There’s Still Plenty of Uncertainty After McCain’s Shake-up

by Stuart Rothenberg July 16, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

First there were four, and now there are three — three top-tier GOP presidential candidates, at least if you count a guy who still isn’t officially a candidate. Sen. John McCain now has the second tier all to himself.

The shake-up at the McCain presidential campaign isn’t as much an answer to the Arizona Senator’s problems as a reflection of the campaign’s multiple difficulties. Let’s be clear: The McCain campaign’s burn rate on funds was too high, but that’s not why the Arizona Republican’s prospects have slipped.

Given McCain’s cash, his poll numbers and the state of his campaign, he has few options, according to one veteran political strategist with whom I talked, except to “park himself in New Hampshire, shut down his operations elsewhere and try to make a comeback in a state that he won eight years ago.”

Regardless of whether you agree with that assessment, it’s quite clear that McCain doesn’t have any appealing options to choose from now. Still, if you are the Arizonan, making your second bid for the GOP nomination and beginning this race as the early favorite, why not hope that Republican voters — much as Democratic voters did in 2004 — reassess the candidates early next year and give the initial frontrunner a second shot?

McCain’s problems should benefit former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who becomes the sole top-tier moderate in the race. McCain, of course, never called himself a moderate or campaigned as one, but he has been viewed that way by many conservative Republicans, primarily because of his work with Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.) on high-profile issues.

“Moderates constitute no more than a third of the party, and I’m being generous, but now you have two conservatives [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson] fighting over two-thirds of the party, and Giuliani all alone with moderates,” one neutral GOP insider told me recently.

Thompson, of course, is not yet officially in the race, and nobody is quite sure what he’s waiting for. He’s raising millions of dollars, and allies of the former Tennessee Senator are reaching out to prospective hires for the campaign.

Yet while other candidates are filing Federal Election Commission reports and responding to media questions, Thompson’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, refuses to discuss the shadow candidate’s fundraising except to say that the campaign’s goal, if Thompson runs, “is to raise enough money to win.”

Well that really clarifies things. At least we can now rule out that Thompson is trying to raise enough money to lose.

Thompson doesn’t have to get in now, but his delay does make one wonder whether he is trying to avoid something. Given the recent criticism of his lobbying efforts on abortion, it isn’t as if he’s avoiding scrutiny by not having announced his candidacy.

Thompson isn’t forced to compete in the Ames, Iowa, straw vote if he doesn’t want to. He could have announced weeks ago that he was entering the race too late to put together the organizational effort needed for a strong showing in the Aug. 11 event. Maybe he’s delaying to see whether a last-minute effort at Ames might vault him to second place in Iowa even though he has little or no organization on the ground.

Anyway, it’s hard not to conclude that Thompson is trying to run out the clock — even before he has suited up and entered the game — so that he doesn’t even have to campaign.

Clearly, Thompson starts off as a major player in the GOP contest. A number of Republican insiders told me they believe he will vault to the front of national GOP polling when he enters the race, and the real question is how quickly and how far his numbers slide after they spike on his entry.

“People don’t know anything about Fred Thompson,” acknowledged one Republican strategist who is at least sympathetic to the Tennessean, adding, “Conservatives are seeing in him what they want to see in him. They are projecting their views onto him.”

“Can he hold the strength that he now has? It’s a close call,” noted the thoughtful observer, adding that “while he’s obviously a skilled performer, outside of a formal setting, like when he is made up for ‘Meet the Press,’ he doesn’t look that good, and he isn’t that sharp on policy.”

Thompson could either turn out to be just what conservative Republicans are looking for, in which case he could well end up being the GOP nominee, or an absolute dud who disappoints grass-roots Republicans looking to him to save the party.

The McCain fall from the top tier creates an interesting calendar dynamic, since after Romney, McCain had invested most heavily in the Iowa caucuses. With Giuliani not doing much in Iowa — rival campaigns go so far as to say that he apparently is conceding the state — and Thompson still not in the race or organized in the Hawkeye State, the burden is on Romney to blow away the field in state contests, both in Ames and in January.

If McCain downsizes in Iowa, will the Giuliani campaign seek to upgrade its effort in the state, hoping to take advantage of a crowd of conservative candidates who fracture the right-of-center electorate?

If Romney is able to win the caucuses decisively, he would have a chance at a one-two punch with a win in New Hampshire, a quirky open primary where Romney’s Mormonism isn’t regarded as nearly as big a problem as in the South and rural Midwest.

And will Giuliani really be able to wait until Florida, in late January, to compete full throttle in a GOP contest, as some think he hopes to do?

McCain’s slide answers some questions but raises others. Meanwhile, many GOPers are waiting for Fred … which, increasingly, seems a bit like waiting for Godot.