As the GOP presidential primary race edges closer to the time when voters will actually vote — then be polled or vote in non-binding straw polls — it’s worth asking where we are and where we are going. The answers to eight questions will go a long way toward determining who will be the winner.
#1-3: Who’s Got The Money?
Like the observation that the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, location” the three biggest keys to success in politics are “money, money, money.” Candidates must file their financial disclosures with the FEC October 15, revealing what they have raised and spent, what cash they have on hand and what debt they carry. At this stage it is nearly certain Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney will raise plenty of cash but three items in particular will shape the race.
First, who will raise more money — John McCain or Fred Thompson? If it is the former and McCain exceeds expectations (currently hovering around $4M), the “McCain surge” story will regain life and he will have some level of media attention and momentum going into October GOP debates. Thompson’s failure to best his financially-struggling opponent would fuel the “not ready for prime time” stories which have become consensus opinion in MSM and many conservative publications. Conversely, if Thompson comes in strongly (in the $6-8M range), leaving McCain and others in the dust, Thompson supporters will bolster their claim that while Beltway pundits find him lacking, the primary voters and party regulars have found their man.
Second, how big a check will Mitt Romney write to himself? Last quarter Romney came in second in the money to Rudy Giuliani despite contributing $6.5M of his own funds. Should he need to do that again to keep pace critics will claim his base of support is narrow and he is “buying” his way into viability. Nevertheless, he will have plenty of cash available, if only from his own bank account, to continue and expand the ad buys which have helped bolster his poll numbers in early states.
Third, will Mike Huckabee translate his strong debate performance and polished speaking skills into donations to launch him into the first tier of contenders? With a surprisingly strong finish in Ames, Iowa, Huckabee enjoyed the glow of media attention. But unless he can build on that with fundraising success he will be ill equipped to develop a ground game in Iowa and New Hampshire and buy media in key states like Michigan and Florida.
#4 Can you win a campaign if you don’t campaign?
Since his initial week (with the most rocky moments coming in the most important state, Florida) Thompson is off the campaign trail. He went to the NRA and gave a speech at Mackinac Island, Michigan last week but did no retail campaigning. This week? Nothing so far (other than a few radio talk shows) and no public calendar. The question remains: why? Some candidates are their own best advocates (McCain and Rudy) while others are not. Critics will argue that he simply may have a better shot when he avoids retail campaigning and the ensuing gaffes with the media. Alternatively, opposing camps speculate that his campaign simply lacks the advance teams needed to set up “Ask Mitt” — type meetings and the endless stream of McCain townhalls or Giuliani coffee shop visits.
#5 Will social conservatives coalesce around a single candidate?
Earlier this week a public argument broke out between James Dobson on one hand and Dr. Richard Land and Gary Bauer on the other as to whether Thompson would be the choice of religious conservative leaders. Should Thompson be the pick of these and other prominent organizations, his fortunes will take a turn for the better. Those of Romney, who has assiduously courted social conservatives and has developed a roster of social conservatives to serve on his National Faith and Values Steering Committee, will be set back. In the event there is no consensus candidate, and the largest beneficiary will of course be Giuliani.
#6 Will Romney’s lead in New Hampshire fade?
In the RealClearPolitics poll average his lead has slid from nearly to 12% to below 5%. Romney’s entire strategy was built around wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and a loss in the Granite State might spell the end of his chances — so it is imperative he maintain his lead. Based on early poll numbers and his name recognition as governor from the state next door pundits have been declaring him the overwhelming favorite there. That may be changing as McCain and Giuliani spend more time and develop their grassroots efforts. One danger for Romney: even a very close second place finisher might be able to declare a “moral victory over favorite son Romney.” Watch for the race to tighten even further as other candidates begin TV ads which to date only Romney has run.
#7 Will another candidate challenge Giuliani as the leader of the attack on Hillary Clinton?
The week of General Petraeus’testimony was supposed to be McCain’s moment in the sun when the surge strategy and his support for it were front and center. Instead Giuliani claimed the lion share of media coverage with an effective attack on MoveOn.org and Hillary Clinton, who he painted as too intimidated to confront her party’s most extreme Left wing even at the cost of impugning a decorated General’s honor. This was merely the latest installment in Giuliani’s ongoing efforts to take on Clinton personally rather than his rivals. Long before is GOP opponents Giuliani in debates and interviews routinely attacked Clinton as the proponent of big government and retreat (or inconsistency) in Iraq. As it becomes more likely that she will be the nominee, Giuliani’s effort to portray himself as the most effective antagonist may pay off — unless someone can do a better job.
#8 Will Newt get in?
His latest announcement is that with $30M in financial commitments he will indeed jump into the race. This may prove embarrassing to Thompson who was said to be the beneficiary of his advice until recently. His presence will give social conservatives yet another option, perhaps hopelessly dividing their support. Nevertheless, with his plethora of ideas, the debates — if he agrees to attend — may finally be worth watching.