A Wide Open 2008 GOP Convention, Part I

Saint Paul, Minnesota, Labor Day, 2008 — The Republican National Convention opened under a cloud of uncertainty in the Xcel Energy Center arena, following the longest and most expensive primary season in American political history. For the first time in the memory of most delegates attending, no candidate had a lock on the party’s presidential nomination.

Early in the primary process, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani seemed invincible to many observers. His national popularity had been phenomenal following the September 11, 2001, attack on his city. This, some pundits predicted, would lead Republican voters to conclude that Giuliani was the ideal candidate to defeat New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who had been nominated as the Democrats’ standard-bearer in Denver the week before the Republicans gathered in Saint Paul. But as Giuliani’s liberal positions on social issues became known to GOP primary voters, his political star fell from the stratosphere and settled among the other so-called first-tier candidates. When the last primary votes were cast, Rudy’s campaign tallied just 703 delegates in his column, far from the 1,259 required to win the nomination.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz), had never been a favorite among conservatives, but his courageous and consistent stand for victory in Iraq had helped him with GOP primary voters. In the end, he held his own against Giuliani and brought to the convention 618 committed delegates.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had surprised many during the early stages of the campaign by raising more money than the two frontrunners, Giuliani and McCain. Romney had used his resources wisely and risen steadily in the polls, but still he came up short. When the gavel fell at the convention, he had 512 delegates pledged to him.

Most of the so-called second tier candidates had dropped out of the race early. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, though socially conservative, failed to excite either donors or voters. After a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, both withdrew shortly after the New Hampshire primary.

Former Wisconsin Governor and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, once a rising star among conservatives, was perceived as an instant also-ran when he entered the race. After polling in the single digits for months, he came in fourth in the Iowa caucuses and found himself unable to sustain his candidacy.
Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo had waged a valiant battle on the issue of illegal immigration, but in the end had to choose between continuing his quixotic presidential campaign and making a serious effort to retain his seat in Congress. He chose the latter, throwing his support for the nomination behind his 13-term House colleague, Duncan Hunter of California.

Hunter had announced early in 2007 that he was forfeiting a run for re-election to the House to pursue the GOP presidential nomination. True to his word, he slogged through the entire primary season with a lot of passion but very little money. He showed up in Minnesota with 243 delegates committed to his candidacy, far more than anyone would have believed 18 months earlier.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had entered the race in September of the previous year, late by 2008 standards. He did well among conservative GOP voters, winning Iowa and coming in second in New Hampshire. But the front-loaded primary season had worked against him, and he faltered in California and Florida due to a lack of funds. He came to Saint Paul with just 328 delegates committed to his cause.

Uncommitted delegates totaled 113.

As the gavel fell to open the convention, three groups backing their favorite candidates — none of whom had entered a single primary — began rallying support for their man. It looked to be a long week, evoking memories of the deals made in smoke-filled back rooms of conventions past.