Friday, July 20, 2007

McCain Drops Severely; Edwards, Thompson Less

That 2008 stands to be a volatile year as presidential elections go already seems clear, and already there have been a few losers or almost-losers.

The clearest example is the disintegration of the once-promising campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). Despite the fact that he says, after his many funding and organizational reverses, that he will keep going is not very convincing. McCain is a stubborn and courageous man, but he probably will not persevere beyond the point that he begins to look ridiculous. That will not be beyond the Iowa and New Hampshire voting next January.

Also, less noticed, are the severe problems affecting the campaigns of former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards, and the nascent campaign of former Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson.

On the other hand, despite a New York Times poll this morning showing doubts about Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) among older and married women, and men tending against her, her well-managed campaign seems to be faring well, and the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has also been faring well, although Obama's chances to actually be elected, or even be the Democratic nominee, may not be all that bright in the end.

I think it is too early to tell all that much about prospects for the Republican campaigns of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. One or the other, however, will probably end up as the Republican nominee.

No one else at this point is really in the contest.

Why has McCain seemingly failed?

I think it dates back to the South Carolina primary of the year 2000, when George W. Bush turned back the McCain juggernaut that came out of McCain's decisive victory in the New Hampshire primary. During the South Carolina primary, the Bush campaign went after McCain on social issues dear to the evangelical Christians who are so potent in that state and within the Republican party as a whole, and McCain handled the assault badly, losing his temper and making very unkind remarks about the evangelicals.

From that time forth, it was clear that if he were ever to appeal to the Republican mainstream, as distinct from independent voters and moderate Republicans, he was going to have to soften his independence considerably. His attempt to do this, to make himself palatable to those who had rejected him in 2000, made him seem somewhat phony. He lost his cachet with the independents and moderates, but he really did not gain among the evangelicals. All of this became obvious not very far into the campaigning for 2008.

Put this together with the fact that McCain has aged considerably in the last eight years. He is now 70 and looks it. On the evening of the President's State of the Union address, he was caught dozing on live television. People do remember the fading of Ronald Reagan in his second term, a man also in his 70s.

With all these circumstances, it is not surprising that McCain's fund raising turned out to be disappointing. After all, most big donors to American politics give out of a perception they are gaining advantage for themselves, as has certainly been the case with donors to President Bush, and the perception that someone is not a likely winner can ruin fund raising prospects. McCain also overspent what he did have, initially going for a very broad based national campaign that cost him money. Now, he is down to almost nothing in campaign funds.

It should also be noted that McCain, more than any other candidate, is identified with the Iraq war, which it goes without saying is deeply unpopular, although it is uncertain how exactly we might get out of it. If there were a severe terrorist attack on the U.S., public opinion on the war and our whole Middle East involvement might change, but for the time being all Republicans and particularly McCain are at a major disadvantage on account of it.

Leaving McCain, let's go to Edwards. Not only has he been unable to come up in the polls, but he has tended to sag a bit because of the perception, now widespread, that he is something of a dilettante, a trial lawyer and perhaps not all that sincere a populist. The $400 haircuts he has been reported to have had have not helped him, to say the least, because they fortify that impression.

Edwards has put quite an effort into Iowa, the first caucuses, but I still don't think he will be able to do all that well nationally. At this moment, he has not developed into the challenge to Hillary Clinton that some had expected. He appears these days to be something of a "pretty boy," and he has grown testy in some interviews. His campaign is in trouble, and he knows it.

Similarly, he hasn't announced yet, but already Thompson is being sorely tested by reports that as a lobbyist, after leaving the Senate in 2003, he worked for pro-abortion interests. This could be a severe setback in any attempt by him to appeal to the evangelical Republicans who so disdain McCain.

Right now, Giuliani and Romney would appear to be the major Republican candidates, although both have had their troubles. Romney is often criticized for changing some of his positions, such as on abortion, and Giuliani has been subject to adverse press reports for his three marriages and certain problems that have cropped up stemming from 9-11, specifically allegations that New York City firemen were not as well prepared as they should have been for the terror attacks, and that a Giuliani aide, Bernard Kerik, was affiliated with the mob. Also, questions have been raised about whether Giuliani took sufficient steps to protect workers at the destroyed World Trade Center site from environmental contaminants.

Giuliani, however, still is remembered by many Americans for his calm and efficient demeanor the day of the traumatic attacks, and he remains on top of the Republican field in the polls. Name identification may carry Giuliani a long way.

If Giuliani is the Republican nominee and Clinton is the Democratic, he may be well positioned to take advantage of Clinton's problems, that she is a woman at a time of crisis, that she is identified with a former President who is not free of controversy, and that she is a fairly controversial personality herself.

Still, it could be that by next year, such a powerful Democratic tide might be running that no one can overcome it. If I were putting odds on the race at this moment, I'd say that Clinton stood a good chance of being elected President. She is very perseverent, she is an indefatigiable campaigner, she is doing well in fundraising and she has both a good staff and a great adviser in her husband.

That leaves Obama. I said above that his ultimate chances might not be all that good, because he is black, he bears an Arabic middle name (Hussein), and he is bound to lose the South in any election.

On the other hand, there is no question but that Obama is the most inspirational candidate in the race. He has raised more money that any candidate, much of it through small, personal donations, he is by far the best speaker, and the fact of his race can be turned into an advantage in liberal circles and there might be a lot of liberals next year. It is definitely too early to count him out, because he may get a break in the early primaries, and prove to be unstoppable, should Clinton falter.

Halfway through this long pre-election year, that's how I think the presidential campaign stands. One should note, however, that we are in the middle of two wars, that the rest of the Middle East is boiling, that a terror attack could conceivably occur within the U.S., and that events could at some point come to be in the saddle. Even considering the unpopularity of Mr. Bush and the war, that could still redound to Giuliani's ultimate advantage.

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