The long-winded, winding road

The journey to the White House is paved with potholes
By STEVEN STARK  |  May 25, 2007

FOLLOW THE LEADER: It may take a while, but one of these jokers will eventually make it to the White House.

Politicians have always been prone to clichés and adages. Remember President Bush’s inspirational gem: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again”? Well, “Tote Board” has one of its own: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Sure, it’s stale. But it’s also a surprisingly apt description of the current campaign. After all, the past few months have seen a number of squabbles, scandals, and gossip items. Yet Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani remain front-runners, by nearly the same margins that they had months ago.

The campaign is far from over, though. In fact, it has already produced a number of unexpected — and not so unexpected — developments that have the potential to change the contours of the race. So it’s worth examining how far the candidates have already traveled, and what they’re likely to encounter on the rest of the long and winding pre-primary road. Here’s a rundown of issues that could alter the status quo.

The continuing unpopularity of George W. Bush and the Iraq War.
Having entered the 2008 election under the leadership of a discredited president who’s still leading an utterly discredited war, it seems unlikely the majority of the country will support a Republican candidate — unless he has few ties to the current tenants of the White House. Fittingly then, outsider candidates Giuliani and Mitt Romney have received a boost of late, while John McCain, who is still supporting the war in Congress, has fallen by the wayside. In the GOP debates, Ronald Reagan’s name is invoked every other minute; President Bush is rarely mentioned.

Stopping the war has also become the major focus of the Democratic race. This plays to one of Clinton’s weaknesses, since she has been less out front about ending the war than her two main opponents, Barack Obama and John Edwards. The war is a hard issue to finesse — even for Clinton, who likes to finesse everything.

Finally, if the present situation continues, Republicans are going to have a terribly difficult time electing their nominee, no matter whom they pick. In similar situations, in which lame-duck presidents were in the process of waging unpopular wars — the elections of 1952 and 1968, for instance — the opposing party’s candidate won the election, with the incumbent party failing to break 45 percent.

At the beginning of the year, the GOP front-runners had leads in the polls over any contender in the Democratic field. Today, that lead has disappeared. Whether Bush is one of the worst presidents in history is a matter of debate. But he is, unquestionably, one of the least popular at this point in his tenure.

The rise of Mitt Romney.
As hard as it may be to believe it in New England, Romney is one of the early stories of the campaign. He has out-fundraised everyone on the GOP side and has spent his money wisely. Plus, as McCain has lost steam, Romney has reaped the benefits. So far, he hasn’t moved much in the national polls, but he has made significant inroads in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two early states in which he has to do well. If current trends hold — a huge “if” — Romney could be the co-front-runner the night of the New Hampshire primary. The question about Romney, of course, is whether he has second and third acts.

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