Showing posts with label sam brownback. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sam brownback. Show all posts


Broken Brownback and Blue

Republican candidate Sam Brownback is expected to drop out of the presidential race today. Given the way things have been going for his campaign since August, it is easy to understand why.

When his campaign was over:

I remember writing about the battle between Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee shortly before the Ames straw poll back in August. I argued that there just wasn't enough room for both of them and that whoever won this battle would advance while the loser would be running on borrowed time. Huckabee ended up placing second while Brownback placed third despite his perceived superior campaign organization and all the time he had invested campaigning in the state. Immediately after the straw poll, I speculated that Brownback would drop out soon.

But he decided to stick it out. And the longer he remained in the race, the more obvious it became that he should leave. And to top it off, his prolonged departure ironically only further elevated his chief rival Huckabee because it reminded voters and pundits of the fact that Huckabee was more viable than Brownback was.

When his campaign was really over:

Brownback raised less than $1 million in the third quarter, which was far less than his rivals. Even worse, he had less than $100,000 on hand. You simply can't run a campaign on such a pittance. His disappointing Ames showing undoubtedly dried up his campaign contributions. $100,000 is not nearly enough money to dig yourself out of such a deep hole at this stage of the game. A Porsche 911 is worth more money than his campaign bank account.

When his campaign was really, really over:

At the economic debate that took place earlier this month, Brownback was asked what the main economic threat to the United States was. Brownback cited the decaying family structure as the nation's biggest economic boogeyman. When he started talking about "families having one mom and one dad," the moderator tried to get him to answer the actual question by reminding him that she asked him to identify an economic issue. Brownback continued to make the argument that the family was an economic issue. He may have a point, but the business wing of the Republican Party that was watching this debate likely was not amused. This disconnect exposed Brownback as a one-dimensional candidate who had no depth on any issues aside from those that are dear to evangelicals.

Just end it already!

After that debate, Brownback said that he would drop out of the race if he placed lower than fourth in the Iowa caucuses. While it may be useful for politicians to lower expectations, there comes a point where it can become ridiculous. There are generally only three tickets out of Iowa. And there are four superstars and one rising star in the Republican field. You have Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee in the race. Simply put, Sam Brownback was not going to beat any one of these candidates, let alone two.

How this affects the rest of the field:

Mike Huckabee is obviously the main beneficiary of Brownback's demise. Seeing that they were virtually carbon copies of each other as far as most of the issues were concerned, Huckabee would be a logical choice for a Brownback endorsement if he were able to get over his obviously bruised ego.

For evangelicals and general conservatives who do not trust Mitt Romney (either because of his religion or because of his recent transition to the conservative right) and/or are not impressed by Fred Thompson, Huckabee provides a credible alternataive. I've been hearing rumors of a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, but I really think Huckabee has the legs to make a real run for the top of the ticket. His numbers in Iowa are moving way up, and he is getting traction in South Carolina as well. Mitt Romney should be very, very worried about this. If Huckabee were to place second in Iowa despite Romney saturating the Iowa airwaves with ads, Romney could conceivably become the new Brownback because of how much of his own money he has spent on this campaign. Also, if Huckabee places higher than Thompson in Iowa, Thompson will be finished. How could Thompson, once considered the conservatives' savior, explain losing to Huckabee in Iowa? His donors would flee.

Rudy Giuliani also does not benefit from Brownback's departure. As the field of candidates decreases, the ease with which candidates can distinguish themselves increases. Candidates receive more talk time in the debates when there are fewer candidates to go around. Social conservative voters are still a big deal, and Giuliani has not yet firmed up this support. As long as there is a gaggle of candidates on stage, nobody can clearly emerge as the alternative to Giuliani. Brownback's departure makes this task just a little bit easier. It also temporarily refocuses the media's attention on social conservative issues, which Giuliani still treats gingerly.

Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo are going to be the next two candidates to be pressured to drop their presidential bids. They just don't have the money, the buzz, or the gravitas to warrant their campaigns at this stage. Hunter sounds more congressional than presidential and hasn't really expressed his vision for leadership. And Tancredo seems to have little depth beyond illegal immigration. Aside from the hardcore anti-illegal immigration voters, they do not represent any particular wing of the GOP that is not better represented by another more viable candidate.


Michigan Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate that focused primarily on economic issues this afternoon in Dearborn, Michigan. The debate was co-moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Matthews has found himself at the center of a controversy because of remarks he recently made at the Hardball 10th anniversary celebration. (You can read more about the remarks here.) In short, Matthews made some comments about the Bush Administration that suggested he was biased against Republicans and conservatives. Although attacking Matthews over this provided low hanging fruit for the Republican candidates, none of them took the bait and Matthews emerged unscathed.

This debate was long anticipated and scrutinized closely because it was the first time Fred Thompson was on the same stage as all the other candidates. One of the chief criticisms of his campaign is the sense that he has been evasive because of his long "testing the waters" period and his refusal to accept Mike Huckabee's invitation to one-on-one debates despite Thompson's earlier claim that he wanted to participate in smaller forums.

Another reason why this debate was unlike the others is because for the first time, the ghost of Newt Gingrich was no longer a presence. Since Gingrich had formally ruled out a presidential run, the already declared candidates didn't have to look over their shoulders anymore and fear a galvanizing figure with strong conservative credentials throwing his hat in the ring. The Democratic candidates can't quite yet say that about Al Gore, however, even though he is running out of time to jump in.

Here are my thoughts:

There are too many candidates in the race for these debates to be as useful as they possibly could be at this stage in the game. There were nine candidates on stage competing for talk time. People have often complained about the Democratic debates and how the no-shot candidates continue to be included. Future debate organizers should consider implementing a threshold for participation. This threshold could be based on polling, fundraising, campaign organization, or some other factor that reasonably assesses a candidate's credibility and/or viability. Until the number of participants in these debates is reduced, it will be much more difficult for the credible candidates to engage each other in a meaningful exchange of ideas. As a result, this will serve to the advantage of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney because it will be harder for the middle-of-the-pack candidates to distinguish themselves.

Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, and maybe Tom Tancredo should seriously reconsider their campaigns. Sam Brownback was one of the clear losers in the Ames straw poll back in August. Even worse, the candidate he lost to was Mike Huckabee, who occupies the same political niche that Brownback is trying to fill. After that straw poll (and his consistently strong debate performances), Huckabee has eclipsed Brownback in opinion polls while Brownback has remained stagnant. There's not enough room in the race for two consistent social and religious conservatives. Huckabee has earned that mantle. As for Duncan Hunter, he has the same problem with Tom Tancredo that Brownback has with Huckabee. Tancredo is polling somewhat better than Hunter and is the more compelling speaker. Both candidates are vying for the role of the anti-illegal immigration, tough on national security hardliner. To this date, Tancredo has gained a fair bit of traction while Hunter has not.

Fred Thompson performed adequately, but he did not perform well enough to squash the budding caricature of him as a bumbler who is not quite ready for prime time. Thompson's delivery was halting and uneven at times as he had a tendency to meander. The substance of what he was saying should generally placate conservatives, but at times he seemed not to know when he should finish his answers and stop talking. This led to instances of Thompson talking a lot, but saying a little. This is something he should work on before his mouth gets away from him and he says something he regrets. For example, consider his meandering response to the question about the threat of a weak dollar.

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani may want to focus on Hillary Clinton, but they do so at their own peril. Both of these candidates are the co-leaders of the Republican presidential pack. Giuliani is the national frontrunner while Romney is the early primary state frontrunner (thanks to his strong support in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada). Are they both focusing on Hillary Clinton to gin up the base while drawing the spotlight away from their own warts? Is Giuliani still worried about his moderate to liberal stances on social issues? Is Romney still concerned that conservatives aren't buying his "conversion" to conservatism? Will ranting about "Hillary," "Hillarycare," and "the Clintons" be enough to make conservatives hold their noses while they vote in the primaries for the obviously not conservative Giuliani or the suspicious Romney?

Rudy Giuliani would be wise to evoke September 11 a bit more prudently. Giuliani has been criticized a lot recently for tying so many of his behaviors and policies to these terrorist attacks. He even went so far as to attribute his taking a call on his cell phone from his wife in the middle of a speech to the NRA to September 11. Ron Paul was making a firm point about the war in Iraq and the potential war with Iran and said that there has never been an imminent attack on the United States in 220 years. Giuliani then reminded him of September 11. Paul defended himself by saying the terrorists were "19 thugs instead of a country," but Giuliani asserted that "there were operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that "we could have launched a strike that would have disrupted their operations." (These are not direct quotations.) Anyway, Giuliani's responses seem okay on the surface and would likely appeal to voters who generally do not dig a bit deeper. However, in this exchange with Ron Paul, how could a terrorist strike in Pakistan have stopped the September 11 attacks if the hijackers were all in the United States by the time these attacks became "imminent?" Will a candidate begin to poke holes in Giuliani's 9-11 mantra in the future and diminish his executive/national security image? The openings are definitely there.

Ron Paul must be taken seriously as a spoiler candidate. Paul's fundraising for the third quarter has been particularly impressive. However, because he continues to languish in the polls, it is difficult to gauge exactly where his support is coming from. Barry Goldwater conservatives who have a more libertarian view of social issues may find some resonance with Paul. The same could be said for Grover Norquist anti-tax conservatives. Ditto for anti-war liberals who like his clarity on the unconstitutionality of the war in Iraq. Younger voters who are less likely to have the same hangups that older voters have regarding issues like homosexuality and gay marriage may be more intrigued by his libertarian message as well. Paul received several rounds of sustained applause after some of his responses in this debate as well as earlier ones. The candidates most threatened by a Paul ascendancy are John McCain and Barack Obama. Iowan Republicans are a bit too socially conservative as a whole for Paul to crack, but all bets are off in New Hampshire, whose motto is "Live free or die." Because independents can participate in the New Hampshire primaries, Paul could draw independent Republicans from Obama and independent Democrats from the maverick John McCain who has traditionally attracted significant independent support. The purity, thoughtfulness, and consistency of his arguments have helped his rise from political obsolescence to annoying gadfly to a voice of logic and reason that many other candidates seem not to want to hear.

John McCain seems to be more of a national security candidate than an economic issues candidate. McCain's strong performance at the last debate in New Hampshire led to a flurry of stories about "McCain's revival." I highly doubt those stories will continue based on his performance at today's debate. McCain spoke with far less conviction when he was talking about corporate issues than he does when he talks about terrorism and Iraq. Aside from criticizing pork and wasteful government spending, McCain did not seem particularly passionate about discussing corporate profits, free trade, and labor unions.

Mitt Romney's gaffe about seeking attorneys' guidance before attacking Iran will come back to haunt him. Romney already has to deal with the caricature of being just a little too slick. A slick candidate making a gaffe about slick lawyers regarding the decidedly unslick issue of national security is problematic. And worse of all, Republicans want strong executive leadership. If a Democrat had said the president had to consult attorneys before making such critical national security decisions, he would have been absolutely pummeled by the Republicans. How will Giuliani and the other candidates exploit this misstep? It definitely undercuts his image as an executive, that's for sure.

There was a lot of sloganeering and cheerleading at the debate which came at the expense of fleshing out actual policy discussions. When the candidates were asked what the greatest threat was to the United States' economic prosperity was, several of them cited "a lack of optimism." Pep talks about "no more doom and gloom" and "being the greatest nation on Earth" may make voters feel good, but they don't address the actual threats to our nation's economic security that can be addressed by policy, such as the deficit, trade imbalances, energy independence, China, the defense budget, or taxes. It reminds me of religious conservative politicians who believe prayer is the best antidote to many of society's ills while government assistance, educational opportunities, economic development, and community involvement often go unmentioned. There's obviously nothing wrong with prayer, but anybody can pray. However, only politicians and lawmakers have access to the levers of power that control the tangible resources that can actually make a difference.

Mike Huckabee is very, very dangerous. I've written about Huckabee's potential as early as the second Republican debate back in May. I've studied Huckabee's comments in all the debates so far and he seems to be a much more credible, thoughtful conservative than either Romney or Thompson. He is also able to make references to Southern and rural culture that sound natural, rather than forced. For example, Huckabee made a simple analogy about NASCAR and taxes or some other economic policy. ("In NASCAR, when you pull into the pit stop, you get what you need and you get it fast.") This is a perfect example of breaking down political double talk into plain ol' English. He even managed to casually work in a reference to "Goober and Gomer" for good measure! While Giuliani and Romney train their guns on each other and on Hillary Clinton, they had better be careful that Huckabee doesn't snatch the nomination from them. During the post-debate show Huckabee said, "If A takes care of B, then C will be the nominee." This could be prophetic. The problem Huckabee poses for Romney and Giuliani is that they cannot attack his conservative credentials. It's no secret that conservatives are conflicted about Romney, Giuliani, and even Fred Thompson. But Huckabee is a much better ideological fit for them and he can talk about his conservatism much more credibly. He is a better speaker than Thompson and can match Romney and Giuliani in terms of executive experience. Huckabee has been clawing his way through the pack on a shoestring budget and is finally getting some fairly steady press coverage. Consider the recent Des Moines Register Poll showing Huckabee in third in Iowa ahead of Giuliani. Simply put, Mike Huckabee is real. This candidate is a much more serious threat to the Democrats in general than Rudy Giuliani is.


Thoughts on the Republican Black Forum

Last week most of the Republican presidential candidates attended a forum moderated by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The Democrats had attended a similar forum earlier this year. This debate was unique in that none of the four leading Republicans attended, with each citing "scheduling conflicts." Four empty podiums stood on stage in their (dis)honor. Much has been written about the absences of Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, so this post won't go into that. Instead, I'd like to focus a bit more on what I observed from the candidates who actually did participate.

Before going any further, I want to commend Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and newcomer Alan Keyes for at least giving the forum a chance and attempting to deliver their message to a potentially hostile crowd. It is no secret that Blacks tend to vote Democratic by about an 8 to 1 ratio. Defenders of the absent candidates often cite this statistic before saying "Blacks would never vote for us anyway, so why bother?"

Yes, that may be the easy way to rationalize blowing off the most politically powerful minority voting bloc in America, but here's why that line of thinking is wrong. Republicans seem to think that they have to "win" the Black vote, as in win a majority of the Black vote. But let's get real. That's not going to happen for many, many years. A Republican doesn't have to "win" the Black vote in order to win more elections; they often only have to "do better" with the Black vote in order to tip more elections in their favor. Winning 25% of the Black vote may be enough to win a close race, while winning only the usual 15% will keep you practicing your concession speeches. And this is what a lot of Republicans seem to overlook. But then again, maybe the candidates and strategists who use this "we'll never 'win' the Black vote" line simply don't want to try and maybe don't even care. Black voters pick up on rhetoric like this just as much as they pick up on the candidates who shun them, as the four leading candidates did.

People talk about Rudy Giuliani's appeal to moderates, Fred Thompson's appeal to Southerners, and Mitt Romney's appeal to evangelicals. However, you don't hear much about a candidate's appeal to Blacks, at least on the Republican side of the field. The Democratic Party does not have a monopoly on Blacks' votes at all, as many Blacks feel the Democrats take their votes for granted. So there's a huge opportunity here for a Republican who is willing to do a bit of work first.

Anyway, as I watched the debate, I made a few observations. Even though I may criticize these candidates, the fact that they at least showed up makes me have far more respect for them than the candidates with the "scheduling conflicts." Anyway, here are my thoughts:

1. Duncan Hunter kept using the word barrio, which is the Spanish equivalent of "the hood" or "the ghetto." I think Hunter was trying to show that he had some knowledge of "the lingo" used in "minority" communities. I'll give him credit for that. But at the same time, it seemed like he was either trying too hard or was genuinely clueless about which word he should use to describe "where minorities live." How would a roomful of Southerners feel if someone like John Kerry said "Howdy!" with a New York accent? Why should it be any different here? I think a smarter choice for Hunter would have simply been "Black communities" or "Black neighborhoods" or even "lower income neighborhoods." There's no need to get all fancy with the terminology. Don't be so afraid of being politically correct. Just talk! Hunter's awkward remarks illustrate the trepidation that exists among many Republicans who sincerely would like to extend an olive branch to Black voters, but really aren't sure how to go about doing so.

2. If the Alan Keyes of 2007 is the same as the Alan Keyes of 2004, then that explains why Barack Obama may not be sufficiently versed in the lore of national politics. Keyes was Obama's opponent in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. I listened to Keyes during the debate last week and tried to maintain an open mind. While he spoke with great force and passion, I could see how he'd register as an asterisk in most polls. In other words, Alan Keyes was and is a very weak candidate. For example, at the start of the debate Keyes said that the absence of the four main Republican candidates was not necessarily an affront to the Black community. I'm sure that went over well with the audience. Anyway, the point is, has Obama truly been tested on the national stage? I'm not talking about voting records, daily news cycles, and fundraising. I'm talking about running a strong campaign against a strong challenger for a federal office. Running up the score against someone like Alan Keyes does not count.

3. Blacks have more in common with religious conservatives than at first glance. Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback won lots of applause from the crowd when they talked about the importance of strong families and traditional values. So many Blacks grew up in one-parent homes or homes where both parents spend so little time at home with their children because of work. Time spent away from the home is time spent away from their children, who then have more time to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Black voters get this.

4. Libertarianism has some degree of palatability among Blacks when it is phrased in a way that shows its relevance to the Black community. Ron Paul consistently received cheers and strong applause after almost every time he took the microphone. His libertarian stance regarding the "War on Drugs" clearly resonated with many of the voters in the audience. The way he was able to tie in government inefficiency, the failure of this endeavor, and how it disproportionately affects Blacks was a masterstroke that demonstrated a high degree of familiarity with this issue beyond the usual "let's build more prisons" or "let's bolster enforcement" cliches.

5. Blacks are just as angry about illegal immigration as White Republicans are. Tom Tancredo illustrated how illegal aliens were driving down wages for everyone, including Blacks with blue collar jobs. Tancredo was not using illegal aliens (read Mexicans) as a convenient scapegoat, but the crux of his argument cannot be denied. Strains on government services and increased crime are not the only issues impacted by illegal aliens; how they take lower paying jobs and decrease wages affects lower income families particularly hard. Are Democrats on the wrong side of illegal immigration?

6. Don't ever judge a book by its cover. I do not have any official statistics regarding the attendance of the forum. However, when the camera panned to the audience, I noticed a lot of Whites in the seats. Even though this forum was primarily about "Black" issues, it seemed that about 25-35% of the people in the audience were White. And because this debate was on PBS (instead of BET), there were surely many more Whites watching the debate from their own homes. Republicans who were weak-kneed about entering the Black lions' den were probably pleasantly surprised that the crowd was not nearly as hostile as they may have anticipated. This just goes to show that political opportunity is everywhere if you're willing to take a chance.

7. There is a wing of the Republican Party that does not believe racism is an issue today. Tom Tancredo refused to go along with the other candidates who partially attributed issues of Black unemployment, Black imprisonment, and Black poverty to racism. Tancredo instead blamed failing schools, failing communities, and failing homes with poor values for the plight of so many Blacks. While his argument has some degree of credence, comments such as these cause Tancredo and his political brethren to represent the wing of the Republican Party that Blacks think of when they say "they don't care about us."

8. Mike Huckabee is probably the single most dangerous Republican candidate in the field. I cannot understand why people continue to talk about him only as vice presidential material. Huckabee is a talented speaker, is right on almost all the issues conservatives hold dear, and could attract increased support from Blacks and moderates because he does not come across as a hardcore partisan even though he is most definitely a part of the conservative religious right. Huckabee was able to deftly strike the right balance between acknowledging racism and showing how poor Blacks had a lot in common with poor Whites. His answer regarding the death penalty was very moving, as his thoughtfulness provided a nice contrast from capital punishment advocates who simply say "those people deserve to die for their heinous crimes." If I were a Democrat, I would be very, very afraid of this candidate because I think he could put more blue states in play than Giuliani could while keeping the red states red. In light of all the frustration among evangelical voters regarding their "top four" candidates, Romney and Thompson in particular should be very worried about Huckabee's potential strength.

To me, these eight lessons and observations provided far more news than the fact that the "leading" candidates were "unable" to attend. It will be interesting to see if any of these candidates try to follow up with Black voters by campaigning in their neighborhoods and churches in the future. Even though it may seem daunting at first, I think they'd be pleasantly surprised.


New Hampshire Debate Analysis (R)

The Republicans debated tonight in New Hampshire on Fox. Of all the debates I've seen so far, be they Democratic or Republican, this debate was by far the most substantive. I really hope future debates will have as many meaningful exchanges as this one.

Debate format

There were 8 candidates on stage. Fred Thompson was not one of them. The debate lasted about an hour and a half and featured questions from the moderators as well as occasional questions from random voters in a local cafe. The questions from the random voters were hit and miss, as one of the voters struggled to get his question out while another one gave Mitt Romney a verbal punch to the jaw. I think Fox was trying to make this debate and the politicians seem more accessible by opening it up to random voters to participate, but I think it ultimately turned out to be time that could have been better spent having the moderators ask more questions.

Regarding the technical aspects of the debate, it seemed that some of the candidates were having trouble hearing the questions. This seemed to be more of a problem when the moderators were trying to talk over chatter or applause from the audience.

The candidates themselves seemed pretty disciplined at first in regards to adhering to the time limits established for the debate. But as the debate progressed, some of the candidates became a bit more longwinded and should have been reined in.

As for the debate questions, most of them were very sharp and did not make it easy for the candidates to revert to their talking points. However, the hypothetical question about Iranian nukes was too complex to be meaningful. The moderators themselves were tough and did a good job of asking the right candidates the right questions. Ron Paul got a lot of time to talk about Iraq, Huckabee got a good chance to talk about abortion, and Giuliani got a good opportunity to talk about terrorism. The candidates clearly did not get equal time, but the ones who got shortchanged on time were generally the candidates who are either in major trouble or should simply withdraw from the race. One thing I did not particularly like, however, was how one of the moderators immaturely twisted Ron Paul's response about Iraq to ask him if "the US should take its marching orders from Al Qaeda." This is an example of the bias that makes the Democrats stay away from Fox.

There was one subject that I was surprised they didn't address. In light of the foiled terrorist plots in Germany, why weren't there any questions about whether the United States was fighting on the right battlefield in Iraq? If President Bush says we're in Iraq to defeat terrorism, how do you reconcile our fighting there with terrorists trying to bring down one of our allies thousands of miles away?

Also, why were there so few questions about President Bush, the man they are trying to succeed and the current leader of the Republican Party?


Thank you for playing. We have some nice parting gifts for you...

Duncan Hunter: Of all the candidates at the debate, Duncan Hunter was the least significant. His poll numbers are anemic and his responses lacked passion. He didn't get a lot of time to participate in the debate, but he wasted a lot of the time he did get to take potshots at Democrats, including using a rehearsed line to take a cheapshot at John Edwards. Aside from this joke and promising to build an 800-mile border fence in six months, he didn't really say anything memorable. I'm really not sure why he's even still in the race. Tom Tancredo is a more viable candidate that shares his signature issue of illegal immigration, and Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are more credible candidates that share his other major issue of security. How much longer will future debate organizers continue to extend invitations to him? By the way, the moderators missed a good opportunity to catch him flatfooted when he talked about the Larry Craig saga and said that one difference between Republicans and Democrats is that when Republicans screw up, they either resign or are kicked out. But when Democrats do it, he said they are promoted to committee chairmanships. So why are Republican Senators Ted Stevens and David Vitter still sticking around? Seems like a lot of sloganeering from Hunter tonight, including ridiculing last Friday's dinner at Guantanamo Bay, which included "honey glazed chicken and rice pilaf." Is he really running for President?

Sam Brownback: He was clearly upstaged by Mike Huckabee yet again. After his humiliating defeat at the Ames straw poll, Brownback decided to stay in the race and cited his foreign policy experience as one of the reasons why. Well, not only did Huckabee come across again as the more compelling pro-life candidate, he also came across better on foreign policy and leadership. Brownback had a chance to flex his foreign policy chops in response to a question about Iran, but his response was muddled and meandering. After the sharp exchange between Huckabee and Paul (more on that later), Brownback was the next candidate to jump into the fray and you could almost feel the electricity and excitement in the air dissipate when he spoke. I really don't see how Brownback can continue his candidacy when his chief rival is so much stronger and so much more appealing. Part of Brownback's problem is that he is coming across as a single-issue candidate like Tancredo even though his senatorial experience suggests there is more to him than that. So if another candidate is stronger than he is on his main issue and seems to bring more to the table than he does, it's easy to see why Brownback is in so much trouble.

Tom Tancredo: While he didn't have a terrible night, I feel he simply got overshadowed by so many other candidates on stage. Tancredo is clearly running on the far right, as he expressed no reservations about torturing terrorism suspects because "defending America" was more important. His outrage over illegal immigration and how other politicians (including his rivals) didn't seem so concerned about it until it was politically expedient was sincere. I doubt his message was well received by the New Hampshire crowd, although voters in Iowa may be more receptive to it because Iowa's Republicans are more conservative than New Hampshire's.

Not their best night...

Mitt Romney probably hurt his cause the most tonight. He really seemed off his game. His responses lacked focus, he pandered (did you know he's conducted 462 campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire?), and he gave off an aura of throwing stones in a glass house. He really went after Rudy Giuliani, but did not seem credible attacking New York as a "sanctuary city" when Romney had similar cities in his state while he was governor and had illegals doing landscaping work at his own home. He also got into a lot of trouble when he said the military surge in Iraq is "apparently" working. John McCain attacked that statement and the moderators picked up on that later when he later said the surge "looks like" it's working. Romney hasn't said much about Iraq in the past, but he better hone his message on this soon because these types of statements will quickly turn off the supporters he has worked so hard to gain. He did a good job of speaking in generalities, but did not offer much in terms of specifics. And that hurt him. Also, he really got wounded by the angry voter who took offense to Romney's comparison of his five sons' service to his political campaign with the voter's son's service in Iraq. Is Romney becoming the unlikable candidate?

Rudy Giuliani was a bit disappointing tonight. He is clearly the lone moderate in the field, but he did not embrace that. When his conservative credentials were challenged, he often deflected the questions or answered them in ways that didn't require him to defend or explain himself, such as talking about "states' rights" in response to the right to carry handguns on college campuses. "States' rights" seems to be a clever response Republican candidates use when talking about controversial issues that they don't want to be pinned down on, presumably because they don't want to hamstring themselves in the general election. The Confederate flag is another example of this. Remember how Bush and McCain talked about "states' rights" regarding taking the flag off the South Carolina Statehouse? You can support the flag or you can oppose the flag. Citing "states' rights" as a way to avoid stating your support or opposition to something is a bit weak, in my opinion. Anyway, I got the sense that Rudy Giuliani was running solely on his tenure as New York mayor and his leadership on September 11. He even compared releasing the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to releasing illegal immigrant prisoners in New York. If Republican voters were looking for substance, Giuliani likely disappointed them tonight. He used a few buzz words, such as "liberal media, surrender, the terrorists' war against us, etc.," but I think the audience was in the mood for something a bit more substantive than that. He also took a shot at Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards for not having led a city, a state, or a business. This may be true, but what's the point of mentioning this at a Republican primary debate? Unless he's trying to turn independent voters away from Obama, I'm not really sure why he invoked their names tonight. (Keep in mind that independents are allowed to participate in the New Hampshire primaries.) Curiously, he said "he's not running on what he did on 9-11." But if that's the case, then why should he be viewed as the national security candidate? And does anyone actually believe 9-11 is not a major part of his candidacy?

Flying high, feeling good...

John McCain really helped right his ship tonight. He had some funny lines (including one early on about it being past Fred Thompson's bedtime) that weren't rehearsed and spoke with a lot more vigor. Perhaps he was trying to allay fears that he's too old to be President? He also demonstrated the most leadership and made a very effective attack on both Romney and Giuliani by saying "he doesn't want to manage; he wants to lead." Other candidates were praising him for his leadership and his "honor." One of his best moments was in response to a question about torture. He invoked Colin Powell and said that the people who were against torture were the ones who have worn the uniform while those who supported torture had never served. That was a strong attack on the so-called chickenhawks that talk tough about war and the military, but never served. Even though this took place right after Tancredo's defense of torture, this was a very effective attack against Romney and Giuliani. McCain was also candid about why Republicans were in trouble and how some of them are even in prison now. Has the "Straight Talk" bus pulled back into the station? Have the pundits written him off too soon? Could he really be the steady conservative that Republicans are looking for? He looked much more presidential and sincere than both Giuliani and Romney for sure. One question I had about him was his remark about how the American hostages were released by Iran on the same day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. McCain suggested that the hostages were released because the Iranians feared Reagan. Someone will undoubtedly fact check this assertion.

Mike Huckabee probably entered the top tier by virtue of his solid performance tonight. Mitt Romney should be very afraid. Huckabee covered all his bases. He deftly worked the "life" angle by invoking the lost miners of Utah, he worked the humility angle by telling voters about a lesson his mother taught him when he was a child ("if you break it, you buy it"), he placated evangelicals by saying the United States is "one nation under God", and he pleased independents and fed-up voters by not throwing out a lot of red meat and empty slogans. He and Ron Paul had a very powerful, memorable exchange about Iraq tonight that will certainly make the rounds on You Tube. Another strong moment for Huckabee was his response to a question about illegal immigration. He said that Americans should not penalize illegal immigrants for doing what their own ancestors did several generations beforehand. The nativist wing of the party probably didn't like that, but I think he impressed a lot more moderates and independents with this truly compassionate conservative response. In a poignant moment, Huckabee was deferential to McCain by sincerely praising his "honor." Could a McCain-Huckabee ticket be in the works? In my estimation, Mike Huckabee should be the one Republican that the Democrats most definitely don't want to run against because he is a consistently powerful speaker and is able to credibly run as a "change" or "outsider" candidate.

I don't know how to classify Ron Paul. He definitely won the war of ideas even though he may not have won the actual debate.

Aside from Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul was probably the most authentic candidate on stage. And he was definitely consistent. The arguments he make seem to be at odds with most Republicans, and I fear they are not well received because Paul is much more intellectual in his presentation of ideas. He really shined when talking about Iraq. One of his best lines was how "the people who are telling us that there will be a bloodbath if we leave Iraq are the same people who said we'd be greeted as liberators and that oil revenues will pay for the war." When the moderator condescendingly asked how the United States could gather intelligence about terrorism if the FBI and CIA were defunded, Paul didn't miss a beat as he reminded the audience that the billions of dollars the nation has spent on the FBI and CIA still failed to prevent 9-11. "We need intelligent people interpreting our intelligence information" drew wild cheers. He also had some harsh words for Republicans and reminded them of their obligations to the Constitution. Paul certainly had a lot of fans in the crowd and he gave them a lot to cheer about. The other Republicans on the stage probably want Paul to drop out of the race, but his ideas are quite compelling and intriguing. Ron Paul might be at 1% in most national polls, but I get the sense that his real support is far higher. I sincerely hope he continues to be invited to future debates because even though there are no other candidates advocating his positions, I think his genuine appeal is far greater.

What now, Democrats?

I had previously suggested that Democrats boycott Fox to pressure it to improve its journalistic standards, but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps the best way to change the system is to take advantage of the system? The Fox moderators were much tougher than the moderators of CNN, ABC, NBC, and the special interest groups. The Fox moderators also did a good job of allowing news to happen by letting some of the candidates go at each other for an extended period of time. The Democrats need to have a forum in which they can do this as well. Even though they might not like Fox, Fox would at least afford them the opportunity to answer the tough questions they aren't getting at the other debates.

Also, the Democrats would do well to engage in more substantive dialogues in future debates. So far, they have generally avoided attacking each other too harshly and have spoken in platitudes, generalities, and indirect insinuations. Several of the Republicans seemed "presidential" at tonight's debate, but I haven't seen many "presidential" candidates among the Democrats. In a general election, the presidential and substantive Republican will probably be a much more appealing candidate than the cozy and vague Democrat. Obviously, Hillary Clinton probably won't heed this advice as she can afford to maintain the status quo and use that to cruise to the nomination. But if any of the other candidates, including the so-called "second-tier" candidates, want to have a chance at the nomination, they will have to take off their mittens and actually engage the other candidates.

What's up, Fred?

Even though the very first question of the debate was about Fred Thompson and even though he ran a campaign ad shortly before the debate started, I did not really get the sense that his presence was looming overhead. I think part of the problem for Thompson is that some moments of the debate were so compelling and intense that Thompson got overshadowed or forgotten. Also, because of the generalities and empty statements that came from Romney and Giuliani during the debate, I think voters may be a bit more suspicious of Thompson as well. Is he all sizzle and no steak? I cannot stress enough how much Huckabee, McCain, and Paul helped themselves tonight by speaking honestly, not filibustering, and answering questions directly and thoughtfully. Showing off, buzz words, generalities, and canned lines seemed to fall flat tonight. Perhaps Thompson's announcement about his announcement was too cute by half?

Must see TV! The exchange of the night!

Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee had a very powerful and memorable exchange about Iraq. It was a civil debate that showcased both politicians' ability to think on their feet. Here's a rough transcript of what happened:

Mike Huckabee: "We can't be divided. We are one nation under God. It's our obligation to correct our mistake."

Ron Paul: "The Republican party will continue to lose elections because of our foreign policy."

Huckabee: "Losing elections is not as important as losing our honor."

Paul: "When you're in a hole, stop digging! How much do we have to pay to save face?"

By this point, the other candidates were itching to have their say. Sam Brownback was allowed to jump in next, but the intensity that had characterized this exchange would soon be lost.

Final scorecard

John McCain has made himself relevant again.

Mike Huckabee should be taken seriously.

Ron Paul is not going away and continues to intrigue.

Mitt Romney fell flat and lost any momentum that he had been building.

Rudy Giuliani's halo is probably going to wear off because of this debate.

Fred Thompson better blow everyone away because Huckabee is about to fill the role that Thompson is trying to fill.

Sam Brownback is out of his league and is clearly being outclassed by his main rival.

Tom Tancredo is an ideological purist, but he is bit too far to the right to be viable. He's like a conservative Dennis Kucinich.

Duncan Hunter needs to pull a Tommy Thompson and leave.


Ready, Ames, Fire!

Per the Washington Post, Mitt Romney won the Ames Straw Poll while Mike Huckabee took second. Here are the results:

1. Romney: 4516 (31.5%)
2. Huckabee: 2587 (18.1%)
3. Brownback: 2192 (15.3%)
4. Tancredo: 1961 (13.7%)
5. Paul: 1305 (9.1%)
6. T. Thompson: 1039 (7.3%)
7. F. Thompson: 203 (1.4%)
8. Giuliani: 183 (1.3%)
9. Hunter: 174 (1.2%)
10. McCain: 101 (1%)
11. Cox: 41 (.1%)

Total ballots cast: 14,302

Before providing my analysis of these results, allow me to crow about predicting wins by Tancredo and Huckabee in my previous post.

Having said that, here's what I think about the results:

Mitt Romney won the contest as expected. Whether he beat expectations or not is anyone's guess. He did invest a lot of resources into Ames, however, so he might not be pleased with how much this "victory" cost him. The departures of Giuliani and McCain made this victory more of a Pyrrhic one than a genuine one. The tricky part for Romney now is to translate his Iowa success into South Carolina success. Seeing that he is well positioned in both Iowa and New Hampshire, if he can go three for three by snagging South Carolina, he might back Rudy Giuliani into a serious corner before Super Tuesday even begins. Could Mitt Romney really be the Republican presidential nominee? Six months ago, I couldn't see it. But now it looks quite plausible.

Mike Huckabee won Ames by coming in second. He did the best job of beating expectations and should benefit from a strong infusion of campaign cash. The importance of Huckabee's performance in the straw poll cannot be overstressed. By placing second ahead of Christian conservative rival Sam Brownback, he likely eliminated Brownback from the race. In addition to that, the media attention that will follow Huckabee may pose a serious threat to Mitt Romney. I think Huckabee is a more genuine conservative than Romney is, so Romney better hope the media don't begin comparing them side by side. Huckabee's fundraising has been lackluster, but if he's able to catch a spark in terms of campaign donations, Romney (along with Fred Thompson and John McCain) could be in serious trouble.

Sam Brownback is obviously disappointed. While coming in third is nothing to sneeze at, he placed lower than the candidate who was occupying the same piece of political real estate--Mike Huckabee. How can he convince people to donate to his campaign because he's the best candidate to carry the Christian conservative mantle in light of Huckabee's stronger showing? I don't expect Brownback to stay in the race much longer.

Tom Tancredo did an excellent job of beating expectations. Seeing that he has traditionally been mired in the 1-2% range in most polls, these straw poll results have to be sweet vindication for him. The 10-candidate field is going to shrink over the next few days, so he'll have a better chance to get his message out. He is still not yet positioned to take on the frontrunners, but he's getting closer. His strong showing should serve as a warning to the other Republicans that the illegal immigration issue still matters to an awful lot of Republicans. The other candidates (particularly the top-tier ones) would be wise to start speaking Tancredo's language, otherwise future voters will punish them by supporting Tancredo instead. On a related note, someone responded to my recent post Why Minorities Don't Vote Republican by saying people should ignore Tancredo's "fringe" candidacy. However, the strength of Tancredo's performance here suggests anything but a "fringe" candidacy. For better or for worse, there is a large segment of people in the Republican Party that support Tancredo and his rhetoric and that is very off-putting to people who are suspicious of the Republican Party's commitment to people who are not White, heterosexual, English-speaking, married, Christian males.

Ron Paul did reasonably well. The fact that he did better than McCain, Giuliani, and Fred Thompson means something because they are all far better known. No, those candidates did not participate in the poll, but he still did far better than they did. His performance suggests he is reasonably viable. A smaller field of candidates will better allow him to get his libertarian message out. I am intrigued by how he will fare in the New Hampshire primaries in January, seeing that the voters there have a libertarian streak. (The state's motto is "live free or die.") Could he be a spoiler candidate? Or could voters tire of Rudy McRomney and just take a chance with Paul?

Tommy Thompson is one of the clear losers in this poll. He said he would drop out if he did not place in the top three. Well, he didn't even place in the top half. I expect him to drop out of the race shortly. He just didn't seem to impress many voters in the debates and had one too many stupid excuses for his gaffes to be taken seriously, in my opinion. Thompson is like the new Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor who dropped out of the race a few weeks ago. When Tommy Thompson drops out, people will be shocked and lament Fred Thompson's premature demise. Nobody knows who this guy is. Enough said.

Duncan Hunter must be heartbroken by these results. He's handsome, authoritative, and a perfect fit for conservatives on defense, immigration, abortion, spending, cultural issues, and terrorism. But he fared worse than two candidates who weren't even participating in the straw poll. The writing's on the wall. It's time for him to exit, stage left.

Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain are all mired in the 1% range. These candidates were all penalized for not participating in the straw poll. Fred Thompson in particular should be careful about this because of the rumors that he's a lazy candidate. In politics, just like dating, you have to swing to hit. That means hitting the campaign trail, pressing the flesh, giving speeches, and fielding questions from anxious voters until the wee hours of the morning at town hall meetings and private parties.

Even Rudy Giuliani should not take his support for granted. I think more than 1.3% of Iowa's Republicans support his campaign. But they won't if he doesn't work for it. If Giuliani allows Romney to win Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be under incredible pressure to win one of the other early states before Super Tuesday, where he is more likely to fare better. Giuliani is the lone moderate in the race, so he doesn't have to worry about another candidate stepping on his turf. But if he's not careful, he risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Simply put, McCain's showing is an embarrassment. Of all the declared candidates, he fared the worst in the poll. That's not good for the morale of his struggling campaign, but I expect him to write this off as a byproduct of the tumultuous period he was having this summer. Having said that, it would have been a huge psychological boost for him if he had placed higher than at least one of the other top-tier candidates who did not participate. Losing to Duncan Hunter is not a good way to go about energizing your supporters.

John Cox is irrelevant.

To summarize:

Huckabee and Tancredo are the big winners.

Romney and Paul did okay.

Brownback, Hunter, Tommy Thompson, and McCain are the big losers.

Giuliani and Fred Thompson got out what they put in.

Look for Brownback, Hunter, and Tommy Thompson to drop out in the coming days.


Narrowing the GOP Field

The Republican field is oversubscribed right now. Even with the departure of Jim Gilmore, the invisible candidacy of John Cox, and the rumors about Newt Gingrich, there are still 10 candidates remaining. There's obviously not enough room for all of them, and conventional wisdom says that the ones with the money will be the ones who survive the longest. I don't view it that way. I think the Republican field will be winnowed down by the candidates' identities and positioning, rather than their campaign warchests. The reason why I say this is because I think there is a lot of redundancy among the Republican candidates. This weekend's Ames Straw Poll should eliminate several of the pretenders and otherwise unviable candidates. Here's my take on how Ames is creating a sort of playoff dynamic among the GOP candidates.

The Christian Conservative Battle: Sam Brownback vs. Mike Huckabee

There's just not enough room in the race for both of them, as they occupy much of the same turf. Both are strongly opposed to abortion and are reliable cultural conservatives hailing from the same part of the country. Both candidates have really been duking it out as of late. Ames will eliminate one of these candidates, and the winner's next opponent will be Mitt Romney, who is trying to occupy the role of the family values conservative. (I would use the term "Christian conservative," but that evokes conversations about his Mormonism, so "family values conservative" is probably a politically safer term for him to use.) My thinking is that Huckabee will defeat Brownback because even though voters genuinely like Brownback and should be pleased with his voting record, Huckabee's stronger debate performances and his executive experience as Arkansas' governor should make him the more appealing candidate to carry the Christian conservative mantle.

The Illegal Immigration Battle: Duncan Hunter vs. Tom Tancredo

Even though both candidates are considered to be in the third tier, their main issue (illegal immigration) is most definitely a top tier one. None of the top four candidates (Rudy McRomney + Fred Thompson) have really made illegal immigration and border security the center of their campaign. Thus, I think there's an opening for Hunter or Tancredo, but not both of them. I expect voters to reward one of these candidates so they can continue to give a voice to this contentious issue. Hunter has more experience than Tancredo, but Tancredo seems to be a more passionate speaker and debater. Despite Hunter's experience and solidly conservative voting record, I get the sense that he's more congressional material than presidential material. I expect Tancredo to win this battle and become a real thorn in the side of the top tier candidates. I also can't help but wonder if Tom Tancredo is the Republicans' version of Joe Biden for the Democrats in that he has the passion, voters' admiration, and the right voting record, but people don't view him as a credible (read: electable) candidate. Because conservative voters keep poking holes in the "conservative" armor of the top four candidates, look for either Hunter or Thompson to challenge their conservative credentials more strongly. Either one will likely push all the other candidates to the right on illegal immigration. I believe the winner of the Hunter-Tancredo battle will fight Fred Thompson in the next round. Voters think Fred Thompson is the only true conservative in the race, but they probably really mean he's the only viable conservative. If Tancredo or Hunter can pull off a top 5 finish, Fred Thompson had better sleep with one eye open because he may have someone else encroaching on his conservative turf.

The Veteran Statesman Battle: McCain vs. F. Thompson

Neither of these candidates is participating in the straw poll, but the results will be highly revealing for both campaigns. McCain is likely skipping Ames because he doesn't have the financial resources to compete in Iowa right now. Thompson is skipping Ames because he's not even an official candidate and is therefore under no obligation to participate in the poll. However, if McCain does better than Thompson in the poll, look for McCain to get a lot of favorable media coverage and a stay of execution for his campaign. And in addition to this, the media will also begin to pile on Thompson with "all sizzle and no steak" stories and question his true strength. I believe Thompson would have been better off formally declaring his candidacy, participating in Ames, and setting extremely low expectations. That way, if he didn't do so well in the straw poll, he could always attribute that to a lack of preparation time. But because he has delayed formally entering the race (perhaps too much), the halo above him is starting to lose its glimmer. But if Thompson finishes much more strongly than McCain, McCain will be in serious trouble. He might not even make it to the caucuses this winter. The loser of the McCain-Thompson battle will not be dead, but I think he will be seriously wounded. The winner of this battle will likely become the establishment candidate and the direct challenger to Rudy Giuliani.

The People vs. The Pocketbook Battle: Paul vs. Romney

People generally expect Mitt Romney to win the straw poll, so the real battles are for second place. Ron Paul barely registers in the polls and has spent far less money advertising than Romney has. So why do I include them together? Because this pits two major forces in politics against each other: the power of money (Romney and his barrage of campaign ads) vs. the power of people (Paul's legion of supporters online). If Romney does not win the straw poll in a rout despite all his fundraising and advertising, it will be considered an embarrassing loss. If Paul does not place in the top half of the finishers, people will conclude that his support in the blogosphere doesn't mean anything. If Paul beats expectations and Romney disappoints, the race will be in even more chaos than it is now. If Paul does a better job of beating expectations than Romney, all the second-tier candidates will win, such as Huckabee and Tancredo, because it will show that fundraising is not as important as ideas and positions. If Romney does a better job of beating expectations than Paul, I think that will benefit the top-tier candidates instead because it will show that money and campaign organization matter. Because Paul is such an unusual candidate, I can't really predict how well he will do. But I will say this: Nobody has more riding on this poll than Mitt Romney.

The Traditionalists vs. The Pragmatists Battle: Iowa Republicans vs. Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani consistently sits at the top of the polls and has the GOP moderates all to himself. However, moderates are a dying breed, it seems. Giuliani has raised a good amount of money and has broad electoral appeal. However, he's not participating in Ames, perhaps because he doesn't think he can beat Romney (and wants to spare himself the embarrassment) and because McCain won't participate either. Skipping Ames presents Giuliani with the risk of total rejection by Iowa Republicans who feel he's blowing their state off. Giuliani will not win the straw poll, but if he performs worse than expected, his opponents will spin the results as Giuliani being out of touch with conservatives (I am still waiting for that shoe to drop on that one) and he may run the risk of not winning the caucuses next winter. The Iowa voters will remind the media that name and cash alone cannot generate support; old-fashioned campaigning and pressing the flesh are what it takes to be successful. Giuliani needs to be careful. Despite his broad electoral appeal, he is not leading in Iowa or New Hampshire and Fred Thompson is giving him a run for his money in South Carolina. Giuliani would have been better off participating in Ames and spinning his poor results as a function of being a moderate candidate in a conservative state. That would have been less damaging. Now he's at the mercy of voters who may want to penalize him for dissing their popular presidential tradition.

Two days to go. Let the games begin!


Why Minorities Don't Vote Republican

GOP presidential candidate Tom Tancredo is at the center of a firestorm over controversial remarks he recently made regarding fighting terrorism:

If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina."
(Please don't hold back. Why don't you tell us what you really think?)

If you have the stomach for this, you can read more about his remarks here.

President Bush rightly says that the War on Terror is not a war against Islam. Terrorists are Muslims that have hijacked their own religion and use their warped interpretation of it to justify killing innocents. But even though terrorists are not even worth their weight in garbage and are the scourge of the earth, Tancredo's approach to dealing with them is all wrong. Attacking holy sites in Mecca and Medina would only turn a billion Muslims against the United States for generations. If Americans thought they had a problem with terrorism now, they haven't seen anything yet if Tancredo gets his way.

It seems that Tancredo's remarks are not being well-received in the blogosphere, but these criticisms are generally coming from private citizens, as is evidenced by the comments readers posted at the end of the articles about this incident. One official at the State Department did call his remarks "reprehensible," but this gets at something even larger about the Republican Party that I want to address here.

Have you heard any of the other GOP presidential candidates repudiate Tancredo's remarks? Have you heard President Bush repudiate Tancredo's remarks, especially since he's talking about a better way to approach fighting terrorism? People may label Tancredo as a "firebrand" or "crazy," but I have yet to hear any of his fellow Republicans go so far as to call his remarks out of line or to even call him a bigot.

Minorities agree with conservatives and Republicans on a wide variety of issues. Immigrants (who are often ethnic minorities) are incensed about illegal immigration, especially since they had to jump through hoops and deal with the agonizing void of bureaucracy and paperwork just to enter the country legally. Lower class individuals, often Blacks and Hispanics, would love paying lower taxes to help better support their families. And gays also believe that a strong military is imperative in light of the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.

But Republicans destroy any possible chance of winning minority support when luminaries in their party say stuff like what Tancredo said and nobody calls them out for it.

When Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton says something stupid or inflammatory, Republicans quickly call on other Black leaders to shoot down their remarks and say they don't speak for all Blacks. I've read countless letters to the editor of my local paper (generally Republicans) saying that American Muslims should be protesting terrorism in city streets across the nation and that because they don't, these letter writers can't help but wonder if Muslims in general cannot be trusted.

But where are they with Tancredo? Why the double standard? If Jesse Jackson speaks for all Black people, Rosie O'Donnell speaks for all lesbians, and Michael Moore speaks for all liberals, then why doesn't Tom Tancredo speak for all Republicans? Why doesn't Ann Coulter speak for all conservative women? Why doesn't David Duke speak for all Southerners? Why should a State Department spokesman be the only person to say Tancredo is out of line? Is their silence indicative of the possibility that they actually agree with him?

These Republicans talk about how Christianity is under attack in the United States at the hands of God-hating liberals. These Republicans talk about how gay marriage threatens their way of life. These Republicans talk about how the Spanish language is destroying America. These Republicans rail against "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings" and other attempts to sound inclusive. Republicans seem to have a lot of perceived enemies, but the only thing these enemies want is to be seen as equals.

This is not to say that Republicans should pander by engaging in identity politics in an attempt to woo minority voters, but when so many people in one political party present themselves as being downright hostile to them in this regard, they will never win the political support of people who feel they are not welcome. Minorities are not going to listen to Republicans on taxes, terrorism, or immigration when they give them so many reasons to believe their traditions, cultures, and identities are not valued.


What Iowa Really Means

Next month is the first major contest that will likely significantly winnow the presidential field, at least on the GOP side. It's the Ames Straw Poll which takes place on August 11 in Ames, Iowa. This contest, while largely symbolic, is the first real test of candidates' organizational strength in Iowa--a state where retail politics and pressing flesh are more important than giving an impersonal 15-minute stump speech at an airport and saturating the airwaves with 30-second ads. So that levels the playing field a bit, thus allowing even underfinanced candidates and those with limited name recognition the opportunity to become competitive.

Expectations are the name of the game here. A strong showing is not as important as a stronger than expected showing. Likewise, a weaker than expected showing often tells a candidate that the writing is on the wall and that it's time to abandon their campaign and endorse a stronger, more viable candidate.

This year's straw poll will be a bit different from previous cycles'. The main reason why is because two of the biggest names will not participate (Giuliani and McCain) while a third is not yet under any oblication to participate because he remains undeclared (Fred Thompson). This leaves Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Ron Paul, Tommy Thompson, Tom Tancredo, and Duncan Hunter as the possible beneficiaries (or casualties) of the poll's results. Pundits have mentioned that Giuliani and McCain are making terrible mistakes by not participating in the straw poll because the Iowa voters will remember this come caucus time next January. Fred Thompson's case is a little bit different, although people may be beginning to wonder what's taking him so long to officially get in the race. In the meantime, he can cite the lack of time for establishing a campaign apparatus in the state as his reason for not participating in the straw poll. Mitt Romney, who has been advertising and campaigning heavily in the state, would seem to be the main beneficiary of these developments because that makes him the only big name candidate participating in the poll.

Again, this is all the conventional wisdom. I see things a bit differently.

While Romney certainly seems to be the odds-on favorite, is it possible that he lost by winning? Romney has invested so much time, energy, and financial resources into Iowa. And now Ames has less meaning because three of the biggest heavyweights are not participating in it. Seeing that Romney is the lone heavyweight remaining, he is expected to win the contest. Anything other than a Romney rout could be seen as a disappointment. And placing second would definitely be considered a shocking loss. And even if Romney won in a blow out, his opponents could diminish his victory as a Pyrrhic one simply because his toughest competition declined to participate. A second-tier candidate, such as Sam Brownback, could actually be seen as "winning" the straw poll simply by coming in second.

This straw poll will make or break several candidacies. A poor performance by Tommy Thompson from neighboring Wisconsin, Mike Huckabee from nearby Arkansas, or Sam Brownback from nearby Kansas will be fatal for their candidacy. Look for them to withdraw from the race. However, because Huckabee and Brownback are essentially positioning themselves as the same candidate (e.g., champion of social conservatives), don't look for both of them to drop out at the same time. Whoever performs more strongly will likely stick it out a few weeks longer and try to pillage the weaker candidate's support.

Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter remain longshots. Illegal immigration is probably not as much of an issue in Iowa, which is overwhelmingly White and nowhere near the border. Even if the issue inflames Iowa conservatives, they probably aren't as impacted by it as voters in Colorado or Georgia or Arizona. They have nothing to lose by staying in the race after Iowa because the gap between them and the first-tier candidates will undoubtedly shrink simply because the field of candidates will shrink. Instead of vaulting past five candidates to enter the top tier, they will only have to vault past one or two. A smaller field will allow for some of these lower tiered candidates to get a bit more media oxygen. After all, it's a lot easier to focus on a race with 6 or 7 candidates than it is to focus on one with 10 or 11.

Ron Paul is in a league by himself. It is really unknown how well he will perform in this poll. His message about Iraq resonates strongly with liberal antiwar Democrats and skeptical Republicans, his anti-abortion and anti-tax credentials are impeccable, and he is most definitely not an "insider." His online legions are quite vocal in getting the word out about his campaign, but I have yet to see a huge groundswelling for him in the polls. With the departures of Giuliani, whose moderate views probably don't match well with the socially conservative base of Iowa Republicans, and McCain, whose candidacy is in serious trouble, Paul may turn out to be the surprise story of the evening.

As for Giuliani, his campaign seems to be slowly losing altitude. If McCain's candidacy had not imploded, Giuliani's erosion in support would almost certainly be the major story. An Iowa victory for him seems a bit too much to ask, both in the straw poll and in the caucus next year. And Romney is performing better in New Hampshire than Giuliani is as well. And then Fred Thompson is running very strongly in South Carolina. Can Giuliani really survive until Super Tuesday if he doesn't win any of the first three major contests?

Fred Thompson can write off the Ames Straw Poll for now, but he can't "test the waters" for too much longer. There will come a point when voters get impatient or the media begin to look for new storylines about him possibly having something to hide or if he's more style than substance.

Iowa is crucial for Romney. If he fails there, he's in serious trouble because like John Edwards on the Democratic side, he has placed so many of his chips there. Any letdown in Ames or Des Moines could prove fatal. The departures of McCain and Giuliani make this straw poll a must-win for him, and they also guarantee that Romney likely will not receive a significant return on his investment simply because the straw poll has been rendered a bit more meaningless now--after he invested so much of his campaign war chest in the state.


The Horserace (R)

While the Democratic presidential race has a clear king of the hill (or rather, a queen in this case), no such figure exists on the Republican side of the ledger. In a sense, the Republican nomination is truly a jump ball. There are maybe three or four candidates that could all be considered to have the inside track to the nomination, but all four have a potentially fatal flaw that keeps them from trouncing the opposition.

John McCain has seen his stock value fall considerably over the past few months. The maverick has become the establishment, and the establishment is not popular right now. McCain has tied himself too closely to President Bush on the Iraq War, which is unarguably the single most important issue facing the United States right now. As goes Iraq, so goes Bush. And as goes Bush, so goes McCain?

John McCain has angered conservatives by "compromising" with Senate Democrats on campaign finance reform, joining the "Gang of 14" in the previous congress, and not voting in lock step with the party line. Moderates and independents who flocked to his 2000 campaign are now giving Rudy Giuliani their attention. Conservatives who don't trust McCain are looking at Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney. So it's really no wonder why his fundraising is struggling. After all, who is his base? What does a John McCain voter look like?

Having said that, McCain might not be in as much trouble as one might initially suspect. One of McCain's weaknesses is also his strength: his record. McCain is a known quantity who could play the role of the elder statesman. Giuliani, Romney, and even Fred Thompson can't do that. If those three candidates turn out to be flashes in the pan, McCain could stand to benefit the most from their demise. Secondly, McCain has a compelling biography and is a true war hero. He is perhaps the only serious GOP candidate that Rudy Giuliani cannot accuse of being soft on terrorism. McCain has also consistently voted pro-life and has a libertarian streak that plays well in Western states. He could also put Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania into play because of his views on guns. Thus, he could make the electoral math a bit difficult for the Democrats.

If GOP primary voters realize this, they may view the raggedy, unsexy McCain as their best shot at maintaining control of the White House for a third consecutive term. And since he is no longer at the top of the polls, expectations for his campaign have likely been lowered, thus allowing him a greater chance of generating positive news coverage later if he exceeds these expectations in the future. However, having only $2 million on hand will force him to use his resources wisely. McCain will never win if he tries to "out conservative" his rivals. He needs to just run as himself--a competent, pragmatic veteran.

Rudy Giuliani has probably surprised a lot of political observers by being as viable as he has been so far. But I get the sense that he has already peaked. Aside from being "America's Mayor," what other reason is there to vote for Giuliani? Are there really that many moderates left in the GOP? Conservatives won't vote for him because they'll likely be in Fred Thompson's camp. And these moderates might be turned off by Giuliani's rhetoric as of late, such as insinuating that Bill Clinton failed to hear the call of war against us after the first World Trade Center attack. Saying that electing Democrats would only put the nation on defense against the terrorists also undermines his image as the national healer and determined unifier on September 11. Such red meat may placate conservatives, but I doubt they'll vote for him anyway because of his moderate to liberal social positions and the fact that Fred Thompson seems more genuine in his conservatism. And the moderates who would be inclined to vote for Giuliani are probably a bit put off by that divisive rhetoric. Having said that, a Giuliani nomination would put some of the blue states into play, including California. But would it make some of the red states better pick-up opportunities for the Democrats? And if Giuliani is the nominee, would conservatives stay home in November?

Mitt Romney is not performing so well in the national polls, but he is doing quite well in the polls in the states that matter: Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa's large percentage of social conservatives is buoying his poll numbers there. And New Hampshire is as close to a home state primary as he can get. However, because of McCain and Giuliani's departure from the Ames Straw Poll in August, expectations for a Romney blowout are too large to be ignored. If for some reason he does not win in Ames, he will be in serious trouble. The Mormon thing is also not going away even if people are not talking about it as much in the media. Could this explain why he is failing to gain much traction in South Carolina? The idea of voting for a Mormon from Massachusetts who recently found conservatism just isn't going to sit well with a large part of the GOP electorate. This has been the conventional wisdom for ages, but I really think it's true.

Fred Thompson has single-handedly turned the GOP race on its head. He's the GOP's Barack Obama in that people are swooning over his candidacy even though they really don't know so much about him or his positions. Thompson has shown a few chinks in his armor, however, as he clumsily stated that "he did not recall" having lobbied for a family planning (read pro-choice) organization. He also turned off moderates by weighing in on the Scooter Libby commutation. Conservatives were likely pleased by his comments, but if conservatives are splitting their votes between Thompson, McCain, and Romney, who is going to win out? So far it seems that Thompson is more style than substance, but he seems to be the candidate that conservatives are pinning their hopes on and placing the conservative mantle on. As more and more unsavory details from his past emerge regarding his time in the Senate and as a lobbyist, look to see how adequately he defends himself. If he's slow on his feet, his campaign could be over before it even gets started. He's got conservatives' attention now, but he needs a second act to keep them interested.

Sam Brownback and Jim Gilmore are irrelevant and will likely drop out next month after Ames. Tommy Thompson has also said that he would drop out if he didn't win the straw poll.

Mike Huckabee seems to be the emperor with no clothes. Time is running out for him to develop a viable campaign infrastructure. After several consistently strong debate performances, he has come to be held in high regard. But nobody wants to support a candidate who doesn't seem viable or credible. Huckabee still has a chance, especially if Rudy McRomney and Fred Thompson turn out to be a bust.

The campaigns of Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo received new life because of the Scooter Libby commutation. After all, if Libby's 30-month prison sentence was "excessive," what are conservatives to think of the 11- and 12-year sentences the two border control agents received for shooting a fleeing illegal immigrant drug dealer? The anti-illegal immigration and nativist wings of the Republican Party will continue to find a home with Tancredo, and the voters who are also interested in homeland security ones may be happy with Hunter. However, Hunter and Tancredo are cannibalizing each other. There's not enough room for both of them in this campaign.

Ron Paul remains a question mark. His $2.4 million in campaign funds is 20% more than what is in John McCain's coffers. (Imagine how the McCain camp felt dealing with those kinds of headlines...) Iowa might be a bit of a stretch for him, but a surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire is not out of the question because of its libertarian leanings.

Newt Gingrich is smart to sit on the sidelines while the other candidates are subjected to all this scrutiny and infighting. He has said before that he would make his decision this fall if none of the major candidates seem credible. If McCain runs out of money, Fred Thompson turns out to be an empty suit, Romney is not trusted, and Giuliani is abandoned by both conservatives and less partisan moderates, this would give Gingrich the opening he needs. Despite his character flaws, one cannot deny his competence and genuine conservative bonafides. It is this competence and credibility, combined with memories of Gingrich standing on the Capitol steps after the Republican takeover in 1995, that could propel him to the nomination.

Are we looking at Gingrich vs. Gore in '08? With Huckabee and Obama duking it out for the vice presidency?

The Republican field is a bit oversubscribed right now. However, the field will winnow within the next few weeks. After that, the debates should become a bit more meaningful. And even though 2008 appears to be a Democratic year, the Republicans have a much stronger bench than their level of satisfaction with their current candidates indicates.


The Name is Thompson. Fred Thompson.

It looks like Fred Thompson is all but in the presidential race. The Law and Order star has generated a lot of buzz and excitement among Republicans who seem dissatisfied with their choices, particularly "Rudy McRomney" occupying the top tier. These people have lamented the lack of a true conservative on the Republican side. Mitt Romney has been tarred with the flip-flopper brush, so his conservative credentials are viewed with suspicion. McCain has made a few unholy alliances with Democrats and liberals, such as Ted Kennedy, and is therefore not considered a reliable conservative. Giuliani hails from liberal New York and has liberal social views to match which are antithetical to the GOP base.

People who complain about the lack of "true conservatives" are not being entirely honest with themselves. There are several mainstream, traditional, and hard right conservatives running. Nobody is going to impeach Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, or Sam Brownback's conservative credentials. What those who lament the GOP field really want is not a conservative, but rather a credible and viable conservative.

Enter Fred Thompson.

On paper, Thompson looks like a good fit for the GOP. He hails from Tennessee, which is deep in Republican territory. He has some Washington experience because of his tenure in the Senate, but has been out of Washington long enough to be able to run as an "outsider." He also has a folksy way of speaking and a casual, no-nonsense demeanor that appeals to rural and Southern voters. This style contrasts greatly with the polished Romney or the high strung Giuliani. And fairly or unfairly, his role on Law and Order has given him the image of being a tough guy who can keep us safe.

Perhaps more intriguing than Thompson's candidacy, however, is its impact on the rest of the field.

John McCain: Being personal friends and political allies, look for McCain and Thompson to enter some sort of "gentleman's agreement" that discourages them from attacking each other on the campaign trail too severely. Could Thompson really be running for McCain's VP?

Rudy Giuliani: I believe Giuliani has the most to lose by Fred Thompson's candidacy. Thompson can stand up to Giuliani in terms of being a tough guy who can defend America. However, Thompson is a conservative. Giuliani's greatest assets are security and terrorism. His biggest weaknesses are his moderate to liberal social views. Thompson has almost all of Giuliani's strengths and none of his weaknesses. Conservatives who have reservations about Giuliani may feel much more comfortable getting behind Thompson.

Mitt Romney: Thompson is a direct threat to Romney. Romney has gone to great lengths to position himself as a conservative. He is clearly trying to run to the right of Giuliani and McCain. But his record in Massachusetts and some of his past statements clearly contradict some of his campaign rhetoric now. Thompson would run as a conservative too, but he could do it much more credibly. And he doesn't have to worry about "the Mormon problem" either.

Mike Huckabee: After three solid debate performances in a row, Huckabee seems to be the best poised of the lesser candidates to break into the top tier. A Fred Thompson candidacy will steal some of his thunder.

Tommy Thompson: Perhaps Tommy Thompson can get extra attention by virtue of having the same last name as Fred Thompson. Some people who are curious about (Fred) "Thompson" may learn about Tommy Thompson by mistake. This could be good or bad for Tommy Thompson. But it will likely be demoralizing for him because when people talk about "Thompson," they are more likely going to be talking about Fred than Tommy.

Jim Gilmore: He is having enough trouble getting his message out when he's sharing the stage with 9 other candidates. Why would things get any easier with 10?

Sam Brownback: Brownback is running as the "right to life" candidate. This is not likely to be how Thompson wishes to present himself. The effect on Brownback should be minimal. After all, his primary threat is Huckabee, not Thompson.

Duncan Hunter: Thompson eclipses Hunter because even though they are both strong conservatives, Hunter is not really taken seriously as a candidate at present.

Tom Tancredo: Duncan Hunter is more of a threat to him than Fred Thompson.

Ron Paul: He is in a league all by himself. It would be interesting to see how Thompson responds to some of Paul's assertions and positions in a debate format. Would he throw red meat at the base and impugn Paul's patriotism (a la Giuliani or Cheney)? Or will he try and stay far away from him?

In the end, a Fred Thompson candidacy is probably good for McCain (they are allies), not so good for Giuliani (there's only enough room for one sheriff here), and potentially fatal for Romney (the flip-flopping Massachusetts so-called conservative). I think Fred Thompson could suck all the remaining oxygen from the room, thus rendering Tancredo, Hunter, Gilmore, Tommy Thompson, and Brownback moot and forcing them to drop out of the race. Perhaps the only other candidate who could survive is Mike Huckabee because of his obviously strong debating skills, his executive experience, and the fact that he hails from the same part of the country as Thompson (the South). Newt Gingrich is watching this very closely. If Fred Thompson turns out to be an empty suit, could Gingrich view this as the opportunity and circumstances he was waiting for to jump in the race?


Elephants in the Room: The Second Republican Debate

I just saw the second debate between the Republican presidential candidates in Columbia. It's amazing knowing that all those powerful people actually came HERE. It's so nice to be spoiled by living in one of the so-called "early" states. That doesn't change the fact that I still think it's not particularly equitable, but it is what it is and that's what we have to work with.

Anyway, I thought of the three debates I've seen so far between both parties, this one was the most substantiative. The questions were pointed and the moderators didn't let the candidates spin, thus allowing for real, actual debate to take place.

I think this debate was important because it confirms who the real players are and who should just go home. There are 11 candidates running, including one who wasn't allowed to participate in the debate. I think that several of these candidates would be well advised to go the way of Tom Vilsack and Evan Bayh.

Buh-bye. Thank you for playing. We have some nice parting gifts for you. These candidates should just drop out now:

Jim Gilmore. This guy has a habit of criticizing the other candidates, but he shied away from doing so when he had the chance tonight. All he could do was tell us to check out his campaign site tomorrow when he will name names?! Look, if you're not going to say something to someone's face, then don't say it at all. This single moment made Gilmore look like a C-grade candidate. If he can't stand up to "Rudy McRomney," how can he be expected to stand up to Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il or Al Qaeda? He couldn't even express regret that no minority candidates were running for the GOP nomination. What a gimme question! And he bombed it! Go home.

Tommy Thompson. When asked which government program he would cut to save money, he talked about "many" programs that were wasteful. However, the best he could come up with was "the stockpile." Huh? Is he going to blame this lame response on another hearing aid malfunction? Another swollen bladder? Fatigue? The moderator smugly dismissed Thompson when he asked Ron Paul the same question and said "Can you do better than that?" It doesn't seem like Thompson is quite ready for prime time. How can he continue his campaign? He has no gravitas whatsoever.

Tom Tancredo. He did better tonight than at the first debate and even had a few memorable one-liners. However, I just don't think voters take him seriously. He is an issue candidate, and that issue is illegal immigration. But even when he had a chance to hit a grand slam with a question about this when it was posed to him, he did not throw out a lot of red meat, and it seemed to take him a long time to rev up in his response.

Time is running out. These candidates have very little margin for error:

Duncan Hunter. Duncan Hunter was saying all the right things for Republicans, but he seemed like Chris Dodd in the Democrats' debate. In other words, he did not distinguish himself and kinda got lost in the shuffle. He did well in the first debate, but he had a bit of a letdown this time around. For someone who's only pulling 1% in the polls, a letdown is the very last thing he needs. Hunter's problem is that he occupies the same turf as McCain and Giuliani regarding defense and the same turf as Tancredo regarding illegal immigration. Hunter better find a way to differentiate himself soon, or else...

Sam Brownback. Brownback's immediate enemy is Mike Huckabee. They are both running as staunch pro-lifers, but here's Brownback's problem. While his anti-abortion credentials are impeccable, he doesn't seem to be offering much else in terms of reasons why people should support his candidacy. Huckabee, on the other hand, is also able to successfully articulate his anti-abortion and pro-family positions in addition to being able to convey his competence regarding executive experience. Brownback needs to find a way to get from behind Huckabee's shadow, and quick.

Moving up! These candidates left the debate in a better position than before it:

Mike Huckabee. Could this be the most formidable GOP candidate out there? He is definitely a charismatic and talented speaker. His biography is compelling and his positions on the issues conservatives hold dear raise few red flags. He also did an excellent job of acquitting himself regarding the tax increase that took place under his watch in Arkansas, which should calm fiscal conservatives down just a bit. He also had the best one-liner of the night in regards to John Edwards. That'll certainly be replayed on YouTube and in blogs everywhere. He comes from the right part of the country for Republicans (the South), has executive experience, has solid pro-life credentials, and simply looks presidential. Mike Huckabee is Public Enemy #1 for Mitt Romney because Huckabee seems much more authentic and doesn't have to worry about allegations of flip flopping on issues important to conservatives.

Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani's for real. He spoke much more convincingly this time around and had the most poignant exchange of the night with Ron Paul, although I think he misrepresented Paul's position. His decision to speak more openly about being pro-choice has clearly liberated him, although it may be political suicide in Iowa and South Carolina. However, he defended the merits of his position--particularly the point that conservatives don't like government intervention in their private lives, so why should abortion be any different? He also effectively parried Mike Huckabee's comparison of opposing abortion and opposing slavery. He also did a solid job of evoking images of his leadership on September 11, which is his trump card. All in all, he had a solid performance. And for the first time, I really think Giuliani can win this nomination. He's got it together.

John McCain. John McCain stopped the bleeding tonight. He got into a testy exchange with Mitt Romney and drew blood when he reminded the audience of Romney's "conversions" on some issues that are critical to conservatives. He might not be a flashy or sexy candidate, but John McCain is clearly a competent, consistent conservative with strong national security credentials. He's running as the establishment candidate similar to Hillary Clinton. Although he veered into dangerous territory with the Confederate flag question, he made no major mistakes and did well enough to satisfy a few doubts about his campaign.

Oops! These candidates are moving dooooowwwwwn:

Mitt Romney. After winning the first debate, Romney was underwhelming tonight. He was outshone by Mike Huckabee, wounded by John McCain, and sandbagged by so many difficult questions about his conversions on issues important to conservatives. This debate could be a fatal blow to his candidacy because Mike Huckabee is clearly a force to be reckoned with, scabs were ripped off of the old stories about his flip-flopping, he was tarred as a political opportunist, and voters were reminded of the fact that he was a lot more liberal when he served in Massachusetts. Ouch.

I have no idea what to make of Ron Paul. His arguments were compelling and well thought out, but I don't think America is quite yet ready for Paul's ideas. I worry that Republicans and dittoheads will mischaracterize his exchange with Rudy Giuliani about why 9-11 happened. Sean Hannity accused Ron Paul of blaming America for 9-11, which he did not do at all. Paul offers a new way of looking at America's role in the world, but it is a complex view that requires people to avoid knee jerk thinking. But he spoke in a way average people could understand though. ("If China started building permanent bases in America, how would you feel?") A lot of Democrats are looking at Ron Paul as a Republican they can live with. Many Republicans are probably wondering if Paul is even running for the right party's nomination. I think Paul can more effectively get out his libertarian message as a Republican candidate than as a Libertarian or Democratic candidate, however. How well this message will be received, however, is a whole different kettle of fish.

In a nutshell...

McCain stopped the bleeding. He is the Hillary Clinton of the Republican field.

Giuliani strengthened his hand. Can he really pull out the nomination?

Romney has to be sweating bullets. His momentum was stopped cold in its tracks.

Huckabee is knocking on the door of the top tier candidates. With a little bit of funding, he could be very dangerous to "Rudy McRomney."

Thompson is a joke.

Gilmore is an even bigger joke.

Tancredo is a gadfly candidate with a message the size of a 747.

Brownback is playing second fiddle to Huckabee. There's not enough room for both of them.

Paul is in a league by himself. He's holding a hockey stick on a baseball field. Maybe he'll catch on. Maybe he won't. But at least he'll get people talking.


The Republican Debate

Last week the Democratic presidential candidates debated in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This week it was the Republicans' turn. The contrasts between the two debates and the two political parties could not be starker.

The first major difference I noticed pertained to the debate setting. Before the Democrats' debate, the media focused a lot on South Carolina State University, Orangeburg, the civil rights struggle, and the plight of lower class Blacks living in rural areas. This made a lot of sense, given that Orangeburg is located in rural central South Carolina and the middle of Congressman Jim Clyburn's majority Black congressional district. Fair enough.

The Republicans' debate, however, took place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. A lot of the media stories pertained to the Reagan legacy, his accomplishments, and his presidential library. While the Democrats' setting was a university campus, the Republicans' setting was the library of one of the most revered presidents in American history. This setting was inescapable as Air Force One was clearly visible behind the journalists anchoring the debate.

As Howard Fineman pointed out, because of the debate setting, the Democrats looked like the "we are family" party. Simply put, the Republicans looked like executives. This probably shouldn't mean much, but I can't help but wonder how many casual political observers will allow this imagery to seep into their subconscious mind and use it to help guide their decisions regarding their votes in the event that they do not learn much more about the candidates other than which party they represent.

So in terms of media packaging, I think the Republicans did a better job of looking "presidential." University campuses in economically downtrodden areas are not "presidential." While debating at such a place can help shed light on social issues that need more attention, I am not so sure this is the best choice.

Since 1968 Republicans have won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections. Staging a debate at the library of the most successful of these seven presidents was a shrewd move from a public relations standpoint. Kudos to the Republicans.

As for the debate itself, I could not help but feel like so many of the second tier candidates were overlapping each other in terms of how they wanted to position themselves. Brownback and Huckabee were trying to establish themselves as social and religious conservatives. Tancredo and Hunter were working really hard for the anti-illegal immigration vote. Thompson and Gilmore had been trying to position themselves as can-do governors with records proving their conservative credentials. Only Ron Paul (a pro-life Libertarian) was in a niche by himself.

Obviously, the Top 3 ("Rudy McRomney") are in a class by themselves. This debate meant different things to all three of them:

For Mitt Romney, this debate served as a chance to allay voters' concerns about his Mormon faith and his recent "conversions" regarding issues like abortion and gay rights. Although he had consistently been polling third (or sometimes fourth, if you include Frank Thompson), his fundraising totals have been the most impressive among the Republicans. After watching the debate, I can say that Romney has to be feeling pretty good about his campaign and its momentum. He did an excellent job of answering questions in an articulate, authoritative way. He also displayed a good sense of humor and had excellent stage presence. In short, Romney looked and sounded presidential. And that Mormon thing? Well, I think he handled this issue adeptly. Surely it will continue to come up in the ongoing political process courtesy of members of our society who inhabit the lowest common denominator, but I think for most voters, they actually came away from the debate actually liking the guy. If I am a Democrat running for president, Romney is the candidate I most definitely do not want to face.

McCain's candidacy has been flagging as of late because of his "bomb Iran" joke, disappointing fundraising totals, and a general sense of feeling adrift. Others have given McCain favorable reviews about his debate performance, but I must disagree. I think McCain did not show a lot of vigor, his answers seemed rehearsed, and I questioned exactly how badly he really wanted to be president. He answered most questions appropriately, but just didn't appear to have that drive in him on stage. Also, after a forceful (though rehearsed?) remark about following Osama to "the gates of Hell," he gave a very inappropriate smirk. Did that look presidential? I did not see anything in his performance that would lead me to believe he'd attract a drove of new supporters. If his fundraising continues to stall, could he drop out before the Iowa caucuses even begin?

Rudy Giuliani had the most the lose in this debate. Since he announced his candidacy, Giuliani has been flying high in the polls. His standing in the polls has largely defied conventional wisdom because of his moderate to liberal views on social issues like abortion, gun rights, and affirmative action. I think a large segment of these "Rudy fans" simply do not know his record on those issues and are supporting him simply because "he helped guide us through those dark days after September 11." Nobody talks much about the pre-9-11 Rudy because that image of him and his ash-covered suit overwhelms everything else. I think that may have changed after the debate, however. Surely Giuliani would have liked for the debate to focus on terrorism for 90 minutes, but unfortunately for him, a lot of time was spent on the very issue that puts him at such odds with the base of his party: abortion. I think his nuanced responses and waffling regarding the repeal of Roe vs. Wade was quite telling, and his positioning on stage as one of the last candidates to have to respond to that question didn't help:

Moderator: If Roe vs. Wade were repealed, would that be a good day in America?

Romney: A glorious day.

Brownback: A celebration of liberty.

Huckabee: A great day.

Gilmore: It was wrongly decided.

etc. etc. etc.

Giuliani: It would be okay...

(cue the sound of a car screeching to a halt)

This led to a long back and forth between Giuliani and the moderator in which he was forced to clarify his remarks. For his supporters and campaign staff, I'm sure this was agonizing to watch.

That exchange, I believe, is what will end the love affair that so many Republicans have for Giuliani. For many of them, this was the first time they had ever heard him defend abortion or give them reason to doubt that "he is not on their side." Look for his poll ratings to drop out of the stratosphere. Social conservatives who vote strictly on abortion are likely lost forever to Giuliani in light of this "new information" and are going to flock to Romney, Brownback, and Huckabee. In short, Giuliani fared a bit worse than expectations, although he did not bomb the debate.

Sam Brownback has been registering 1 or 2 percent in most polls. He clearly conveyed that he wants to carry social conservatives' water, but I am not sure he did anything that would vault him into the top tier. I doubt he will win the nomination, but I would not count him out as a vice presidential pick. If he does not gain much traction from this debate, I expect him to throw in the towel. This debate gave him the opportunity to introduce himself to a mega audience and he performed adequately. However, I don't think he really distinguished himself. The fact that he is competing directly with Mike Huckabee for votes does not help.

Until this debate, Mike Huckabee has been one of the most mysterious candidates. He has a compelling story (losing 100 pounds), is a Southern governor, and has a charming demeanor. However, he did not seem to be running for president full throttle. As a result, his campaign operation is not at the top of its game. I think of all the second tier candidates, his stock value rose the most. Grover Norquist conservatives might not like Huckabee because he actually (gasp!) raised taxes while he was Arkansas' governor, but I think most other Republicans will give Huckabee a look, especially if they have their reservations about Rudy McRomney. Huckabee is proud to be a social conservative, a Christian conservative, and a Christian who believes his Christian beliefs should have a role in his policy ideas. He also had a commanding stage presence and looked presidential. Evangelicals who view Romney with suspicion because of his Mormon faith may be especially pleased with his performance at the debate. Conservatives who are leery of nominating a Massachusetts governor or a New York mayor may also be more satisfied with a southern governor instead. I personally believe Mike Huckabee is public enemy #1 for John McCain because even though they both have similar positions regarding abortion, McCain represents the old guard while Huckabee seems new and fresh. I believe Huckabee would be a difficult candidate for the Democrats to run against because even though he is a conservative right-wing Republican, he does not come across nearly as abrasive as those on the religious right are often portrayed.

To me, Duncan Hunter is the Republicans' dream candidate. He is right on taxes, right on immigration, right on defense, right on abortion, right on gay rights, right on guns, and right on foreign policy. He is a hawk, and he is unashamed to admit it. Republicans in Orange County, California, clearly liked what he was saying, so that might help him out with fundraising. I think Tom Tancredo has to be worried because Hunter spoke with far more confidence at the debate and seemed to steal Tancredo's main issue (illegal immigration). Hunter came across like a no-nonsense executive that could unite all the factions of the Republican Party. He is most definitely not charismatic, but he definitely had a commanding presence at the debate. Basically, he sounded like a Dick Cheney with hair. I think he helped his campaign a lot with his strong debate performance, although there are still too many candidates in the race for him to really get his message out. Hunter is my dark horse Republican candidate. I think he is a primary threat to Rudy Giuliani in particular because Hunter's experience on the House Armed Services Committee allows him to stand toe to toe with Giuliani when it comes to defense and even terrorism. If Giuliani loses the terrorism issue, he's toast, unless he decides to appeal to moderate Republicans instead a la Lincoln Chafee.

Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, did not make any major gaffes at the debate. However, I cannot see Republicans coalescing around his campaign because there just didn't seem to be a moment where he shined. Gilmore seemed to be a "me too" candidate who could not stop talking about "his record." He tried to position himself as "the credible conservative," but the problem with this is that almost all of the second tier candidates are trying to do the same thing. I think Gilmore is like the Republicans' Chris Dodd. He may have a record that looks good on paper, but I think he got lost in the shuffle at the debate.

Tommy Thompson was disappointing. Like Jim Gilmore, he happily talked about "his record" and his "1900 vetoes." However, he clumsily handled a question asking if a business should fire a homosexual worker. He tried to hee and haw by saying "it was up to each individual business to decide," but the moderator pinned him down as a "yes." After the debate, Thompson changed his answer to a "no" and blamed his "yes" on "not being able to hear the question." This is the same guy that recently blamed an ethnic joke about Jews on "a persistent cold" and "fatigue." Anyway, I expect him to throw in the towel soon. Why does it seem like so many Republicans with occasionally moderate views are so afraid of angering religious conservatives when it comes to abortion and gay rights?

Tom Tancredo is not going to be the GOP nominee. He spoke haltingly, seemed confused, and even let Duncan Hunter steal his bread and butter issue of illegal immigration. He also struggled to answer the questions fast enough, thus causing the moderator to cut him off before he could make his points. Looks like Tancredo is going to be a one-issue candidate, but if Hunter continues to steal his thunder, I cannot see any rationale for Tancredo to continue his campaign.

Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas who once ran for president as a Libertarian, was perhaps the most authentic of the 10 candidates at the debate. His answers seemed passionate and unrehearsed. He distinguished himself as the only candidate who is against the Iraq War. I think there are more Republicans who are against this war than polling suggests, so Paul stands to reap a ton of new supporters who place Iraq above everything else. Abolishing the IRS probably made anti-tax conservatives squeal with delight. Look for Paul to leapfrog about 1/3 to half of the Republican field in terms of support. Other than his Iraq and taxation views, part of what made him stand out was his frequent mentioning of the government's role in our lives. I do not know how many Barry Goldwater Republicans are left in the party, but I think Paul easily won them over with his performance at the debate. Paul's candidacy shows why libertarian Republicans from the West cannot coexist with religious and social conservatives from the South. I personally would be intrigued by a Paul presidency, and I think he may appeal to voters who have developed an "America first" mentality and resent the role of being the world's policeman. Because there are no other candidates of either party occupying the libertarian niche, I think Paul is uniquely positioned to experience a groundswell of support.

In a nutshell, these are my predictions:

Romney exceeded expectations and is moving up. He is a force to be reckoned with and may very well be the only Republican that can win in 2008 if his performance at the debate is indicative of his political skills in general. But how many bigoted Republicans will sabotage him?

McCain actually looked his age at the debate and seemed unfocused at some times and overly rehearsed at other times. I think his campaign is nearing a make or break point. His debate performance was subpar in my estimation and he doesn't have much margin for error anymore.

Giuliani should come crashing back down to earth soon. He did okay, but was a little disappointing. The aura of "America's Mayor" may have been replaced by doubts about his commitment to social conservatives' primary issues. He will be bombarded by questions about his position on abortion on the campaign trail in the coming weeks, and time he spends talking about abortion is time he's not spending on his signature issue of terrorism.

Brownback got a bit more name recognition, but is still stuck in the second tier.

Huckabee helped his campaign considerably and is poised to break out. Did Rudy McRomney write him off too soon?

Gilmore might as well drop out of the race and stop wasting his time. His conservative credentials may be genuine, but why settle for Generic Republican when you can have the charismatic Romney or the compelling Huckabee?

Thompson should do the same. I think he really sandbagged himself by hedging on the gay rights question because Brownback, Hunter, and Huckabee clearly showed where the stand on the issue. Thompson was seen as equivocating, which just won't sell with evangelicals when they have so many other better options to choose from.

Hunter is the conservative hawk in the race. I think he may have moved from the third tier to the second tier. If doubts about his viability dissipate, he may very well be the Republican nominee. He would be tough to run against and would probably take a lot of states off the map. I think Duncan Hunter is the best Republican you've never heard of.

Tancredo is becoming the Republicans' Al Sharpton. He's made his point. Illegal immigration is bad. Border fences are good. Now he should get out of the race before he becomes a GOP punch line.

Ron Paul is the libertarian in the race. He may very well have a monopoly on anti-tax conservatives and anti-war Republicans. However, as a libertarian, evangelicals might not take too kindly to his "don't tread on me/live and let live" philosophy. I think he has a lot of potential, but I worry his campaign may be doomed by Republican fratricide, rather than any gaffes of his own making. Look for his popularity to increase.


The 2008 Republicans

I posted my thoughts on the Democrats in the 2008 field so it's only fair that I post my thoughts on the Republicans as well.

Compared to the Democrats, the Republican field seems to be devoid of a candidate that truly inspires the base. There are several well-known and respected figures in the race, but there is no one truly captivating. This is probably because the three perceived frontrunners are generally moderate or maverick Republicans, rather than hardcore conservatives. Thus, the race for the GOP nomination is wide open, and I do mean wide open. There simply is no heir-apparent.

Here are the candidates listed in alphabetical order:

Sam Brownback: The Kansas senator is one candidate that should keep social and religious conservatives happy. However, the Jerry Falwell-Tony Perkins wing of the Republican Party is increasingly disliked by the larger electorate, thus making Brownback a better pick as a vice presidential nominee. Brownback is not as divisive as Falwell and Perkins, but I think the electorate is a bit burned out by the Republican Congress’s overreaching on gay marriage and abortion restrictions, thus restricting his appeal to voters in the general election. Brownback is Romney's greatest enemy because they are both competing for the same socially-conservative voters. However, Brownback has the benefit of authenticity, as he has a long paper trail of votes that establish him as having never wavered on the issues that social conservatives hold dear, like abortion.

Rudy Giuliani: Giuliani is the Obama of the GOP in terms of his ability to draw and wow large crowds. The former New York mayor obtained hero status in the days after September 11 for his leadership. It is my belief, however, that this halo effect will wear off as the primaries draw closer. For one, Giuliani has no other government experience, and absolutely no foreign policy experience. Comparing Manhattan with Mosul and Brooklyn to Basra is not going to fly. Secondly, are GOP primary voters really going to grin and bear it regarding social issues they hold so dear? Taken separately, affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage, and gun control are all litmus test issues that would doom any serious Republican candidate. However, Rudy is on the wrong side of all four issues as far as primary voters are concerned. Are these voters really going to turn the other cheek, especially after all the headway they've gained on these issues during the Bush presidency?

Newt Gingrich: The Al Gore on the GOP side, Gingrich takes the role as the GOP's elder statesman. He reminds conservatives of the good ol' days when they assumed power in 1995 after a long stint in the wilderness and accomplished many goals. His rhetorical skills are sharp and his conservative credentials are indisputable. He also has the advantage of being untainted by the congressional excesses that took place during the past few years under Republican leadership. If Gingrich were to enter the race, a lot of second-tier candidates would bail because there would be no oxygen left for them. Mitt Romney would also be severely crippled because Gingrich is a genuine conservative, whereas Romney seems to come across like a recent convert and is viewed with suspicion. Gingrich can afford to wait to enter the race just like Gore because there is no generally agreed upon conservative standard bearer.

Chuck Hagel: Hagel in '08 is a bit like Lieberman in '06 in that his war views are isolating him from the party he's a member of. (Consider Dick Cheney's recent remarks about it being difficult to not violate Reagan's 11th Commandment of not speaking ill of a fellow Republican.) Seeing that John McCain's crossover appeal is evaporating because of his support for the troop surge in Iraq, there is a bit of daylight for Hagel to exploit. He has a similar biography regarding military service and a bit of a maverick streak in him that broadens his electoral appeal. He speaks to conservatives who think the war is going poorly, like Brownback does, although the jury is still out on how many Republican voters actually agree with them. There might not be enough room in the Republican Party for someone like Hagel because his Iraq War views don't jive with the neoconservative wing of the party. If he does run in 2008, look for him to run as an independent or as part of a bipartisan ticket. Could a Hagel-Lieberman ticket be in the works?

Mike Huckabee: This is the lone Southerner in the race with gubernatorial experience. His life story is compelling and he received generally favorable reviews from his tenure as Arkansas' chief executive. Social conservatives should find Huckabee acceptable, but fiscal conservatives probably view him with more skepticism thanks to the tax increase that occurred on his watch. Having said that, Huckabee could be a formidable nominee and he has a real chance to fill the void that exists among the frontrunners in the event that one of them stumbles.

Duncan Hunter: Philosophically, this guy seems to be the candidate most in line with the base on immigration, terrorism, taxes, and social issues. His biggest problem is that nobody knows who he is. He's a congressman from California, but there are 52 other politicians who fit that description. If he were able to increase his name recognition and fundraising ability, he could easily win over the base and cruise to the nomination. Having said that, he remains a longshot and has about as much chance of winning the nomination as Joe Lieberman does of becoming the Democrats' nominee.

John McCain: John McCain is the Hillary Clinton of the GOP. He represents the establishment wing of the party. He has an amazing life story and a lengthy resume of government experience. However, he seems to have been approaching the campaign with a bit of inevitability and does not seem aggressive enough regarding explaining to voters why they should vote for him. It is clear that he will no longer be able to rely on the independent vote because of his close association with George W. Bush/Iraq. And of course, liberals are not going to support him ever again because of his endorsement of the surge. This leaves conservatives. However, fiscal conservatives are none too pleased with his campaign finance reform efforts. Social conservatives are equally displeased with his equivocations regarding same-sex marriage. Exactly what is his base? It seems that McCain is higher on the food chain than Romney, but voters aren't quite yet sold on him.

Mitt Romney: What started off as a promising candidate with lots of natural talent and a strong ability to handle a room and work a crowd, Romney now looks more like a falling star. He has really put himself into a box because of how he has tried to position himself—as a conservative. Unfortunately, a conservative Republican in Massachusetts probably qualifies as a liberal Republican in Georgia. In the era of YouTube, people just aren't buying it. And on top of that, charges of being "another Massachussetts flip-flopper" are beginning to stick and create a negative caricature of him. Can Romney really survive until Iowa? Romney needs to figure out how to deftly handle these charges and pronto because if his campaign continues to flag as it has for the past few weeks, his donors may recommit to someone else and his coffers will run dry. As a nominee, Romney could be quite formidable, as he took the lead in establishing mandatory health care coverage while he was governor. He also did not come across as being too far to the left or right while he was in Massachusetts, but that was before he began courting the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Romney is in trouble.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.