The race is on for the Republican presidential nomination. And for the first time since 1964, the field is wide open. Now, 1964 was not a good year electorally for Republicans: Republican nominee Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona won only 38 percent of the popular vote, Republicans dropped 36 seats in the House, giving Democrats a 155 seat majority, and Democrats picked up seats in the Senate, gaining full two-thirds control. An open primary season may translate into electoral disaster.
Republicans in 2007 may not remember 1964, but they remember their congressional losses in 2006. And they do not like losing. Which is why none of the solidly conservative candidates seem to be gaining any traction in the long run-up to the primaries. Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, Governor Mike Huckabee, R-Arkansas, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, are all solid conservatives, yet none of them show up in Republican opinion polls.
They don’t show up because they don’t have the name recognition it takes to win a general election. The only social conservative in the field with significant national name recognition is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, who has not declared his intent to run. Gingrich is reprising the Richard Nixon 1968 nomination strategy — wait it out, let the conservative base rally around you, secure the nomination by acclaim.
There is only one problem for Gingrich: This is not 1968. It is 1952. This time around, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani plays the role of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In a normal time, a mayor of New York would be a Nelson Rockefeller-esque candidate: the man on the left of the party, with no broad appeal to the base. In a normal time, a mayor of New York who had been twice divorced, had carried on a rather public affair and had appeared on national television in drag would have no shot at the Republican Party nomination.
But this is no normal time, and Giuliani is no Rockefeller. Yes, he’s socially liberal. Yes, he’s anti-gun. But unlike Rockefeller — and like Eisenhower — Giuliani has cachet. He has an earned reputation for leadership. His conduct on 9/11 unified a city and a country. He talks tough on terror, and he has the credibility of experience.
Eisenhower was no hard-line Republican. Barry Goldwater rightly described him as “a dime store New Dealer.” Both Democrats and Republicans recruited him in the run-up to the 1952 election. But when it came to the general election, Eisenhower dominated.
Giuliani has similar potential. With northern states solidifying blue and southern states solidifying red, electoral gridlock has set in. 2006 was a reaction to the war in Iraq and a series of Republican corruption scandals; it did not end the stalemate that has been in place since the mid-1990s.
But Giuliani could change all that. The South will remain solidly Republican simply out of necessity — the Democratic Party has moved too far left to threaten Giuliani’s right flank. The North, however, may see Giuliani’s appeal. Giuliani, after all, was the mayor of the largest city in the United States. He is tough on crime, soft on traditional morality and solidly reductionist on taxes. It is no wonder that in every recent poll Giuliani defeats all comers in a general election.
What about a conservative insurrection against Giuliani? I recently spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), perhaps the largest agglomeration of conservatives in the United States. By and large, the 6,000-plus attendees seemed lukewarm on the candidates — many of the attendees sported stickers condemning “Rudy McRomney,” a combination of Giuliani, Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor and alleged flip-flopper Mitt Romney. But when it came time to vote in the CPAC straw poll, Romney came away with a slight victory, and Giuliani came in second. When first choice and second choice votes were combined, Giuliani came out on top.
Republicans may be idealistic, but they are not fools. When it comes to the 2008 election, national security is the big issue — and national security is Giuliani’s issue. For Republicans, it is more important that a Democrat stay out of the White House than that a Ronald Reagan conservative occupy it.