[Uh oh. One hour before the caucus I completely forgot I had this post to finish. In Shanghai watching the election returns at the moment, but thought I'd try to complete a post mostly written a month ago. I think it still mostly holds up.]
We're headed to uncharted waters. One month before the first primaries open, the Republican presidential race is wide open. Any one of four candidates can still get the nod. Though it's terribly difficult to imagine of any of these guys doing so.
How did we get here? Think of who's missing. It's easy to imagine someone who'd kick ass in an open GOP primary. Start with a big white head. Add dark brown hair, navy blue suit and red tie. Affix the "Gov." honorific to a strong Anglo name. Plant a pretty-in-an-unthreatening-Doris-Day-kind-of-way wife. Two blonde kids, preferably girls, in their teens. Southern drawl. Baptist. Multi-millionaire.
Once you've created the avatar, you just need to add a few substantive touches. Make sure he gives full-throated support to tried-and-true conservative positions -- cut taxes, kill people, cut taxes, deport people, save fetuses, guns, cut taxes, deregulate, help defense contractors, cut taxes. As well, make sure he gives props to the right people, which, include, in no particular order, God, Reagan, Jesus, Saint Ronnie, "strict constructivist" judges, the troops, the 40th and greatest president evah. Most importantly, make sure he's liked by the folks that matter: (in no particular order) the GOP party financiers, the leaders of the religious right, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and defense contractors. And don't forget: your dream candidate must appeal to a vital but underpublicized wing of the GOP: the haters.
Looking at this profile, one name comes to mind. But the name, alas, is the problem. You can't be named Bush and expect to wiggle out of the 80 pound anchor marked "GWB legacy" chained to your ankle. So the ambitions of Jeb Bush, the ideal GOP candidate (socially conservative, liked by GOP money men, big state governor, charismatic, competent), has been yet another casualty of the current president's reckless regime.
So we're left with John McCain and a bunch of clowns. Whoever wins the nod will likely lead a splintered, deflated party on the verge of a realignment. The Republicans of 2008 are the Democrats of 1968: it's a governing party comprised of ideologically distinct, often conflicting groups banded together for common cause against "liberals". It's a confederation that is now about to come apart at the seams. The choice of the GOP nominee will provide the clearest indication of where the GOP is eventually headed once it reconstitutes itself. That makes this race doubly interesting.
Anyway, the following is my assessment of where the race stands today (November 10), along with my personal evaluation of the candidate, listed in descending order according to their odds of winning.
Mitt Romney (chance of winning at 33%)
Path to nomination: The most plausible scenarios still find Slick Mitt standing at the end. Romney's best bet is too outlast surging Mike Huckabee (with his stronger organization and perhaps some last minute smears) in Iowa. His "comeback" will give him momentum to handily take New Hampshire, where he's leading. With Grandpa Fred taking just enough of the Evangelical vote from a hobbling Huckabee, Romney clinches in South Carolina. The other path going nuclear on Huckabee in South Carolina after the two split Iowa and NH, with Huckabee lacking the resources to make his last stand. McCain is done after losing NH, and Giuliani is toast after not finishing higher than fourth in any of the early states.
Electability: (2 out of 10.) The Mittster is the weakest of the GOP candidates in a general election. First, he's Mormon, which will hurt him with a non-trivial segment of the GOP base. Second, the man is a transparent panderer, which hurts in a climate where authenticity is prized. Third, he's basically a generic Mr. Republican from casting call in an election where the GOP candidate has to transcend his tarnished party label. In a more favorable climate for the GOP, Romney might be the most electable of the bunch. He's the least offensive and the most superficially appealing candidate out there. In an election where the Republican nominee has to do more, Mitt's likely a goner.
Easiest Democratic Opponent to Defeat: Hillary Clinton. This election -- the most likely election match-up still -- would be a battle of inauthentic technocrats moving hard towards the "middle." Romney's personal liabilities would be minimized against Hillary, and swing voters might be attracted to his Ultra-competent White Boss mien -- perhaps enough for him to keep it close.
Hardest Democratic Opponent to Defeat: Barack Obama. The press, who hates Romney and worships Obama's authenticity and bipartisanship rhetoric, would be Obama's second battalion. It'd be a rout.
My personal view: Romney will say or do anything to be president. But jury's out on whether that's a good or bad trait. On the one hand, by catering to the Haters, the former governor is clearly a contemptible, smarmy ass with no spine or backbone, running the most cynical campaign I've ever had a chance to live through. On the other hand, his flexibility gives hope that the man would govern more in line with his moderate Rockefeller Republican record rather than his wingnutty rhetoric. Can't stand the guy, but he might be tolerable. Romney's the former CEO of Bain & Company -- he can't possibly believe the lunatic stuff he's been saying, can he?
Mike Huckabee (18%)
Path to Nomination: This guy needs to start running really hot. If Huckabee can withstand the increased press scrutiny and the Grover Norquist-wing's expected attacks, he looks to prevail in Iowa. With that win, money starts to pour into the shoe-string campaign. Riding the Iowa momentum, Huckabee finishes in the top 4 in NH, with Romney a weak winner. The story from New Hampshire is Ron Paul's shockingly strong second, which also knocks out McCain and Giuliani, who finishes an embarrassing fifth. Huckabee puts all of his marbles in South Carolina. A blow out win in the Palmetto State cripples Romney, and with his competitors fallen by the wayside, Huckabee marches to victory.
Electability: (4). An affable campaigner with a folksy charm, Huckabee's a dangerous foe mainly because he's a true "compassionate conservative." Spouting feel-good populist bromides, Huckabee has a chance to win over that wide swath of America that is economically populist and socially conservative. Is he the Democrats' biggest nightmare? Huckabee's recent performance in the spotlight (not having heard about the NIE, for example) doesn't bode well, but I've got to believe he's potentially the most electable Republican after McCain, unless, of course, he's destroyed by his inner-yahoo. Huckabee's media savvy will reduce to the media's institutional contempt for socially conservative populists, and residual Republican loyalty will prevent the Norquist-wing from abandoning him, especially if Huckabee makes some kind of anti-tax-raising pledge.
Best matchup: John Edwards. Populists duke it out, but Huck's religious right credentials and Edwards' problems with projecting authenticity may make him competitive. An Edwards-Huckabee matchup would surely beckon Bloomberg into the race as the candidate of the elites, allowing Huckabee to win with ~40%.
Worst matchup: Obama. 45 state landslide.
My personal take: What's surprising isn't Huckabee's recent surge but that he's been stuck in the second-tier for so long. (I bought Huckabee futures contracts in February.) The Arkansan's formidable political skills have been talked about for a long time, and for awhile, he was a favorite of the liberal blogosphere, largely because he didn't appear certifiable. Sure, Huck believes the Earth is created in 7 days and all that, but on policy matters, he seemed pragmatic enough, at least until recently, when it's clear he doesn't really give a hoot about policy details (Huck's m.o. is making a show of how his heart is in the right place.) But the former preacher needs the Hater vote now, so I can't imagine him being the liberals' favorite GOP candidate (non-Ron Paul division) for much longer.
John McCain (15% ed. note now 25%)
Path to the nomination: Win New Hampshire big after Romney skids in Iowa. Count on his operation in South Carolina, where the party's establishment is largely behind him, to push him past Huckabee. Peel off Rudy supporters and make it into a two way race with either Huck or Romney, and hope that general election polls (which invariably show McCain doing best against the Democratic candidate) and the McCain fan club (aka The Media) work their magic[Not as improbable as previously imagined]. Of course, he still needs to find a way to appease a base hostile to his MSM-beloved maverick persona.
Electability: McCain's the only GOP candidate who has a better than 40% chance of winning in the general election. The media infatuation with him is real, and it'll only grow if he triumphs over Romney and Giuliani, two figures absolutely loathed by the media.
Best Matchup: Obama. If a crisis event breaks during the election season, voters would likely gravitate towards the ancient vet from the hotshot rookie. Also McCain's the only guy in the GOP field who can neutralize Obama's two big advantages: appeal to independents and positive media coverage.
Worst Matchup: Obama. If no crisis event breaks, then the youth and vigor vs. old craggy dude contrast might be too much for even McCain to overcome.
My take: still the only tolerable Republican in the race. Early summer when my pal Brent and I gamed the GOP race, McCain seemed like the only plausible nominee, even understanding the rage the base feels for Saint John's apostasy. And now if McCain wins the GOP nod without pandering to the hate groups (and with Iraq "improving"), he would be a formidable candidate. I'm confident he'll make the best president of this lot, but the Arizonan's probable strength in the general forces me to root against him.
Rudy Giuliani (10%)
Path to the nomination: Rudy's the front-runner in name only, as he's drawing to an inside straight at this point. Rudy's really banking that his celebrity and money will allow him to outlast the other candidates to Super Tuesday, where he hopes to crush his opponents with large media buys and the "America's Mayor" mystique. This strategy works best if no favorite emerges from the early rounds. So Huckabee has to destroy Romney in Iowa, weakening the latter's hold in NH. Rudy finishes third in NH while Romney and McCain destroy each other, and hold on while Romney finally is toast after South Carolina. Then, in a three way match-up with Huckabee and McCain, Rudy consolidates GOP establishment support and wins in Florida, which springs him into the lead in the Super Tuesday states. He wins all the big Super Tuesday states and becomes the presumptive nominee. (Note: bet the farm against Rudy. I did, and I can't imagine a better bet at the moment.)
Electability: This guy will get eaten for lunch. Nobody can overcome that many skeletons.
Best matchup: Obama. Rudy is the mostly likely guy to run on a fear and smear, Islamophobe/racist strategy against Obama. If Obama wins the Democratic nomination on a Mr. Nice Guy platform, he might be handcuffed by that persona and unable to retaliate in kind.
Worst matchup: Hillary. She would have no reservations going ballistic against him. And Rudy is pretty much unelectable if everything is aired.
My personal take: An authoritarian and a demagogue who counts among his advisors a who's-who of neocon chickenhawks, this guy is Bush on steroids. His presidency would be an unalloyed disaster. It's possible that Rudy's lunatic act may be just that...an act, the 9/11 Man has shown himself to be enough of an egocentric maniac that he -- much moreso than Romney -- might actually buy into his own bullshit as some kind heroic Islamo-fascist warrior. Rudy's campaign is despicable, built entirely on lies, exaggerations, demagoguery, and hate. Every single major candidate from both parties is preferable to this whackjob. A part of me hopes he gets the nomination and is utterly destroyed and humiliated.
Ron Paul (1%)
has some neat things to say and is supported by interesting people. But he's not really a Republican.
Fred Thompson (1%)
is a joke.