State of the Race: Culling the Republican Herd

In the last week the Republican electorate sent the clear signal thart it isn’t ready to send anyone home yet. Mike Huckabee had to win Iowa and did. John McCain had to win New Hampshire and did. Mitt Romney had to win Michigan and did. In each case the candidate who needed a win to remain viable worked hard with a pitch aimed to that particular state and survived to fight another day. But if Huckabee made the sale to evangelicals, McCain to independents and Romney to hometown fans, it is not yet clear whether and how will they translate those appeals to the broader GOP electorate.

The theory that early primary wins would create an unstoppable momentum, knocking out all but one candidate quickly has been utterly discredited. We’re now in what Rudy Giuliani’s campaign had predicted all along: a prolonged fight for delegates across the country. Larry Sabato comments: “Rudy now has the precious chance to make his unusual strategy work. Nothing is certain. For the first time one can even raise the possibility of a brokered convention without being held up to ridicule.”


Michigan has left more questions than answers in its primary wake. Huckabee made a strong push with the state’s substantial block of social conservative voters including home schoolers yet lost to Romney 34-29% among evangelical voters and garnered only 15% of the overall vote. The question remains whether Iowa was an anomaly and whether his star has dimmed under the glare of opponents’ attacks on his fiscal record and foreign policy views.

McCain lost overwhelmingly in Michigan among Republican voters 41-27%. The open question for him is whether New Hampshire (where he narrowly beat Romney among Republicans) was an outlier or whether Michigan was. As we head into primaries where only Republicans can vote, McCain has to show he can expand his appeal beyond his role in reversing Iraq policy and to prove he can win the support of the broad range of Republican voters.

Romney cemented his win on his home turf by pledging to recapture the automobile industry’s lost jobs and advocating a government-industry “partnership” with a $20B government research program. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal explained: “He was able to win in his native state, and to do so convincingly among Republican voters of all stripes. He helped himself by stressing the economy in a state that has lagged behind U.S. growth for years, even if he did go over the top with his pandering to the auto industry. Mr. Romney can’t stop jobs from leaving the state, no matter how often he claims he can.”

Romney’s critics have already seized on what John Podhoretz dubbed “a testament to his remarkable elasticity” in detouring from his advocacy of fiscal conservatism. So for him, there remains an open question as to whether he can conquer concerns about his authenticity and find a consistent message (e.g. the “three legged stool,” “change,” “fix Washington”).


The next stops on the campaign trail come tomorrow. Nevada holds a caucus which has largely been ignored by the candidates. Romney, who has expended the most time and money there, is leading in the latest polls comfortably and is expected to win.

The real excitement and attention are focused on South Carolina. Recent polls show Huckabee’s South Carolina lead has faded and McCain now sits atop the most recent polls by a narrow margin. Recent polls also show that Thompson is catching and may soon pass Romney decisively, making a run for second place.

McCain has been stressing his military credentials and foreign policy experience. He hopes to draw support from the large military and veteran population (27% of GOP voters there are veterans). Picking up the endorsement of stalwart conservative Tom Coburn, he hopes to bolster his image of a conservative willing to battle the Beltway crowd. He also has been speaking forcefully about his pro-life record, which has not been a regular topic on the stump for him. However, he is facing renewed attacks on his role in immigration reform from Thompson and accusations by Romney that he is “pessimistic” about the economy.

Thompson has had his best two weeks of the campaign. An excellent debate in Myrtle Beach and the prospect that no early winner will be crowned have given him a new lease on life. On Wednesday he took on Huckabee’s populist rhetoric, declaring: “It’s not about employer versus employee or rich versus poor — That’s Democratic talk. I hope our people can avoid going down that road. What we’re talking about is freedom, fairness, and a marketplace that allows for innovation.” He then took Romney to task: “Everybody was flocking up there to Michigan and promising, in effect … the federal government was going to come in there and bail the entire state out. Now, they said it with a straight face and apparently it worked for some of them. That’s no way to get elected president on things you could not – and should not — deliver.”

Yesterday Thompson purchased a wide media buy to air his “Consistent Conservative” TV ad, explaining that he alone has a track record of  espousing conservative principles on immigration, taxes, judges, foreign policy and social issues. By making clear that he is going “all in” he hopes that voters here (as has been the pattern in each contest) will not send home the “must win” contender.

Huckabee will be counting on his strong support among evangelical voters. With Chuck Norris in tow he has been keeping a vigorous schedule. On Wednesday he spoke to Christian students about his personal salvation experience. However, with competition from Thompson, Romney and McCain he also tried to reach beyond his core of support. At the Citadel Huckabee defended his record as Arkansas Governor and advocated the Fair Tax. Although he backed off his suggestion that the U.S. should halt immigration from countries which sponsor or harbor terrorists, he tried to beef up his immigration message by signing a no amnesty pledge sponsored by NumbersUSA. He assembled groups of businessmen to vouch for his commitment to low taxes and less regulation and rebut Club for Growth’s ads attacking his policies, contending its ads were bankrolled by Romney backers. However, Thompson’s withering attacks on his fiscal and foreign policy views continued and polls showed him still trailing frontrunner McCain.
Romney campaigned in South Carolina up through Thursday afternoon with the hope he could capitalize on his Michigan momentum. Trying to cover his bets, his spokesman on Wednesday explained he was leaving for Nevada Thursday night because “There are two contests on Saturday, and while South Carolina is important, there are more delegates up for grabs in Nevada.” He has invested millions of dollars in ads and held approximately 50 events in South Carolina but has still struggled to close the sale with southern, social conservative voters. As Brad Warthen, editor of The State’s Editorial page put it, “he’ll get the votes of the people who want to vote for the suit,” but has found it difficult to convince dyed in the wool conservatives that he is really one of them. Since he must show he can win in the South to secure the GOP nomination, it likely will satisfy none of his critics to argue that a win in uncontested Nevada balances a loss in South Carolina to his fiercest opponents.


So will South Carolina voters give us a definitive frontrunner on Saturday? Certainly a loss by Thompson or Huckabee may cripple their efforts. However, after a display of non-momentum from the earlier contests many are doubtful that South Carolina will crown a winner and even a close second by a “must win” contender may be incentive enough to keep going. Clemson political science professor Stephen Wainscott contends that “the effect of South Carolina will be only to further blur the picture” and the winner “will merely go into Super Tuesday with an edge.”

The GOP primaries seem like the NFL playoffs — get your ground game in order and play one contest at a time. Having in effect taken “byes” in the early primaries, Rudy Giuliani will be there in Florida to fight the next, but perhaps not decisive, battle.  But which of the candidates can produce momentum from one state into another? So far, it has eluded them all.


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