GOP Presidential Race Looks Unpredictably Unpredictable in ’08

by Stuart Rothenberg March 15, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Each presidential election cycle is unique, but you can count on certain developments every time. There are candidate boomlets, questions about the frontrunners, talk of deadlocked conventions and multiple scenarios of various credibility. Scenarios are a lot like opinions or blogs — pretty much everybody has one.

But at least I’m usually reasonably comfortable with one scenario that I can ride either all of the way to the conventions or until it becomes clear that I need to modify or even alter my assumptions. Until now, that is.

The Republican race has me totally flummoxed.

Arizona Sen. John McCain should be the favorite and the frontrunner in the race for his party’s nomination. I certainly thought he was, but I’m not sure right now.

McCain earned the right to be regarded as the next Republican hopeful in line for his party’s nomination, and in the past 50 years or so that’s been a very good predictor of the nomination.

He ran well in the 2000 GOP battle, and since then he has been supportive of the man who beat him, George W. Bush. A number of important Bush political operatives and fundraisers have signed on with McCain, and the Senator has the experience, stature, demonstrated fundraising ability and personal story to be the clear leader for his party’s nomination.

Moreover, McCain worked hard for Republican candidates in the past few elections, including those in places where Bush would not have been welcomed. And while the Arizona Republican may not be everyone’s definition of a loyal soldier in the partisan wars, he certainly should have earned at least the grudging respect of party activists for his efforts on behalf of the president and the GOP.

Instead, McCain is having trouble being accepted by conservatives, who see him as neither entirely dependable nor entirely conservative. Even though he is a nationally known political figure who has run for president, McCain trails a liberal former New York City mayor for the GOP nomination in national polls. And he trails him consistently. The margin isn’t all that close in recent surveys.

We are still many months before the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire really get down to the task of picking presidential nominees, and McCain has not begun his 2008 campaign in earnest. Given that, these early polls are hardly predictive. Still, McCain’s standing has to give his supporters pause, and I’m suddenly unsure if he is indeed the frontrunner in the Republican race, as I once thought.

Then there is Rudy Giuliani, the man who leads in all Republican polls. Unless all of the political analysis about the Republican Party over the past 20 years has been wrong, Giuliani shouldn’t be able to win the GOP nomination. I understand the argument that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything, but even that argument undermines the conventional wisdom about the political parties, the role of social conservatives (and evangelicals) in the GOP and the nature of the party.

Most reporters and analysts have agreed on the power of conservatives within the Republican Party and on the importance of a social issues litmus test for nominees. Even if past GOP nominees haven’t made abortion their No. 1 issue, they have parroted the conservative line. A Giuliani nomination would undermine all of those news stories that have portrayed the GOP as an intolerant party that is prisoner to its most conservative and most religious elements.

How intolerant can the GOP be if it nominates a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control thrice-married New Yorker for the presidency?

But while Giuliani’s numbers are high now, will they remain that way when he comes under detailed scrutiny by the media and by caucus attendees and primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina? (Giuliani is better positioned for New Hampshire, since independents can vote in the state’s primaries and religious issues have less importance there.)

I’m far from sure.

Then there is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He is smart, articulate, telegenic and oozes leadership. But he’s changed his stands on hot-button issues over the years, and his Mormon religion will be a problem among some key Republican constituencies. Plus, his foreign policy and national security credentials are thin, at best.

In other words, he has his own problems in trying to appeal to GOP primary voters and caucus attendees.

Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.)? Each is not without appeal, but both have critics and so far no way to raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to make a real race. Anti-tax activists in the Republican Party are equally anti-Huckabee, and the former governor of Arkansas told me months ago that he agrees with Bush’s position on immigration.

Interestingly, I’ve asked a number of thoughtful political consultants, from both parties, who they think is most likely to be the GOP nominee and who is the least likely. So far, Giuliani is seen as the most likely and McCain as the least. That’s not a scientific sample or a reliable poll. But that kind of anecdotal evidence has me more confused than ever.

Of course, none of this includes Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), an anti-Iraq War Republican who is conservative on issues but has the outsider/reformer image that John McCain once had but is now losing.

If you aren’t confused yet, you aren’t paying attention. This is a race that is not merely up for grabs. It’s unusually unpredictable. The only thing I’m sure of right now is that the Republicans will have a nominee at some point next year.