When the Republican presidential candidates gather for their first debate at the Reagan Library in California on Thursday, May 3, they may not say it openly but it will be on their minds: the party they seek to represent is in turmoil. Not only will one of the contenders inherit a GOP now discredited by the incumbent, but many voters who are dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates are hoping Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich will enter the race.
As a result, the Republican contest so far has been rather dispirited. Five questions, to be answered on Thursday, are the key to analyzing the GOP debate. They are:
1) Does John McCain have a second act?
So far the story of the Republican race has been the failure of McCain, the former front-runner, to gain traction. Thursday night may not be make-or-break for him, but it’s close: he needs to put in a good enough performance to remind people why they once supported him, and perhaps even dissuade his old colleague, Fred Thompson, from announcing his candidacy in a few weeks.
This will be much easier said than done, since McCain not only seems shopworn, but has seemingly tied his campaign to the defense of Bush-administration policies in Iraq. That might win him some points for courage, especially among those Republicans who still support the war (and there are more than one might think), but it won’t do anything to reinvent his image as a maverick with broad appeal. This is a problem, since McCain has never been very popular with Republicans; it’s independents that gave him his base of support in 2000. Unfortunately, McCain is discovering that he can’t appeal to one group without alienating the other. On Thursday, he’ll either begin creating a coalition or his campaign will fall further apart.
2) Can a second-tier candidate do well enough to energize the Christian right and keep Fred Thompson out of the race?
If the debate isn’t quite make-or-break for McCain, it is exactly that for Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson, Mike Huckabee, and all the candidates who rank below them in the polls. Each has the same dilemma: if he can’t somehow persuade conservative voters that he is the real thing — and let’s face it, in a debate of about ten people, that’s next to impossible — Fred Thompson will enter the race and effectively end his candidacy and that of every other also-ran.
All of these candidates are virtually unknown to the public (and to much of the press), so exceeding expectations shouldn’t be too difficult. But that won’t be enough. Take a good look at all the second- and third-tier candidates Thursday night, because chances are the next time the GOP field gathers, some of them will no longer be in the race.
3) How do the candidates handle Iraq?
When Jimmy Carter, my old boss, was running for president, he would tell his staff: “I don’t want to take any position in the primaries that will hurt me in the general election and as president.” In other words, he wasn’t going to say something for short-term gain that would cause long-term pain.