Road to 2008: New Hampshire to Michigan

Never in U.S. presidential history have so many candidates, staffers, fundraisers and media pundits fanned out around the country so early to meet the party faithful. From New Hampshire to Florida and from Texas to California the accelerated campaign cycle is well under way. Over the last week HUMAN EVENTS has talked to numerous state GOP party chairmen from across the country to find out what they make of this, who is stirring up the base, what issues are key and what they think of the early campaign frenzy. In this, the first of a two-part report, we look at the early primary and caucus states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina as well as a number of key Eastern and Midwestern states.

Has the conservative base gravitated toward one candidate? All of the chairmen surveyed say “no.” Ray Hoffman says simply: “At this point things aren’t settled.” Jim Herring of Mississippi says it is “wide open,” a view echoed by Saul Anuzis of Michigan who says his party activists are “playing the field.” Brad Courtney agrees and says that Wisconsin voters are taking a “wait and see” attitude. Although pollsters and pundits seem anxious to pronounce front-runners and favorites chairmen from South Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee caution it is “way too early” for most voters to choose their favorite. Ron Carey of Minnesota and many others say that without a clear front-runner, voters in his state will “decide late.”

Do Republicans in their states find all the candidates unacceptable? Only a single chairman reports that conservatives are saying “anybody but McCain, Romney and Giuliani.” Others reject that view and speak with pride that their voters are pragmatic and “not waiting for the second coming of Ronald Reagan,” as Fergus Cullen of New Hampshire remarks. Anuzis sums up the views of many when he says “they all have pluses and minuses.” James Pelura says Maryland voters would like to “take a little of this from this one and a little of that from the other.”

How important is that favorite pundit term “electability”? Very, according to many chairmen. “Electability is clearly a main issue especially among the donor community,” says Anuzis. Struggling to avoid the stampede to jump on a particular candidate’s bandwagon, many chairmen including Robert Gleason of Pennsylvania stress the importance of putting their state’s electoral votes in the red column in November 2008. Bob Davis remarks that in contrast to an extremely “polarizing” Hillary Clinton a candidate with broad appeal is central to the GOP hopes.

Which issues are highest on the list of concerns for their party members? Katon Dawson of South Carolina like many others says “the war on terror is key.” However, nearly all chairmen indicated they believed it would not be a one-issue election. Davis says in Tennessee voters are thorough and independent and traditionally look at pocketbook issues as well as gun rights, abortion and marriage, all issues he notes, that were key in his state’s hard-fought Senate race last year. Gleason agrees that “social issues are always important” in Pennsylvania. Pelura says Marylanders may go back to basics which he describes as “Keep us safe. Protect against invaders. Keep more of our money. Government efficiency and accountability.” Nearly every chairman also mentioned “leadership” or “judgment.”

Best organized and most visible? Many chairmen mentioned Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney’s fast start but Courtney, noting Giuliani’s recent hire of the Wisconsin state GOP executive director, was one of several to say the Giuliani’s fundraising, hiring and planned visits seem to be increasing.

What about the so far non-candidate Newt Gingrich? Nearly all say, in the words of Anuzis, that he is the “favorite dark horse.” However, party chairmen comment both that he is “visionary” and “brilliant” but “polarizing.” Carey says his conservative base, which looks for “a conservative of the heart and not of convenience,” would certainly “pause” in supporting Gingrich because of the electability issue.

Best advice for Republicans? From many chairmen: focus on building party unity for November and don’t reject a good candidate in search of a perfect one.

Next week: Heartland and the West.