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Measure for measure: Choosing a winner

John McCain has effectively exploited the leadership vacuum in the GOP field to become the national front-runner once again.
/ Source: National Journal

I have been waiting for an article to be published with the headline, "Political Predictions Prove Perilous, Prognosticators Perplexed."

While surprises and unexpected twists and turns are hardly unusual in this business, it's difficult to remember a period as unpredictable as this one. The best advice for all of us is to follow Alcoholics Anonymous' "one day at a time" philosophy.

At this stage, it's useful to come up with a framework for viewing each side's nomination fight, so we can better and more quickly understand things as they happen. More than a year ago, Republican pollster Bill McInturff began using a Chinese restaurant menu framework for looking at the GOP race.

The idea is that one candidate will emerge from Column A, which consists of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. , and another finalist will come from Column B, which includes the other major candidates: former Arkansas Gov. , former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

The Column A candidates project strength and machismo while either having moderate positions on social and cultural issues (Giuliani) or choosing to de-emphasize such issues (McCain). The Column B candidates either push social issues or have more conservative positions than Giuliani or McCain.

Huckabee's economic populism, however, does make him a different bird. Huckabee and Thompson both have strong appeal in the South.

Early on, the national polls pointed to Giuliani as the leader in Column A, while most political insiders thought McCain would dominate that category. Then McCain's campaign imploded this summer, and he was generally, and prematurely by yours truly, pronounced dead.

The smart money then moved to Giuliani, who for a time seemed to be disproving the idea that his liberal-to-moderate positions on cultural issues and his colorful personal life would prevent him from doing well. But Giuliani's problems are finally weighing on him, and McCain has come back by taking advantage of the gigantic vacuum that exists within the GOP presidential field.

In Column B, the perceived lead shifted from Romney to Thompson, then back to Romney, and now to Huckabee.

Maybe Romney can hang on in his native state of Michigan today, but McCain appears to have caught up with him. And Huckabee, who is not that far back, is moving as well.

Romney's shortcomings started becoming clear in the fall. I noted in an Oct. 20 National Journal piece that "it's former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose campaign seemed to have so much promise, who is most perplexing. That Republican core value of competence should have been Romney's strength. A world-class, proven manager with a keen, analytical mind who promised to make important decisions based on data and listening to the best possible advice, Romney should have been the candidate of competence.

"Instead, he has projected the image of an ideologue -- and a pandering one at that -- parroting the bottom-feeders in the primary field in a way that raises questions about his authenticity. Some observers question whether even he knows who he is anymore. Romney's lurch to the right by saying things he would never have said three or four years ago, juxtaposed with Giuliani's insistence on pretty much sticking to his guns, even on some positions unpopular with many in the party, makes Rudy look like the leader and Mitt the pandering pol."

Since that time, Giuliani's positions, as well as his strategy of skipping early contests, has caught up with him.

Furthermore, Huckabee's brand of economic populism is pretty new in the GOP and might peel some votes out of the Democratic column in a general election. But exit polls indicate Huckabee has yet to expand his appeal in primaries and caucuses beyond evangelical voters. While that is a large group within the GOP, evangelicals alone aren't enough to carry a candidate across the finish line.

Thus an opening has reappeared for McCain, and he is very effectively exploiting it; he may well become the front-runner once again.

On the Democratic side, the contest appears to be between those favoring fundamentals versus those hungry for transformational politics.

The "fundamentals" camp argues for New York Sen. , citing the appeal of her message to downscale and older Democrats, which they say should prevail over Illinois Sen. 's more upscale message.

The pattern has been for the candidate with the Wal-Mart appeal to triumph over the one from Starbucks, or as my National Journal colleague Ronald Brownstein puts it, the "beer track" usually beats the "wine track" in Democratic primaries. To wit, former Vice Presidents Walter Mondale and Al Gore prevailed over former Sens. Gary Hart and Bill Bradley in 1984 and 2000, respectively.

But such patterns can be cast aside in a transformational election. If Democrats are in a mood to break the mold and nominate someone from outside the box, then the fundamentals will be brushed aside.

That's the question that has to be answered, but we won't know for several weeks. So, no predictions here; just sit back and enjoy the ride.