Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Clear Thinking on the Republican Candidates

by Brent Moritz

One of the unique things about our American system of politics is that to win an election, one must pass several hurdles. We have seen the criticisms of Iowa and New Hampshire as being too remote or not adequately representing a cross-section of the nation. However, these contests are the first hurdles for a candidate to pass to reach the nomination and ultimately the Presidency. Iowa and New Hampshire have a unique feature in that the campaigns are won or lost locally, as the candidates must get out and meet the voters. That has had some interesting effects in this race, a race where there is no incumbent or sitting VP ready to headline a ticket.

For the Republicans, for a long time many of the voters have been looking for an alternative candidate. If John McCain had the surge of 1999-2000 this cycle, he would be a breath of fresh air, but his national stature is somewhat of a liability in seeming fresh and new in 2008. Many in the party looked to Fred Thompson, but he has been somewhat boring and unenergetic, at least when compared to Arthur Branch. Rudy Giuliani has national stature and would clearly lead the party in a new direction, but there are a lot of conservatives who would never vote for him.

Again, this brings it back to Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. The reality is that their positions on many major issues are pretty close, so it is hard for any candidate to differentiate himself against his Republican rivals. While this is less true for Giuliani, it is clearly true of Romney and Huckabee.

So where does that leave our party? Huckabee has surged from nowhere to being one of the leaders in the polls. In part, that is a sign of the voters wanting someone, (anyone?) in whom they can be excited. Huckabee is a credible candidate, and he is also a very likeable sort of guy. He has done well in the debates, and I think almost everyone would like to have him as a neighbor. We each can almost picture him as a neighbor, the sort of guy who would invite you over for a cookout or waive to on Saturday morning while he’s out mowing the grass. For conservatives, most have a high regard for any Baptist minister. His folksy, personal demeanor is playing well with many voters, even if his recent surge has only recently turned the spotlight on some questionable decisions.

Romney, on the other hand, seems like a guy who would live a few miles away in an exclusive neighborhood. He is probably friendly with his neighbors, but he just seems harder to get to know for the average guy. In part, that is because of his track record: How many Baker Scholars (the top 5% of the class at Harvard Business School) do you know? How many millionaire ex-consultant / entrepreneurial capitalists do you know? How many are your neighbors? Then of course there is the religion issue: Many fine Evangelical Christians probably have never met a Mormon other than the formal missionaries, or if they did they didn’t know it.

Romney, to his credit, has put aside some of those issues. His recent speech on his faith has been a rousing success, well-received by nearly all of the listeners. This includes Republican and Evangelical leaders as well as many average voters. (It may have been better to do that much earlier in the campaign, but that was before a former Baptist minister was surging in the polls). Yet even before that speech, Romney has looked to serve the country. His work for the Salt Lake Olympics was exemplary. His service as governor of Massachusetts was probably a thankless job, as it had to be difficult being a conservative in one of the most liberal-leaning states in the nation, and clearly it was a pay cut from his time in the private sector.

These are some of the factors that will help Romney win. These initial votes are going to be interesting, but it is clear that not all of the candidates will survive to Super Tuesday, and this plays to Romney’s strength and experience. He has a very strong and well-financed organization in every state, with enough bandwidth to sustain a campaign. A win in Iowa would be nice, but a good showing is all that is required even if Huckabee carries Iowa. In New Hampshire, McCain is polling well, but Romney should do fine. By this time, Fred Thompson will be the first to exit the race and Romney’s organization will help bring those voters into his camp.

By mid-January, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina are in play. If Romney has not won one of those five, his campaign is in some trouble. But the stakes are much higher for the challengers: If McCain does not win South Carolina, his campaign is in serious trouble and the wheels will come off the bus. If Huckabee does not win more than one state, his funding dries up in a hurry. Giuliani has to show some strength before heading into Florida and Super Tuesday, or he risks coming up third in too many states.

My point is this: As the race slims from five major candidates down to one, Romney has to position himself as someone who can unite party and gain support from many circles. He has done this before, gaining election in left-leaning Massachusetts. While this is a unique race and a uniquely American process, now is not the time to panic. Romney has run a good campaign, has the best organization and is well-funded. The nomination will not be won in Iowa or New Hampshire, but the risks are higher for Romney’s competitors. What Romney has to do is rely on his strengths: His leadership, his organization and his funding. Yet more than that, he has to position himself as someone who can bring together all of the elements of the Republican Party for the good of the nation.

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