For political pundits and pollsters it’s been a bad week. For those who think “momentum” is destiny in primary races it’s been a downer. For those who think “change” is all the rage, they may have to rethink. But if you love politics and think voters should get to make up their own minds — not merely listen to the pundits or voters from a preceding primary state — it’s been a whole lot of fun.
From New Hampshire to Michigan
Tuesday of course saw Hillary Clinton surprise everyone with a come from behind victory over Barack Obama. With the final 24-hour news cycle riveted by her teary moment on the trail, women voters came back to her in droves. Bolstered by a slightly less elderly base of support than she enjoyed in Iowa and the famous Clinton get out the vote organization, Hillary scored an unexpected and treasured victory which spared a full blown melt down in her campaign. She now has stopped the bleeding from Iowa and will prepare for the long haul through Nevada, South Carolina and Super Tuesday on February 5. Once again, the Clintons can never be counted out.
Meanwhile, John McCain roared back from the political dead winning comfortably in New Hampshire. Despite millions in paid ads, much of it “contrast” ads against his opponents and a top flight political operation, Romney came up short in his own backyard, a state in which he led by double digits for the better part of a year. Exit polling showed that McCain’s national security credentials impressed voters and Romney’s negative ads turned them off. Voters listed Iraq and the economy as the most important issues, but voters ranked the character of the candidates even more important than policy issues.
Nevertheless, Romney continues on to the January 15 primary in his home state of Michigan. He has pulled back his media buys in South Carolina and Florida to make his final stand there. He has been running TV ads for weeks there emphasizing his business background and arguing he is the right choice to turn around the faltering Michigan economy.
However, problems quite similar to those which Romney faced in New Hampshire await him. Michigan, like New Hampshire, was a winning state for McCain in 2000 and he still enjoys a powerful political team and groundswell of support. McCain, as he did in New Hampshire has garnered the endorsements of prominent editorial boards (the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press). More importantly, as they were in New Hampshire, Independents are allowed to vote in the GOP primary. Without a competing Democratic primary, McCain will have these voters all to himself.
In addition, Mike Huckabee’s star continues to rise and he is expected to take a large segment of religious right voters in the western part of the state. His populist message and sympathetic rhetoric aimed at the “little guy” may resonate in a state suffering from 7% unemployment.
Moreover Rudy Giuliani’s state chair Rep. Candice Miller announced he would not visit the state and would focus on Florida. His socially moderate/national security voters may therefore shift to McCain, further strengthening his position.
With national security voters and Independents tilting toward McCain and Huckabee scooping up social conservatives Romney may find it difficult to eke out a win. Indeed in the latest poll, McCain lead Romney by nine points with Huckabee close behind in third.
With this backdrop the candidates traveled to South Carolina Thursday for yet another debate in advance of the January 19 primary. Fred Thompson took the proceedings by storm, giving his most powerful performance yet. Taking on Huckabee, he dissected his record on everything from taxes to his NEA endorsement, concluding “That’s the model of the Democratic party.” He gave solid answers on national security, a robust defense of “attrition by enforcement in immigration” and sprinkled it all with good humor. His goal was to create an opening for a victory in South Carolina. He accomplished that and whether he can now win in his self-described must win state is up to him.
However, McCain also came away a winner. No contender laid a glove on him, he showed no ill temper and he defended tax cuts and his own role in bringing about “change” in our Iraq policy and in spending reform. His best answer: an indictment of the Democrats who continue to maintain that the Surge is not successful and that, rather than the GOP’s tenacity on Iraq, will be an “electability” issue. More importantly, two of his chief opponents in Michigan (Romney) and South Carolina (Huckabee) were only fair at best. He even managed to throw some bones — on the environment and on bipartisanship — to those key Independent voters in Michigan. With little to upset his momentum he heads into Tuesday’s primary with wounded foes and a strong performance under his belt.
It is a measure of how serious the losses in Iowa and New Hampshire were that Romney went from the center of attention last Saturday to a mere sideshow, essentially reduced to insulting Ron Paul. His answers were polished and adequate but he was overshadowed by both McCain and Thompson and failed to provide a good rationale for conservatives to rally to his failing effort.
Huckabee faced a constant barrage from Thompson, frequently on the defensive with regard to his record as governor and seemingly outgunned on foreign affairs. However, he played to his strong supporters among the religious right with a strong defense of marriage and repeated his defense of the “little guy” without departing too sharply from traditional Republican principles of low taxes and spending restraint.
Rudy Giuliani turned in his third strong debate performance in a row with a full throated defense of his new Club for Growth approved tax plan and sharp answers on foreign policy and border enforcement. His challenge: to withstand the onslaught of his opponents who will come barreling into Florida with a head of steam.
In short, the debate should cheer conservatives. They have able contenders who know that the winning formula means adhering closely to conservative principles.