Next Tuesday the Democratic and Republican candidates will complete on Tsunami Tuesday, the closest thing to a national primary with over twenty contests at issue for each party. The chips are now down for the surviving candidates, who have dwindled to a (semi) precious few.
REPUBLICANS — GOING, GOING, GONE?
From the days of a football team-sized lineup of debate contenders, the Republican race has narrowed to two viable candidates. The results of the Florida primary, the debate performances on Wednesday and the shape of the primary calendar suggest that, absent a dramatic turn of events, the race is likely to end on Tuesday.
John McCain won by a solid, if not commanding, five percentage points in Florida, at least splitting the self-identifying Republican voting block with Mitt Romney and winning among moderates and “somewhat conservative” voters. Although he acknowledged in his victory speech that the margin was modest, his win left Romney with only his home state of Michigan (among the contested primaries) in his column. Romney carried conservative voters, but not by a margin sufficient to make up for deficits with veterans, seniors, and even voters putting the economy at the top of their list of issues. In short, Romney was unable to derail McCain’s progress.
Even more critical to the shape of the race was the withdrawal of Rudy Giuliani. His departure and heartfelt endorsement of McCain leaves the February 5 states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota and Illinois ripe for McCain’s picking. Moreover, Giuliani left one more gift behind in the form of the handiwork of his supporters: New York, Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut were fashioned as winner take all states, offering the prospect of 201 easy delegates for McCain.
Soon after Giuliani’s endorsement came one from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is hardly the darling of conservatives, but signals a movement of Republican officer holders to line up behind the favorite. News of his endorsement by U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, another February 5 state, followed. Even comedian and former Giuliani supporter Dennis Miller threw his lot in with McCain. (Although sources with knowledge of the situation informed me that both Romney and McCain had contacted former Senator Fred Thompson this week, no endorsement was forthcoming as of late Thursday.)
Wednesday’s debate did little to change the dynamic of the race, in large part because Romney did not make a full-throated conservative appeal or lure McCain into a full brawl. Romney declared his intention to be the heir to Reagan, yet touted his Massachusetts healthcare scheme and declared support for No Child Left Behind. On Iraq, he hotly disputed McCain’s assertion that in an April 2007 interview he had defended a secret timetable for withdrawal. McCain was able to bat him away, pointing out that Romney, unlike McCain, had not been a forceful advocate for the surge. While Romney’s performance was polished, he seemed unwilling to go toe-to-toe with McCain to try to wrest the nomination from his grip. Again, McCain’s momentum was not slowed.
Romney waited until Thursday to make a purchase of TV ad time in the February 5 states. The amount was described as “significant” by his campaign but the precise amount was not disclosed. It is uncertain then how enthusiastic he is to add to the tens of millions of dollars he has already contributed from his personal back account.
McCain plainly has the upper hand going into the 21 states with 1033 delegates at stake. At week’s end McCain he led in the polls in some high delegate states like New York, New Jersey, California, Arizona, Illinois and Connecticut. Romney may still be able to rouse the base in Utah, Colorado and Tennessee, but his window of opportunity is closing fast.
DEMOCRATS: THE LONG WAR
Few would have expected that the Democratic primary race’s outcome would be more uncertain than the Republicans. However, Hillary Clinton, who once seemed invincible, is now in a war of attrition against an increasingly-popular opponent.
It was an eventful week for the Democrats. John Edwards left the race after a series of disappointing finishes. Edward Kennedy passed the torch of unabashed liberalism to Barak Obama. Bill Clinton laid low following the rebuke of many Democratic officials. (Over the past weeks he labeled Obama’s role in opposing the Iraq was a “fairy tale” and then, following the South Carolina primary, denigrated Obama’s overwhelming victory by comparing him to Jesse Jackson.)
Hillary drew catcalls from liberal pundits and many in the party when she traveled to Florida to claim “victory” in a primary in which all delegates had been stripped by the DNC (for violating the primary schedule rule and leapfrogging into the time slot before Super Duper Tuesday) and which she previously had characterized as meaningless. She then vowed to restore the delegates, a brash attempt to snatch these — as well as the Michigan delegates — out from under the nose of the unsuspecting Obama.
Where does that leave the race? Hillary leads narrowly among the small number of delegates won in primaries and caucuses to date, but also has a lead of 208-118 among the so-called super delegates, Democratic officials who can pledge themselves to the candidate of their choice.
In the February 5 states Hillary still maintains healthy leads in New York, New Jersey, and California. However, unlike the GOP race, in the Democratic race all states award delegates proportionally by Congressional district. As a result, no knock out punch is likely to be delivered on February 5. Indeed, many observers suggest the race could continue on through the March 4 states of Ohio, Texas, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island or even on to Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary. One ominous sign for her: her lead in national polls is shrinking fast, a signal the momentum and excitement has shifted to Obama.
What about the prospect of a brokered convention? It remains a possibility, but if the GOP wraps up its race early there may be incentive for the Democrats to cut short a bloody fight. Larry J. Sabato explains that “the pressure will be intense among Democratic leaders to find a way to do the same, certainly by March. Democratic voters at some point may simply break strongly in one direction or the other, just to bring the curtain down.”
In short, Tuesday night will be the Super Bowl for political junkies. With coast to coast fights in both races, the networks will have their hands full reporting the returns and tracking the delegate counts. At the very least, we will have more clarity in races that have confounded the experts time and time again.