Politics is all about timing. A few months ago it was who looked to be in the right place at the right time. But it's become apparent that the concept of Thompson was much more appealing than the actual candidate.
was the perfect candidate in 2005 and 2006. A 25-year fixture in Washington, he was nonetheless positioned as an outsider who could appeal to an increasingly disconnected and disillusioned independent vote. But the more viable has looked in national polling, the harder it becomes for McCain to break through. The best way for the Arizona senator to appease social conservatives upset with his views on everything from immigration to campaign finance reform is to convince them that he is the only candidate who can beat Clinton.
But a recent had McCain losing a hypothetical general election matchup with the former first lady, 43 percent to 47 percent. In April 2006, he was beating her in a hypothetical matchup by 9 points (46 percent to 37 percent).
McCain is certainly still alive in New Hampshire. And while he has been gaining in some national polls, it's important not to misinterpret his improved showing. McCain's gotten there thanks to Thompson's drop, not his own gain.
Thompson would have been a better candidate in 2000 as the outsider who begrudgingly decided to run to help save a country heading off on the wrong track. But with a war raging and major economic issues to tackle, he seems totally out of place. Voters don't want someone who'll simply be a steady hand at the wheel. They want someone who they feel confident can take the country in a new direction.
To his credit, Thompson has been trying to tackle issues that aren't politically sexy, like Social Security. But until he can convince voters of his message (which he has yet to articulate), he's not going to get any traction. And despite talk of a Southern strategy that allows him to lose Iowa and New Hampshire and still have a shot at the nomination, Thompson has been dragging in recent polls in both Florida and South Carolina. He's not even the Southern candidate anymore. That distinction looks to be currently split between Northeasterners and .
That leaves Giuliani -- the candidate who would most likely have never gotten out of the blocks in a different year -- with a strong chance of winning the nomination. Is it because he's the right candidate at the right time (i.e., terrorism trumps social issues), or has his candidacy actually reshaped GOP priorities?
Giuliani has come on the scene during a historic ebb in Republican self-esteem. October polling from Pew Research Center showed that just 36 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said that the GOP does an excellent or good job of standing for "traditional [GOP] positions on such things as reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and promoting conservative social values." This is the lowest rating Republican respondents have given their party since Pew started asking the question in 2000. It gives a nontraditional candidate like Giuliani the kind of opening he needs.
And while Thompson and Romney seem to be lecturing Republicans about how they've lost their way, Giuliani is not. Instead, the former New York City mayor's allowing them to get back to issues they are comfortable with, like terrorism and security. They can worry about the repercussions of having a socially moderate candidate as their nominee later. Does a party that is beating itself up want the quick fix, or does it want lengthy self-reflection?
The Pew poll also showed that Republican voters are putting less of a priority on issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. At this point three years ago, 52 percent of Republicans ranked abortion as a very important issue -- today it's at 42 percent. Gay marriage went from being an important issue for 39 percent of respondents to 27 percent. And stem cell research went from 34 percent to 25 percent.
Is this because, as Pat Robertson and Focus on Family's James Dobson have argued, "Islamofascism" is the more important concern for evangelical voters? Or is it a sign of complacency borne by eight years of White House control? The same thing happened to Democrats post-Clinton. Without an obvious threat to rally the troops, issues like abortion (which had been an '80s staple) have fallen in importance for GOP voters. Ballot initiatives this year featured economic concerns, but gay marriage was nowhere to be found. This may or may not indicate its role in '08, but the rhetoric seems to have cooled.
Can Giuliani claim to have gotten the party beyond these issues? The fact that he's been slipping in early states like New Hampshire and Nevada, while Romney has been gaining, suggests that he has not. Robertson may be a smart endorsement in the primary, but could he be a big liability in blue states where Giuliani claims to have the advantage over his GOP rivals? Meanwhile, Giuliani's opponents argue, his social moderation hurts him in red states. By trying to thread the needle, Giuliani only helps reinforce the concept that the GOP is a party without a direction. And the fact that his core message is "I can beat Hillary" suggests he's less interested in transforming the party and more interested in just winning.