Monday, January 14, 2008

Fred in Hunt for Red November?

The 2008 presidential nominating contests are going to be remembered as a cycle of political "musical chairs." The subtitle of this show might be a variant of Andy Warhol's famous dictum, i.e., "Everyone gets fifteen minutes as the frontrunner."

So far, Hillary Clinton has been the long-time Democratic frontrunner, and then Barack Obama got it for a few days by winning an upset in Iowa. As of now, following Mrs. Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire, no one on that side is the frontrunner. But soon enough, there will be one again.

John McCain was the original Republican frontrunner, but he was soon superceded by Rudy Giuliani who held that status for most of the summer and autumn. Leading in early polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney was then arguably a frontrunner, but when Mike Huckabee won an upset in Iowa, he was briefly the frontrunner. John McCain won convincingly in New Hampshire, and now he is the frontrunner once again. If he wins in Michigan this week, he will firm up his standing as the leader of the pack.

But then the national focus turns to South Carolina, the fourth leg of the newly-created official early caucus-primary season. Here we may discover that the voters are graciously determined to have all the major candidates enjoy at least a brief moment in the spotlight. John Edwards, in fact, has to win here or face near certain elimination.

Fred Thompson also must either win here, or come in a very strong second, to revive his flagging campaign. And he might just do that. This is a state which is made for the low-key but solid conservative credentials of the lawyer-actor-senator-turned actor back again. Judging by his debate performance at the South Carolina GOP debate, Thompson has finally figured out how to campaign for president.

"The Hunt for Red October" is probably my favorite movie of the past twenty years, and I do not tire of the brilliantly constructed suspense of its story line even though I know exactly how the movie will turn out. Fred Thompson was not the major star of the movie, but he was one of the co-stars as the rear admiral. Similarly, he did not have that much camera time on the hit TV show "Law & Order," but he has played his role as the district attorney with consummate laid-back finesse, something which is natural to his style.

Republican voters, like their Democratic counterparts, are taking their time picking their nominee, This infuriates the media and many of its pundits who want their polls and theories to produce a quick conclusion, and not be embarrassed when each primary produces a surprising result that few if anyone predicted.

With that in mind, I want to make it clear that I am not predicting a Thompson upset in South Carolina (which is what it would be if he won or came in close second, trailing as he does now most of his rivals). But I do want to point out that South Carolina is just the place for Thompson to draw a line in the sand and make his biggest stand.

The Republicans are in the hunt for a "red November" this year, unlikely as that outcome has seemed to be over the past spring, summer and autumn. They need a candidate who can keep the conservative GOP base and still attract moderates and independents and perhaps some unhappy Democrats, too. For the moment, the most likely candidate seems to be John McCain. Messrs. Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani seem more
associated with the various wings of their party, and might have more difficulty in uniting it for November, although any one of them could win the nomination.

Thus it is Thompson's moment of opportunity if he can convince South Carolina GOP voters he has both the conservatism they require (he does have the endorsement of the National Right To Life organization), the independent spirit of a John McCain and the charm of a Mike Huckabee. We have seen brief flashes of these qualities during the campaign up to now, but nothing has been sustained, and his rivals have outperformed him.

His small part as a lawyer in Watergate, his ervice as a U.S.senator, and his stardom in movies and TV were perhaps only a rehearsal for what he is now doing this week. He could still turn out as a bit player in 2008, or after his South Carolina tryout, he might well end up with his biggest part of all.


-This article first appeared in Real Clear Politics on January 14th, 2008.

Hurray for the Voters

The Beltway punditocracy had another bad day on Tuesday in New Hampshire, but I suspect the voters had a good day upsetting so many intricately-wrought scenarios for the presidential nominating contests.

As I have consistently pointed out over the past year, this is an almost perfect contrarian political cycle, with conventional wisdom receiving one blow after another.

Now that Hillary Clinton has upset their apple cart, count on the punditocracy to rush in with a grocery bag full of reasons why she will now win the nomination. Florida is hers, they will argue, and the big industrial states following will succumb to her appeal to the traditional Democratic base. As for Barak Obama, for the media he may now turn out to be a one-night stand. Of course, John Edwards, most of the punditocracy concluded after Iowa, is the walking political dead.

I suggest, however, that we continue not to know where the two nomination contests are going to conclude. That is because the nation¹s voters are still sorting everything out. Perhaps the system we have used for the past several decades, with primaries and caucuses scattered over several months, is not quite so bad as many have been saying it is.

I do think it is now clear that the electorate is in a visible state of transition, and that models of the past, while still of some use, are being replaced with new voter groups and attitudes. Being in transition, voters are not acting decisively, but rather are trying out various political ideas and candidates for size and quality.

The races for the Democratic and Republican nominations have only really begun in spite of the historically prolonged preliminaries. The question of whether there or not there will be a serious independent challenger in November is far from settled. Under certain circumstances, a third party candidate (such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg) could still be a very major factor in the race.

On the Democratic side, we are likely now to see a protracted contest through, and perhaps past, Mega-Tuesday on February 5. Anyone who has observed the post-Iowa excitement for Senator Obama in the Democratic grass roots across the country will have a difficult time believing his candidacy will now politely fold up and withdraw. And apparently, John Edwards is not yet prepared to leave the field for a quiet life in his big new house. His populist message has not been entirely ignored by Democratic voters so far, and may yet have some prospects ahead. At the very least, as he accumulates delegates, he makes it difficult for either of his rivals to build an overwhelming lead.

On the Republican side, the picture of the race is very out of focus. John McCain has made a remarkable comeback out of personal grit and candor. He is not quite yet a frontrunner, but he definitely has a chance to win. Mike Huckabee now has the attention of a major part of the GOP base, and his personal campaign skills make him a formidable competitor. Mitt Romney has suffered two disappointing second- and third-place finishes, but he still has money and organization with so many states yet to be heard from. South Caolina will be a good test to see if Fred Thompson can be a major player in the contest; if he remains in the race after that, he will surely begin to accumulate delegates. Finally, although the conventional wisdom has begun to rule Rudy Giuliani out of the picture, he has still not competed in the kind of state where he is likely to do well, particularly in the industrial northeast. It is mistake to say, at this point,that Giuliani cannot re-emerge in the weeks ahead.

Many of the traditional tools of the punditocracy are no longer as useful. The polls, in particular, are no longer reliable. It was good to see that exit polls are not being used as they once were, particularly by news organizations. (In New Hampshire, exit polls showed Obama beating Clinton.) Focus groups, the darling of some consultants, increasingly become less accurate predictors when the electorate at large is in the state of transition I now believe it is.

This brings us back to those who are counted, the voters. Iowa and New Hampshire have demonstrated, and future primaries will likely continue to demonstrate, that voters are not in a mood this year to be second-guessed. They are doing important and necessary work, as our representative democracy requires, in a political year with no incumbent, lots of real change ahead, and so much at stake.


-This article first appeared in Real Clear Politics January 14, 2008.