win a contest on gravitas versus McCain?  Could Obama in a general election? McCain is probably the strongest general election nominee for the Republicans, given his appeal to independents and conservative Democrats, though he remains a long-shot for the nomination.  He must win in New Hampshire to continue in the race.

It would be difficult for a Democrat to smear McCain publicly in a general election race, given his history and reputation, and now that Iraq is going so much better, his support for the war has been largely vindicated. He might  win Joe Lieberman's vote, if not offer him a VP slot.  His Achilles heel may be his support for Bush's immigration  bill within the GOP, but here again, he might run stronger among Hispanics than any other Republican nominee, and as a result hold the competitive Western states next November. The North Vietnamese learned he is not a quitter.

If I had to wager, I think Rudy is a very slight favorite, and Romney is still alive and very much kicking. Huckabee and McCain are long shots. I do not see any scenario in which Thompson is nominated, and the current betting line is consistent with this assessment.

Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.