Sabato's Crystal Ball

Part Ii: The Republicans in the ’08 Presidential Race

The nation's 55th quadrennial orgy continues

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 1st, 2007

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Last week we took a look at the upcoming Quadrennial Orgy of presidential politics from the Democrats’ perspective. Now it is the Republicans’ turn to be run over by the Crystal Ball.

There isn’t a GOP candidate out there who isn’t happy November 2008 is over 22 months away. You wouldn’t need a political analyst to forecast the results of the race for the White House if the election were scheduled in the next half year. With Iraq seeming like a world-class disaster, and President Bush owning that disaster, Las Vegas wouldn’t even be taking bets except on the size of the Democratic victory–assuming Democrats nominated even a moderately electable candidate.

But the election isn’t in 2007, and amazingly, despite the oddsmakers, the GOP contest is actually attracting more contenders than the Democrats. Compare the two party lists:

DEMOCRATS

Apparently Definite (9)

Name Current/Prior Experience
Joe Biden current U.S. Senator from Delaware
Hillary Clinton current U.S. Senator from New York
Chris Dodd current U.S. Senator from Connecticut
John Edwards former U.S. Senator from North Carolina
Mike Gravel former U.S. Senator from Alaska
Dennis Kucinich current U.S. Congressman from Ohio
Barack Obama current U.S. Senator from Illinois
Bill Richardson current governor of New Mexico
Tom Vilsack former governor of Iowa

Maybe (2)

Name Current/Prior Experience
Wesley Clark 2004 Democratic presidential primary candidate
Al Gore 2000 Democratic presidential nominee

Not Running or Already Dropped Out (4)

Name Current/Prior Experience
Evan Bayh current U.S. Senator from Indiana
Russ Feingold current U.S. Senator from Wisconsin
John Kerry current U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
Mark Warner former governor of Virginia

REPUBLICANS

Apparently Definite (10)

Name Current/Prior Experience
Sam Brownback current U.S. Senator from Kansas
John Cox former U.S. Senate and congressional primary candidate from Illinois
Jim Gilmore former governor of Virginia
Newt Gingrich former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
Rudy Giuliani former mayor of New York City
Mike Huckabee former governor of Arkansas
Duncan Hunter current U.S. Congressman from California
John McCain current U.S. Senator from Arizona
George Pataki former governor of New York
Mitt Romney former governor of Massachusetts

Maybe (4)

Name Current/Prior Experience
Chuck Hagel current U.S. Senator from Nebraska
Ron Paul current U.S. Congressman from Texas
Tom Tancredo current U.S. Congressman from Colorado
Tommy Thompson former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services

Not Running or Already Dropped Out (7)

Name Current/Prior Experience
George Allen former U.S. Senator from Virginia
Jeb Bush former governor of Florida
Dick Cheney current U.S. Vice President
Bill Frist former U.S. Senator from Tennessee
Frank Keating former governor of Oklahoma
Condi Rice current U.S. Secretary of State
Rick Santorum – former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania

In every category, the Republicans lead. When the “definite” and “maybe” classifications are combined, the GOP has fourteen contenders to the Democrats’ eleven. On the surface, one would think the Democratic nomination was worth more as of January 2007, and that therefore more prominent Democrats would be running. Yes, Hillary and Barack are a daunting twosome, but then to judge by the polls, so are McCain and Giuliani.

It’s early, everyone deserves a shot, and so we’ve left the pundit-designated “minor candidates” in the race. What do Democrats Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich have in common with Republicans John Cox and Duncan Hunter? The Crystal Ball suspects that they do not yet have the support of half of their immediate families. That’s a bit cruel, but likely true. (To those four fine human beings: Please don’t send us lists of your families’ pledged votes. For one thing, it’s a secret ballot and they might be just humoring you.)

There are minor candidates…and then there are minor candidates who have some measurable constituency, however fractional it may be. For example, Congressmen Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas are not bloody likely to be the Republican nominee for President, but it’s at least theoretically possible that the anti-immigration constituency could line up behind Tancredo, and the Libertarians could come into GOP primaries to back their longtime hero Paul. The few percentage points they get might conceivably make the difference in a very close race among the top contenders. The computations and permutations are endless just at the moment, which is why the “invisible primary” race ongoing now is such fun.

All right, dear reader, we’ve kept you far too long without much mentioning the GOP frontrunners. John McCain and Rudy G. together garner 55 to 70 percent of the vote in most national presidential preference polls of Republicans. So why is it that we and others are so dubious of their prospects? McCain has earned his first-past-the-post berth with a lifetime of service, an impressive initial effort for President in 2000, and a courageous (foolish?) against-the-grain stand on Iraq. Many Republicans admire all of this. The GOP cognoscenti in D.C. frequently tell us that McCain is a substantial frontrunner, and one highly respected professional recently told us he gives McCain a 75 percent chance of being nominated. Yet when we travel around the country, we see waves of anti-McCain sentiment among the Republican grassroots–the people who will actually show up in the early contests. These activists don’t like the maverick in McCain. They don’t trust him and can’t guess where he’ll be on some issues on any given day. Some mention his age and health. A cancer survivor who will be 72 years old as of August 2008, McCain would be the oldest first-term President ever. Others talk about his fearsome temper, although this never seemed to hurt Bill Clinton, whose anger might well wither McCain in a face-off. All of these criticisms may be unfair, but life is unfair, and politicscan be the least fair part of life.

At least McCain is basically conservative on most issues, from Iraq to abortion. Giuliani would be the most liberal GOP nominee since Gerald Ford, and while Ford had just one happy marriage, Rudy has had three trips to the altar–possibly at least one too many for the “family values” party. The New Yorker’s out-and-out left-wing positions on abortion, gay rights, and gun control will inevitably cause him severe problems after GOP activists focus on them. Still, it has been revealing to see just how attractive and enduring Rudy’s image as “America’s mayor” has been. In a party that now puts national security above all other issues, could this be the saving grace for Rudy? Might a desperate GOP, already having lost both houses of Congress, actually nominate him rather than let the White House slip away? What if he agrees to take on a strong, “pure” conservative for Veep? (By the way, the Crystal Ball is waiting for at least one ’08 candidate to pick a Vice President early, in order to run as a team. Ronald Reagan shocked the GOP National Convention in 1976 with precisely this gambit, choosing Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania and nearly grabbing the nomination from President Ford.)

Most of the rest of the 2008 Republican field appears to be competing for the third slot–the so-called “conservative berth” from which a potentially winning attack will be launched on the maverick McCain and the moderate-liberal Giuliani. The early leader of the “remainder pack” is Mitt Romney. His Mormonism and past Massachusetts record are troublesome, though, especially his transformation on the “hot-button” social issues since his 1994 challenge to Senator Ted Kennedy. Romney has unquestionably flip-flopped to the right on both abortion and gay rights, and he will have to answer the difficult question posed by skeptical reporters and party faithful: “What do I really believe?” His strong early fundraising gives him a real shot, though.

It’s far too early to claim that the McCain-Giuliani-Romney triad is the automatic capstone to the Republican race. The unsettled nature of the Bush Presidency and the flaws of all three leaders give some other conservative contenders upset potential, though one has to stretch the mind just now to see how it happens. For example, if he actually enters the contest and raises enough cash to compete, highly respected four-term former Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin could surprise. His executive profile and lack of any real connection to the Iraq debacle may hold appeal. Newt Gingrich is doing well in the polls, sometimes placing in the third position. It’s easy to see why. Gingrich is as creative as anybody in politics, and he’s been off the scene since 1998, for the most part. While most Republicans associate him with the halcyon days of a newly dominant Republican congressional majority, they have forgotten the messy three-marriage private life and the public goofs that lost them House seats in both 1996 and 1998.

Other longshots who still merit attention are Sam Brownback, a social conservative who surprised everyone with his opposition to the Iraq troop surgescalaugment (surge/escalation/augmentation–did we cover all the bases?); Mike Huckabee, who has a compelling personal story if not presidential stature (maybe it’s the weight loss); Chuck Hagel, whose fierce resistance to President Bush’s new Iraq decision could pay off if the GOP decides it has to abandon the current administration to have any chance of holding the White House; Jim Gilmore, whose controversial but unassailable anti-tax record in Virginia might have resonance for the supply-side wing of the party; and George Pataki, whose lack of charisma and liberal social record is balanced by a dozen years as a big-state chief executive and New York State’s 9/11 leader. You’re right, Crystal Ball devotee, we are reaching big-time on all five of these likely also-rans. But did we mention how early it is? We never bare our teeth until after we visit the dentist, to sharpen our incisors.

We don’t know about you, but we plan to have a ball at all the candidates’ expense. Join us as we follow the yellow-brick road–paved with big money gold–all the way to the election of our 44th President!