WASHINGTON - It seems almost blasphemous to start handicapping the races for the 2008 presidential nominations before the last recounts are complete from the 2006 elections, but since the campaign has essentially already begun, maybe it isn't too soon. After all, we've already had one would-be contender -- former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) -- drop out, while several others seem virtually certain to run.
On the Republican side, the biggest question is whether former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani runs.
In a Nov. 9-12 Cook Political Report/RT Strategies nationwide survey of 626 Republican voters and independents who lean toward the GOP, Giuliani had a statistically insignificant two-point lead over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 27 percent to 25 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was in third place with 10 percent and outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) was in fourth, with 9 percent. Rounding out the field, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) had 4 percent; GOP governors George Pataki and Mike Huckabee of New York and Arkansas, respectively, each had 2 percent; Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., both had 1 percent; and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., each garnered less than 1 percent. Nineteen percent were undecided.
Giuliani's support has ranged between 24 and 32 percent in previous Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polls. McCain has fluctuated between 20 and 29 percent and Gingrich has polled between 6 and 12 percent. Romney started off around 3 percent and has ranged from 5 to 9 percent in more recent polling.
Giuliani's registration of two political committees for the purposes of testing the presidential waters -- one with the Federal Election Commission and another state-regulated -- and his aggressive schedule of appearances on behalf of GOP candidates around the country suggest that he is very serious, though I still have real doubts about whether he actually enters and remains in the race.
Can a candidate with Giuliani's positions on social and cultural issues -- pro-choice, supportive of gay rights and gun-control measures -- win the Republican nomination? While it is true that social and cultural conservatives do not have enough influence to dictate who will get the GOP nod, can they veto someone who is anathema to them on their three most critical litmus test issues?
In February and again in August, the Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll tested that proposition, asking Republicans and GOP-leaning independents the following:
"Thinking about Rudy Giuliani, some people say he really cleaned up New York City as mayor and made it a safer place, and then he showed real courage as a leader after the attack on the World Trade Center. Other people say that his views on some issues -- because he is pro-choice on abortion, and supports gun control and gay rights -- makes it hard for them to support him for president. Having heard that, which of the following two statements comes closer to your opinion: the Republicans should nominate Giuliani for president, or the Republicans should not nominate Giuliani for president?"
The pro-Giuliani share was 50 percent in February and 56 percent in August; the anti-Giuliani share was 43 percent in February and 38 percent in August.
If these numbers were to hold up in an actual fight for the nomination, Giuliani could win the nod, though it would likely be exceedingly bloody and divisive. The problem, of course, is that a hypothetical poll question long before the campaign actually starts is a pure surrogate for a real campaign and the impact of 30-second advertisements. And it doesn't take much imagination to envision what some anti-Giuliani TV and radio ads or mailers to conservative primary voters might say, particularly from Swift Boat-style independent committees who lack what little accountability candidates might have. It wouldn't be a bad guess that footage of Giuliani's several marches in New York's Gay Pride parades is already in the hands of his critics, and while that might not hurt him badly among swing voters in a general election, among the hard-core primary voters and caucus attendees, particularly in the South and small-town and rural America, this would be a real problem.
My hunch is that in a real fight for the GOP nomination, Giuliani would be absolutely gutted, in the same way that a conservative Democrat would be in running for the Democratic presidential nomination. If Giuliani wants to be president, he should run as an independent, skipping the nomination process altogether. He is one of the few presidential contenders who could raise sufficient funds and get on the ballot in all 50 states, positioning himself as the candidate running between the 30-yard lines, where most general election voters reside.
In the new survey, by asking voters who their second choices would be, respondents can be reallocated to see how the race might shape up in the absence of that candidate. With Giuliani out of the picture, McCain jumps up 9 points, from 25 percent to 34 percent. Gingrich goes up 6 points, from 10 to 16 percent, but Romney only picks up a point, from 9 to 10 percent. It could be that given Romney's lack of national name recognition at this early stage, his immediate ability to capitalize on Giuliani's departure is limited -- though it could also mean that Giuliani and Romney are pulling from very different and pretty much non-overlapping pools of voters. Even with Giuliani out, none of the others exceed 5 percent of the vote.
While one always must keep McCain's age and past health concerns in mind -- he will turn 72 on Aug. 28, 2008, older than Ronald Reagan was when he was elected president, and he has had three bouts with skin cancer -- there are no signs that he is doing anything but preparing for a run, and these considerations certainly don't appear to have slowed his pace in the past year, either on Capitol Hill or campaigning for GOP candidates from coast to coast.
While many conservatives have had real concerns about how committed McCain is to their principles, President Bush's low job approval ratings and an all-consuming desire to hold onto the presidency have made partisans extremely conscious of the electability factor. Ironically, if Giuliani runs, it would likely give hard-core conservatives a glimpse of what a genuine liberal Republican looks like, burnishing McCain's conservative credentials. Ultimately, the biggest test for McCain might be the Iraq war. By the time 2008 rolls around, will the Iraq war be a problem, even within the GOP, for a candidate who has been as gung-ho for the war as McCain?
Gingrich has indicated his intention to make a go-or-no-go decision in September. He is one of the few presidential contenders who goes into the process with the name recognition, network of potential supporters and database of donors that gives him the luxury of actually doing that. Between now and then, he looks intent on building up a national movement, and if it hits critical mass in nine months, he probably runs, and if it doesn't, he won't, though he'll still have an option on 2012.
In terms of intelligence, vision and eloquence, Gingrich has few peers on the current American political scene. The question is whether he can offset the caricature, the cartoon-figure image among independents, Democrats and even some Republicans that was drawn back in the mid-1990s. In many ways, it's the same problem that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) has among independents, Republicans and even some Democrats. While Gingrich will certainly never be popular among Democrats and Clinton certainly won't be loved or even liked by most Republicans, each must reduce their radioactivity if they are to be truly viable general election candidates, or for that matter, convince their own parties that they are electable in November 2008. To watch or talk with either in recent years is to see two politicians who have grown, matured and improved enormously over the last dozen years, but the question is whether it will take.
The Republican who has helped himself enormously over the last year has been Romney, who matches Gingrich in intelligence and is certainly an accomplished speaker, but has not yet laid out a vision of where he would take the party if nominated or the country if elected. Unquestionably, Romney has an enormous amount of talent, and a Republican able to win in Massachusetts is certainly a player who has demonstrated an ability to win on the road.
The question facing Romney's candidacy is whether his Mormon faith is a problem in securing the GOP nomination, or for that matter, winning a general election. As a Catholic, Sen. John Kennedy certainly faced and beat that challenge in his 1960 presidential campaign, and Sen. Joe Lieberman did as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, on a ticket that won the national popular vote and came within 500 votes in Florida of winning the Electoral College. Some argue that Romney can succeed as well, while others point out that he has many fewer co-religionists than did Kennedy or Lieberman, and overcoming that challenge will be more difficult.
While there is certainly no way to reliably test the impact Romney's faith would have on his candidacy -- after all, few voters will concede that they will not vote for a candidate based on race, gender or religion -- one way of getting an approximate measurement is to ask people how their friends, neighbors and relatives would respond to such a question. In this most recent Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll, all 1,735 registered voters were asked the following question:
"As you may know, Mitt Romney is a Mormon who is currently governor of Massachusetts. If the Republican Party nominated Mitt Romney for president, regardless of how you personally might vote, how likely is it that among your friends, neighbors or relatives there might be some people who choose not to vote for Romney because he is Mormon?"
Forty-three percent chose the option of "not likely at all," while another 24 percent picked "only somewhat likely," for a total of 67 percent. Thirteen percent said "very likely" and another eight percent chose "fairly likely," for a total of 21 percent.
Interestingly, the one in five who seemed to think that Romney's faith was a deal-breaker and the two-thirds who said it wouldn't be didn't vary as much by party as one might think. Among both Republicans and independents, 19 percent in each case picked either the "very likely" or "fairly likely" options and 23 percent of Democrats chose that course. Among Republicans, 71 percent picked either only "somewhat" or "not likely," while 70 percent of independents and 64 percent of Democrats chose one of those.
Indeed there was surprisingly little variation between the 40 subgroups tested, and the only ones that varied on the combined "very likely/fairly likely" group more than five points one way or the other were blacks (38 percent) and likely Democratic primary voters (26 percent).
With this poll showing that, among registered Republicans and Republican presidential primary voters as well as independents and swing voters, the very likely/fairly likely number is under 20 percent, and the only groups that jumped high were those highly unlikely to vote for any Republican, it's possible that Romney's challenge may be lesser than some have warned. As the campaign becomes more engaged, it will become more apparent whether these numbers hold up.
My own guess is that Giuliani will ultimately not seek the GOP nomination, and if he does, he will have a very, very hard time securing the nomination. Indeed, I would be shocked if he won it. If I had to put percentages on the Republican nomination, I would give McCain a 60-percent chance of winning, Romney 20 percent and Gingrich 5 percent. That leaves a 15-percent chance that the nomination goes to others, including Giuliani, one of the six candidates registering under 5 percent in the latest poll or someone else who has not yet emerged as a potential candidate.
The fascinating aspect of all of this is that there is not a conventional, old-fashioned conservative in the top tier of candidates (that is, those with more than 5 percent of the vote). Giuliani is certainly no conservative. McCain and Romney are their own interesting hybrids of conservatism, as is Gingrich, who is always thinking outside the box and isn't an old-fashioned anything.
If the Republican Party were a genealogical tree, the branch that goes from former President Reagan to President George W. Bush had looked likely to lead to Sen. George Allen, but that's very unlikely now, and there isn't an obvious heir to that traditional conservative lineage. There may end up being one, but as of now, that slot is open.
Next Week: The Democratic Nomination.