Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Republicans 2008--Early Handicapping

The Southern Republican Leadership Conference is being billed as the first official event of the 2008 campaign season. Of course, that doesn't mean that large squad of Republican wannabes have been campaigning in New Hampshire, Iowa, the United States Senate, Weight Watchers, and other venues since the day Bush won re-election. Yes, Weight Watchers. Mike Huckabee lost 100 pounds to prepare for his run, but he might have been on the South Beach diet instead.
The 2008 primaries are going to be very "Democrat-like" for the Republican Party. The leading candidate for the Republican nomination is usually either a president running for re-election (Reagan in 1984, Bush II), a vice-president inheriting the office (Bush I in 1988), or someone anointed by the party elites (Dole in 1996, Bush II in 2000) or rank and file sentiment (Reagan in 1980).

This year, no one is going to "inherit" the Republican nomination the way Hillary Clinton will inherit the Democratic nomination. Cheney isn't going to run, the Bush administration does not have a "legacy candidate," party elites are divided, the right-wing media establishment is hesitant, and the rank and file is split and confused. Whoever is going to win the nomination isn't going to be able to just win one important primary to prove they won't blow it. They're going to have to fight hard and prove themselves over a grueling primary campaign season.
Even at this early date, it is useful to follow the conventional format and divide candidates into "tiers" to assess their chances.

THE FIRST TIER: What makes a man or a woman a first-tier presidential candidate is having more of these qualities than almost all of the other candidates. A national Reputation and broad name recognition among the electorate. High levels of early fund-raising. A top-drawer campaign staff waiting to be activated. A strong popular voting base. The only Republican candidate who fits almost all of these criteria is Sen. John McCain of Arizona. McCain is the most popular politician in the country right now and has been the most popular politician for the last six years except for period right after 9-11. He has a strong reputation among Republican moderates and traditional conservatives, independents, and moderate to conservative Democrats.

Nevertheless, a McCain candidacy would have several problems that might keep him from getting over the top. McCain's biggest problem is that he is either moderately or very unpopular with the strongest popular factions of the Republican Party--religious conservatives, social conservatives, and Bush die-hards. If the Republican right can agree on a single, strong, candidate (a big "if"), McCain would have a tough time in the primaries, especially in the South. If the Bush administration decides that they can't tolerate McCain and decide on a "legacy" candidate, that would make McCain's job even tougher because the "legacy" candidate would become the candidate of the right as well.

Other problems for McCain include his campaign operation and his temper. While not as bad as Bob Dole's, McCain's campaign apparatus was not nearly as good as Bush's in 2000. It has to be considered a potential weakness in 2008 as well. Likewise, McCain is well-known for his volcanic temper. That creates a potential for self-destruction in the face of 18 hour campaign days and the inevitable frustrations and defeats.

Because McCain is the only first tier candidate, he has to be considered the favorite. But he's not that strong of a favorite.

THE SECOND TIER: Second tier candidates generally have national reputations, media recognition, fund-raising potential, and a base of popular support. Rudy Giuliani fits the criteria for the second tier. He has a national reputation as a result of his work as mayor of New York, he's media friendly, he can raise money, and he has a base of popular support from 9-11. However, Rudy's strengths are not as formidable as John McCain's strengths and Rudy's weaknesses are worse than McCain's. McCain has a reputation as being more moderate than he is. Rudy is a moderate, pro-choice and pro-affirmative action Republican. As a result he would have even bigger problems in Southern primaries than McCain.

A second possibility for second-tier status is Condoleeza Rice if she is anointed by the Bush administration. I think this is a real possibility because Rice is such a personal loyalist to Bush. If Rice gets a Zeus-like nod from Bush, she'll have some strong assets--a superb campaign staff, fund-raising capacity, and support from a lot of the right-wing media apparatus. That would put her into the second tier and probably would make her stronger than Rudy. But Rice is also a moderate on abortion and affirmative action. She also doesn't seem to have any religious profile. And she's a black woman. So, Rice would be a tough sell in Republican primaries.

THE THIRD TIER: That leaves a lot of guys on the third tier. That includes Frist, Brownback, Allen, Huckabee, Pataki, Romney, Santorum (if he's re-elected), and maybe a couple more. Third Tier candidates are all the same--limited name recognition, no national reputation, little fundraising capability, and no base of popular support. None of the above mentioned men are well-known outside their states or have a great deal of support among Republican constituencies. The only real hope of the Third Tier candidates is for Giuliani and Rice to refuse to run and for them to become the sole representative of the activist right-wing against McCain. Another way to become first or second tier is to be anointed by the Bush administrtion as their "legacy candidate." Either way, they would be the candidate of the right-wing and that would push them into the ring with McCain with at least a fighting chance. Except for Bill Frist, all of the third tier candidates have reason to think that they'll be "the one." But none of them has good reason to think that.

Anyway, the best bet is that the Republican nominee will come down to a battle between McCain and whichever guy emerges from Third Tier status to be the standard-bearer of the right. McCain would be a marginal favorite to win such a batte, but it's easy to imagine him blowing it.


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