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Todd: GOP searches for their inner Dean

There's an odd sense of déjà vu about the 2008 Republican presidential primary campaign. For a while, I couldn't place where I'd seen something like this before, but then, thanks to Jim Gilmore (R), it hit me.
Howard Dean
Do the Republicans need a Howard Dean-like figure in the 2008 race for the White House?Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP file
/ Source: National Journal

There's an odd sense of déjà vu about the 2008 Republican presidential primary campaign.

For a while, I couldn't place where I'd seen something like this before, but then, thanks to Jim Gilmore (R), it hit me.

In an attempt to jump-start his fledgling (and that's being generous) bid, the former Virginia governor unveiled a web video to CPAC attendees declaring himself to be the true conservative in the race. In the video, Gilmore questions the conservative credentials of the GOP's three front-runners (John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney) with the predictable gripes. In closing, Gilmore proclaims that he wants to be the candidate that represents the "Republican wing of the Republican Party."

For those who don't remember, one of Howard Dean's early applause lines during the last presidential campaign was his parroting of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) by claiming he was from the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." At the time, it was Dean's not-so-subtle shot at the then-better known and better organized front-runners, none of whom were attuned to the Democratic base, particularly about the war in Iraq.

Fast-forward four years and it's striking how many of the same things that dogged the Democratic presidential field in 2004 are dogging the current Republican field.


No consensus front-runner:
At the same point in 2003, the Democrats' organizational leader appeared to be Sen. John Kerry, the money leader was Sen. John Edwards and the poll leader was Sen. Joe Lieberman. Howard Dean was only starting to gain traction. In the current Republican field, the organizational front-runner appears to be McCain, the financial front-runner is Mitt Romney and the one topping the polls is Giuliani.

If Dean was just being identified as a potential dark-horse, top-tier candidate at this point last cycle, then his equivalent is not Gilmore, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich seems to be the one most likely to have a Dean-like moment in the campaign, assuming he runs. Like Dean, he's got a combustible personality that can be compelling at times and a turn-off at others. During the last presidential primary season, Dean was interesting to Democrats in small doses; the more exposure he received, the higher his negative ratings rose. It's not hard to imagine Gingrich experiencing a similar fate -- and one he'll have to figure out how to deal with should he get in.

Best candidate on the sidelines:
In 2004, the two leading Democrats in early polling decided not to run. They were former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Given the performance of the candidates that year, either Gore or Clinton probably would have forced Bush into a tougher race than Kerry did -- or at least given Democrats something more to get excited about. This cycle, the GOP's two most compelling potential candidates are arguably Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

For different reasons, neither seems interested in running. The former Florida governor likely harbors presidential ambitions, but his last name is kryptonite for 2008 -- even among Republicans. Rice probably just doesn't have those ambitions. It's hard to see how any direct member of the Bush administration could gain traction this cycle. Still, the visible frustration among the conservative elite has us wondering if a "draft Jeb" or draft-somebody movement gets real consideration at some point this year.

Ideological divide:
In the '04 campaign, there was a clear ideological divide between Dean and everyone else in the field. The other mainstream Democrats were trying to prove their center-left bona fides while Dean alone occupied the mainstream liberal space. Currently, Republican hopefuls are trying to woo conservatives; there's no one attempting to buck them completely. Yet an ideological divide exists due to the questionable conservative credentials of the three front-runners. For what other reason would Gilmore use the phrase "Republican wing of the Republican party"? Plenty of conservatives aren't excited about the top three and seem to be intent on holding their noses and talking themselves into one of the top three for now. The problem that presents for conservatives, however, is that it will split their base three ways and render it less relevant, because core conservatives aren't flocking en masse to one candidate. That's how labor and other liberal interest groups made themselves irrelevant in the '04 Democratic primary. They divided their support three or four ways.

Ultimately, the '04 Democratic primary boiled down to a contest over who could win the general election. And while it can be argued in retrospect that Kerry might not have been the most electable nominee, he certainly seemed more electable when the Iowa caucuses rolled around. This cycle, Republican activists seem more intent on compromising their conservative ideals in favor of choosing an electable candidate. But there's a split over just who that is. Five months ago, McCain seemed to be that guy. Now, polls indicate that it's Giuliani. But survey a pool of Democratic strategists, and they'd probably suggest Romney will be the toughest to beat.

When faced with what is probably going to be a tough landscape going into 2008, the Republican electorate in the early primary states are going to be swayed by electability as much as any other factor. I'd venture to guess that the most important poll numbers the Sunday before the Iowa caucuses will be the general election matchups between the Republicans contenders and the leading Democrat at the time. The candidate deemed to have the best chance of surviving against the eventual Democratic nominee will probably have an advantage among Iowans.

We all know how the '04 Democratic primary turned out. After flirting with their passions, Democrats checked their anger at the door and picked a candidate they figured would be a better match against Bush. As Republicans flirt more and more with Giuliani, a look at Romney (playing the newbie as Edwards did in '04) and McCain (can someone say John Kerry?) might suggest that the Republicans are going to go through the same fits and starts that Democrats did during the last cycle. They'll flirt with Giuliani or even Gingrich, kick Romney's tires and then end up compromising with a comfortably known guy like McCain. That's how Kerry clinched the nomination in 2004. The ultimate result is not one McCain wants to repeat, of course, but the primary result probably looks good considering the tougher-than-expected challenge Giuliani and Romney pose to him.

Farewell Note
As many readers know, this will be the last column I pen for Starting next week, I'll be moving my byline to NBC News and This July will mark 10 years since I started writing a weekly column. My first was for National Journal's very first Web venture, There are a number of people I would love to thank individually in this space (Doug, Bob, Troy, Jason and Craig, to name a few), but perhaps the most important folks I should be thanking are my readers. You've put up with the good and the bad, the typos, the evolving writing style and the incessant sports metaphors. I hope you'll come over and keep reading, but know that I won't be going far. NBC and National Journal will be doing a lot of things together over the next few months, including continued collaboration with the Hotline on our various ratings projects. So while I am bidding farewell to a company that gave me more opportunities than any one individual could hope for, I am not saying goodbye to readers -- just changing addresses.