With less than fifty days to go before the GOP Iowa presidential caucuses, the Republican presidential nomination is still up for grabs. But who’s ahead, who’s behind, and what should we look for in the next seven weeks?
National vs. Primary Polling
“Who is ahead?” is not an easy question to answer. Rudy Giuliani’s lead in national polling has climbed steadily since September. On the RealClearPolitics.com (RCP) average his lead over his closest competitor has ticked over 14 pts. While Fred Thompson remains in second in the RCP average, his poll results have skidded downward since he official entry into the race and he now runs behind John McCain in a number of nationally-recognized polls. Mitt Romney remains in fourth with Mike Huckabee in fifth.
The Romney campaign rightly reminds us that we have no national primary and in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney is the frontrunner. In Iowa, however, the newest “it” candidate, Huckabee, got good news with three polls — placing him between 2 and 11 points behind Romney. GOP activists in Iowa and independent observers give Huckabee credit for capturing momentum and appealing to social conservative voters. In New Hampshire Romney’s lead seems to have solidified with polls showing him in double digits.
But there is better news for Giuliani elsewhere. He enjoys a comfortable lead in Florida and a number of February 5 delegate-rich states such as California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. In South Carolina the RCP average shows an absolute dead heat between Romney and Giuliani with Thompson just a few points back.
For Thompson there is little good news. His national polling has slid and he runs fourth or fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire and is in a dogfight in South Carolina which should be his strongest early state.
As for McCain his national polls, along with the national media buzz, have boosted his spirits but he remains nearly broke, in fifth in Iowa and third in most polls in his must win state of New Hampshire.
In a nutshell, the Romney camp argues the early state polling shows the true state of the race with Romney poised for wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and potentially South Carolina which will diminish Giuliani’s lead in other states and dramatically increase Romney’s standing in national polls. Giuliani’s team says not so fast: Romney’s lead in Iowa is shrinking, the battle is just joined in New Hampshire (as Giuliani goes on the air with paid TV ads) and Giuliani’s lead is “momentum proof” in places like Florida and California, New Jersey, New York and Illinois.
What to watch for? A win or near win by Huckabee in Iowa may wound Romney and permanently derail his early state strategy.
The Battle For Social Conservatives
Social conservative leaders despondent over the lack of an ideal candidate should take solace from one indisputable fact: everyone wants their support. So far, everyone has gotten a nod from a noteworthy group or individual. Pat Robertson lined up with Giuliani, Paul Weyrich with Romney, National Right to Life with Thompson, Sam Brownback with McCain and Donald Wildmon with Huckabee.
Some commentators reached the conclusion that the division would benefit Giulaini, by fracturing the social conservative vote. Others saw the National Right to Life nod to Thompson as a coup, depriving Romney of a much sought after endorsement and perhaps reviving Thompson’s flagging fortunes. (Romney supporter Weyrich’s accusations that a financial arrangement prompted the endorsement sparked outrage by Thompson and shock among many conservative commentators and activists.) Meanwhile, Huckabee (who won a recent straw poll by voters who attended the Family Research Council Voters Value Summit and whose popularity with social conservatives in Iowa grows weekly) maintains that despite what leaders may say, real social conservative voters prefer him, a Baptist minister.
What to watch for? Key social conservative endorsements for Huckabee in Iowa and whether James Dobson gives the nod to one of the candidates.
Immigration remains a key issue — the most important issue for many — in the GOP presidential race. Romney accused Giuliani of maintaining New York as a sanctuary city while Giuliani says he was merely encouraging aliens to report violent crime and points to the list of sanctuary cities in Massachusetts under Romney’s term. Romney runs an ad in New Hampshire which other candidates, aided by an independent group at factcheck.org, say is misleading. Huckabee reminds voters that Romney had illegal aliens working for his gardening service. Thompson says both Romney and Giuliani leave a lot to be desired. In reality, all the GOP contenders — even a now chastened McCain — now support tough border security and employer verification measures and oppose measures such as driver’s licenses for illegal aliens.
What to watch for? Who goes up with the first negative ad, attacking his opponent’s immigration record and perhaps risking a retaliatory blast back.
It is not everything — millions collected by Ron Paul are unlikely to help him win a single state, for example — but it will determine whether a candidate who loses an early state or two can nevertheless mount efforts in later states and keep himself in the race. Romney and Giuliani have millions tucked away to weather a loss here or there and keep ads running around the country. McCain’s bankers are trying to negotiate a $3M loan but his prospects look dim if he stumbles in New Hampshire. Huckabee’s money haul has improved but many doubt whether he can sustain a national campaign.
What to watch for? If money pours into Huckabee after a strong Iowa showing he will be firmly in the first tier.
The scenarios and permutations are endless. A winner in one state may force other candidates out of the race; a too close for comfort win in one state may work to an opponent’s advantage. Absent a Huckabee win in Iowa it may come down to a battle royal between Giuliani and Romney; with a Huckabee win (or a very close second) all the prognostications go by the wayside.
Lurking in the background, like a bad dream, is the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. That sobering possibility may motivate GOP primary voters to inspect candidates’ conservative bona fides but also look for someone with real moxie. “Who’s going to beat her in November?” will be one question all GOP primary voters will be pondering.