Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2007 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan 5768
Handicapping the GOP's presidential horse race
By Jonathan V. Last
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | As I sat watching the last Republican debate, the following occurred to me:
Hillary Rodham Clinton could carry 40 states.
When you do the math, that's probably an overreaction. Not by much, though. For a number of reasons (the war, the housing market, the unpopularity of President Bush, the Senate seats up for grabs), the best-case scenario for the Democrats is a broad-realignment election in which the nominee carries 35 or more states. The best-case scenario for Republicans: a narrow popular victory accompanied by a favorable Electoral College split, along the lines of the 2004 election.
So which lucky Republican will get to try to pull an ace from this stacked deck? By the end of January we'll know almost for sure; today we know enough to divine the rough contours of the race. Let's start at the top and work our way down.
Rudy Giuliani leads the pack, according to most polls. Rasmussen Reports, which surveys likely Republican primary voters, has him on top with 29 percent and has shown very little fluctuation in his support this year. He began 2007 at 28 percent. Since then, Rasmussen has put him only as high as 37 percent and not below 22 percent. Giuliani has raised enough money to be comfortable and hasn't been afraid to spend it, burning through just more than $30 million to date.
In one sense, Giuliani's position defies explanation. He's not conservative by any traditional measure, and his Manhattan cultural reality couldn't be more different from that of mainstream America. To his credit, Giuliani was an exceptional mayor who deserves all sorts of praise for turning New York City around. But the uncomfortable truth is that had George W. Bush not spent seven minutes reading "My Pet Goat" and then flown from bunker to bunker on 9/11, people probably wouldn't have been so captivated by Giuliani's impressive but largely symbolic performance that day. The Giuliani mystique is built around that fact: He already has stood in loco presidentis, and people liked what they saw.
Fred Thompson is running a close second. Rasmussen has him consistently around 23 percent nationally, from a standing start in March. His support hovered in the mid-teens until June, when he officially formed his exploratory committee after dithering since March. After that, his numbers shot up, edging him past Giuliani for a moment. Now that he's actively campaigning and participating in the debates, his stock should show some more volatility. Voters will render judgment on the candidate, rather than the idea of the guy behind Door #2. The former Tennessee senator is short on money, but at this stage, the message and the messenger matter more.
Speaking of money: Mitt Romney has raised more - $62.8 million - than any other Republican. (He's given $17.4 million of his own money to his campaign.) He's also spent more - $53.6 million - than any other Republican. To put this gusher of cash into perspective, the eight other candidates in the field have combined to spend just $78.6 million.
And what does the former Massachusetts governor have to show for his money? Well, even though he's been running for president since late 2003, Romney is sitting, nationally, in a distant third place. These numbers have been slow to move: Romney began the year with 8 percent support and now sits at 13 percent in Rasmussen polls. That's about $10 million per point, for those of you keeping score at home. He's closing in on Bloomberg territory.
What Romney's money has bought him is a serious presence in Iowa, where he typically polls around 25 percent, 10 points ahead of both Giuliani and Thompson. The Romney theory of victory is that he buys his way to a blowout win in Iowa, then slingshots to a first-place finish in New Hampshire (where he currently holds a slight lead over Giuliani), and then leverages his national numbers with these two victories, helping him through Super Tuesday.
Howard Dean and Steve Forbes can testify that money goes only so far. At some point, Romney's spending will be subject to the law of diminishing returns; if he expects to have any chance, he has to catch fire at some time with actual voters. Herein lies the problem: Gov. Mitt Romney is an incredibly attractive, interesting politician who blends affability with policy-wonk intelligence. The Mitt Romney running for president today is a strange creature who promises to move "In God We Trust" from the back of our currency to the front and insists he was against abortion before he was for it. The gentleman running as Mitt Romney looks and sounds like an android created by James Dobson and Grover Norquist after they'd gotten hopped up on Dr Pepper and Pixie Stix. And that Mitt Romney has zero chance of winning the nomination.
Which brings us to the third tier, with John McCain and Mike Huckabee, who are anti-Romneys. McCain has spent $28.6 million to have his poll numbers fall by half. Huckabee has spent almost no money (just $1.7 million) to rise from anonymity to 8 percent nationally - with a new Rasmussen poll putting him at 18 percent in Iowa. With Sam Brownback out of the race, Huckabee should see a further bump. He isn't going to win the nomination; but Huckabee has done a good job establishing himself as a likable, serious conservative.
As for McCain, the campaign has probably passed him by. Two bits of history to consider, however, before writing him off for good: In October 1999, McCain sat a bit lower in the polls than he does today. George W. Bush was the overwhelming favorite, with support in the high 60s and low 70s. In the end, McCain gave Bush all he could handle. In October 2003, Howard Dean led a crowded field with support of about 16 percent. John Kerry, who had at one time been the front-runner, sat at 8 percent in the polls. By December, Dean had pushed his lead to the 30s and Kerry had fallen to 4 percent.
We all know how that ended.
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Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
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