Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

September 2007

 

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Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.

 

 

 

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2008: Searching for "Not Rudy"

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it.

- P. J. O'Rourke

Last month we handicapped the Democratic race for president. This month, as Fred Thompson officially joins the race, we look at the Republicans.

The GOP sprint to the nomination is changing almost daily yet staying almost the same: The Republican right is looking for someone who can beat Rudy Giuliani for the nomination and then win the November election. They cannot find that person.

Mitt Romney keeps insisting that he is the one. Six months ago, Romney wanted to differentiate himself from John McCain as both attempted to claim the conservative wing of the Republican Party while Rudy Giuliani held the left. When McCain imploded, Romney made a strategic decision. With McCain down, if not completely out, Romney decided to campaign as if he were the clear frontrunner on the right. Attacking Giuliani, Romney ignored the other candidates and possible candidates. Within the past few weeks, Romney has stepped up his increasingly direct attacks on Giuliani. This strategy has been tried many times before over the past 100 years or so, usually without success. The candidate doing the attacking is most often passed over for another candidate with cleaner hands.

Which candidate has clean hands? That question needs to be expanded: Which candidate (1) has clean hands, (2) does not have a messy personal life, (3) can assemble a capable campaign and fundraising staff and (4) can win in November? Answer: Nobody. The GOP right is still looking for the Great Right Hope, as consultant and commentator Dick Morris points out. What if the right decides that the November election cannot be won? Too many voters are looking for change. So many others are tired of Iraq. The economy is troubled. Perhaps the Republican nomination is a prize not worth having. Will the right sit it out?

Lightening can strike so people want the Republican nomination. But are any of the GOP hopefuls likely to put up a good fight in November? Does anyone, announced or thinking about it, seem to have a shot in November? Yes, but the GOP right is not yet ready for Rudy.

Obviously, Giuliani has flaws as a candidate. The GOP has no ideal candidate. McCain is trying to recover from a political near-death experience. He was done in by his outspokenness on the immigration bill that the GOP right killed. His fundraising dried up. Romney is following an old political rule that says that when your opponent is self-destructing, leave him alone. That meant Romney could avoid attacking other candidates, focus on driving marginal GOP candidates and possible candidates out of the race or attack Giuliani.

Romney has decided not to pick off the weaker GOP challengers. He is after Giuliani. This means that as he concentrates on Giuliani, other Republicans continue campaigning. Lightening may strike one of them because Romney is ignoring another old political rule: Clear out the weaker candidates when you have a chance.

Romney is ignoring the rule even though he does not seem to be gathering momentum in attracting new support, suggesting that Romney may be just a placeholder for conservatives till that mythical real conservative arrives. Is that Thompson? We will soon know whether Thompson can spurt past Romney, although Thompson recently has been trending ever-so-slowly downward.

A weird process

This is all part of the weird process that leads to the Republican nomination and the way that process is covered by the media.

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When the race was defined as Giuliani-on-the-left and McCain-on-the-right, Romney had a clear mission: Replace McCain as the choice of the GOP right. Then, the race would be between Romney-on-the-right and Giuliani-on-the-left. Review Romney?s statements earlier in the year. They show that he was remaking and emphasizing his own conservative credentials. Basically what has he accomplished? He has muddled his stance on abortion, reinforcing his image as a flip-flopper.

Another old political rule says that if you want to criticize an opponent, it is better to criticize that opponent as part of a larger group. Thus, Romney?s folks went around reminding people that Romney ? the Mormon ? was happily married to his first and only wife while other leading candidates were on their second or perhaps third marriages.

?Isn?t it strange that the Mormon is the one with a conventional marriage?? cooed not one but several people as they introduced Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire. Great minds think alike but these great minds were most probably in Romney headquarters. They were guiding the local folks in the battleground states.

Candidates and multiple marriages

Rumors went out about the McCain marriages and Giuliani?s difficult family stresses and strains. Newt Gingrich took note. He knew his weaknesses. He prepared to enter the race by confessing to adultery to try to get his messy marital record off the table. Fred Thompson?s campaign took note and realized that Thompson?s new wife would be targeted by the Romney rumor-spreaders. Is part of Thompson?s delay in officially entering the race an attempt to buy time to figure out how to deal with the trophy-wife issue?

All of Romney's money and strategy have not led to a break-through because Republican voters are unlikely to want just one conservative in the race at this point. Who will they elevate from the second tier? Because Thompson and Gingrich were not officially in the race, they were always mentioned as possible break-through candidates. Unannounced candidates are usually taken more seriously than their underlying support merits. But both Thompson and Gingrich have tested the voters' patience. They are tactical candidates at best. Their hope has been to enter the race at the right time so they can get nominated. They implicitly admit by using that tactic that they are unlikely to win with a more conventional approach.

Who else is there? Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee says he is an obvious choice because he placed second to Romney in the Iowa straw poll in August. A former preacher, he does well in retail-style campaigning. That makes him popular in Iowa and New Hampshire, where face-to-face politicking is successful. But he has not been able to move up dramatically in the polls. He seems to be stuck as first among also-rans. Thompson's entry cannot help Huckabee.

Interestingly, McCain is being repositioned by Romney?s attacks on Giuliani. By the time 2008 gets here, McCain may be seen as the centrist Republican who can win in November. The good news for Romney was winning the Iowa straw poll. The bad news was that by winning the straw poll with a few more than 4,500 votes, Romney has put himself squarely in the middle of a target that will attract many thousands of journalists and commentators. Now the scrutiny that he has tried to have focused on McCain and Giuliani will focus more on him.

Not such a big bounce

Despite a year's work and the bounce from the Iowa straw poll, Romney cannot seem to catch Giuliani in national polls. His sole claim to fame is that his money has brought him a lead in Iowa and his geographic proximity has given him one in New Hampshire. The question is whether he can hold those leads once other candidates start running ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. In past similar situations, the lead has disappeared once other candidates go on the air.

Meanwhile, Giuliani is positioning himself as conservative on everything but social issues, which he is trying to position as ?individual decisions of the heart.? His people are taking an unusual message to leaders of the Republican right: If all the prospective candidates are flawed, why not go with the one with the best chance to win? Radnor research backs up the idea that the public is aware of Giuliani's messy past and, so far, seems to discount it.


Not much change in the polls?

Here are links to a compilation of polls collected by a popular website. The lines going across the page for the Democratic candidates look somewhat like stripes of a flag, waving but not changing position. We talked about the Democratic candidates last month,

The Republican lines are more confused.

Democratic poll numbers

Republican poll numbers


Who is the last hope of the right?

Could a ?true? conservative still win? We will soon know a lot more about Thompson's likely fate. McCain's fall and Romney's stall seemed to pave the way for Thompson but he has not been making organizational progress. His July 31 filing showed a surprisingly low $3.4 million raised with $2.8 million on hand. Half the total came from Thompson?s native Tennessee. He has not shown the ability to raise money and create a national base for a campaign.

Thompson's problems go beyond fundraising. He has gone through two campaign managers even before becoming an official candidate. His wife, who fancies herself a political mastermind, maneuvered to get rid of the first choice. The second choice was run off by right-wing bloggers over immigration.

The ineptness combines with the impression of indecision about running and then merges with the feeling that Thompson does not want to work hard enough to make it. A few weeks ago he was tied with Giuliani in some daily tracking polls. Now he keeps falling further behind.

What about Newt? All along, he has said that his game plan is to wait until fall. As counter-intuitive as that strategy has seemed, Gingrich may have been correct all along.

Gingrich knew how much political and personal baggage he would carry into the race. He has avoided media attention and attacks from other candidates. Most of all, he was right when he calculated that no other candidate would be able to sew up the nomination from the right.

Gingrich has watched other conservatives rush in and stall. A few have fallen out of the race. More are hanging on but have little hope. Most are dying slowly. Gingrich expects Thompson to enter and begin to die slowly. Gingrich believes that he has little to fear from his right flank if he gets into the race.

Does this mean that the stars are lining up for Gingrich to become the latest and possibly last conservative hope? Could Gingrich make the GOP right dislike Giuliani more for his liberal social views than they like Giuliani for his homeland security credentials? Will the Republican right have to look within the ranks for a sacrificial lamb - or put winning ahead of political orthodoxy?

Maybe, just maybe, the GOP base is going to have to get used to Giuliani at the top of the ticket.

 


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