The shape of things to come

The defining issues of each party’s campaign are being decided now
By STEVEN STARK  |  May 9, 2007

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It’s still early in the campaign — eight months to the Iowa caucuses and 17 months until the final November election — but the Democratic front-runners and the Republican establishment will be making critical decisions in the coming weeks that will shape, if not determine, the course of the race.

As The Hill’s political commentator Dick Morris recently noted, the Democratic candidates will be tested on how well they handle the issue of the Iraq War and the president’s veto of a war-funding bill that contained a provision for phased withdrawal. John Edwards has demanded that Congress refuse to compromise, saying it should keep sending the same bill back to the president. But that won’t happen.

Consequently, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s response to the compromise legislation that will emerge from Congress will affect their campaigns profoundly. If both support any kind of compromise, Edwards will secure the activist, anti-war wing of the party for himself, which will significantly embolden his campaign. If, on the other hand, Clinton, Obama, or both take the same stand as Edwards, his efforts to outflank them on this key issue will fail.

Already, Hillary has tried to split the difference, knowing how unpopular the war has become. Last week, she co-sponsored a bill that would end the congressional authorization of the war, requiring the president to seek a new one. But since President Bush would veto this bill as well, it’s unlikely her attempts to compromise will get her off the hook. Either she supports the Edwards proposal or, coupled with her refusal to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the war, she becomes further “Humphreyized.” (In 1968, Hubert Humphrey waited too long to break with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and lost the election as a result.)

Obama faces the same stark choice. Either he votes to continue to fund the war — and, in the process, loses the potential support of a key wing of his party and an important element that distinguishes him from Hillary — or he breaks with the president entirely.

Meanwhile, the Republican establishment is faced with a critical decision: will it flock to a candidate who has the best chance of getting elected, or will it back a candidate who is ideologically pure but virtually unelectable?

According to a recent Diageo/Hotline poll, when voters are asked whether they would prefer to see a Republican or a Democrat win in 2008, the public overwhelmingly said they would prefer a Democrat. Yet when asked about this election’s specific candidates, Rudy Giuliani and, to a lesser extent, John McCain rank with any candidate in the Democratic field.

Given this, one would think the GOP would be ecstatic to have found two candidates who have wide-range appeal, especially since both the incumbent and the party are so unpopular right now. But, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, “noooooooooooooo.” All one hears from many GOP opinionmakers, pundits, and even voters these days is how inadequate the Republican candidates are, and why it’s crucial that Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich enter the race.

There’s only one problem: it’s unlikely that either Thompson or Gingrich would run nearly as well in the fall of ’08 as either Giuliani or McCain. The Republicans have acquired the same disease the Democrats had for so long: they would rather their nominee be pure than be president.

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