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.
The rise and gaffe of John Edwards.
It’s no surprise that Obama has remained in close competition with Clinton. But for a while, it looked as though the Democratic contest might turn into a three-person race. The Edwards family’s gracious response to Elizabeth’s recurrence of cancer impressed the country so much that it became one of the few campaign stories to transcend the political pages up to this point.
Unfortunately for Edwards, reports of his $400 haircut also surpassed the confines of political coverage — becoming continuing fodder for late-night comics and GOP candidates alike. It may be unfair, but a $400 haircut — especially for a populist candidate — is an easy thing to understand and a hard thing to explain away. It doesn’t only make Edwards look foolish (who would pay $400 for a haircut?) but foppish.
Edwards may well recover from this gaffe; his lead in Iowa seems to be holding for now. But the incident checked his momentum and is the main reason why Bill Richardson has now begun to move in the polls. Sometimes small incidents have large ramifications
Waiting for Fred and Newt.
As far as many conservative Republicans are concerned, until Fred Thompson and New Gingrich declare their candidacies, the GOP field will remain incomplete. And the anticipation has already taken its toll on the campaign: so far, the GOP debates have been far less important than the Democratic ones, since many believe the current candidates are only “auditioning” until some of the main acts arrive. This diminishes the current field (especially McCain, who needs to find his second wind) and makes it impossible for any of the candidates in the back of the pack to make a move.
Take the early polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. While the Democratic campaign has retained its shape, Republican voters appear to be all over the lot, understandably confused about their choices. The longer Thompson and Gingrich wait, the worse the current Republican candidates look. Which could very well be their intention.
RUDY GIULIANI Odds: even
JOHN MCCAIN Odds: 5-2
MITT ROMNEY Odds: 4-1
MIKE HUCKABEE Odds: 100-1
SAM BROWNBACK Odds: 500-1
TOMMY THOMPSON Odds: 5000-1
DUNCAN HUNTER Odds: 20,000-1
JAMES GILMORE Odds: 20,000-1
TOM TANCREDO Odds: 50,000-1
RON PAUL Odds: 500,000-1
BARACK OBAMA Odds: 5-4
HILLARY CLINTON Odds: 3-2
JOHN EDWARDS Odds: 7-1
BILL RICHARDSON Odds: 25-1
JOE BIDEN Odds: 75-1
CHRIS DODD Odds: 85-1
DENNIS KUCINICH Odds: 25,000-1
MIKE GRAVEL Odds: one million to 1
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