- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Only starry-eyed amateurs deign to handicap a presidential race three years out. Better to handicap the Kentucky Derby of 2009, and the three-year-old who wins that one hasn’t yet been foaled.

Henry Cabot Lodge came home from Saigon, where he was the ambassador to South Vietnam and a misbegotten war, early in 1964 to accept what he expected to be the Republican nomination for president by something close to acclamation. Six months later he was merely a footnote, trailing in delegates to an obscure U.S. senator from Hawaii named Hiram Fong. A lesson there.

But everybody who is paid to calibrate this stuff wants a scorecard, even if nobody knows the players who have talked their way on it yet. This is the beginning of the season of the Great Mentioner, as in, “Sen. Jubilation T. Cornpone has been mentioned as a presidential possibility.” Russell Baker, late of the New York Times, christened the shadowy figure who goes around “mentioning” probable (or even improbable) candidates as “the Great Mentioner.”

The Great Mentioner went to Memphis last week to inspect some of the men who will mention themselves if the Great Mentioner is otherwise engaged. Everybody who was anybody in Republican silks descended on the grand old Peabody Hotel, famous for its marching ducks, to take the measure of the possibles at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

In the inevitable straw poll, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate majority leader who nearly everyone else had forgotten was talking about running for president, won 526 votes — 39.6 percent of the delegates — to win the honor of hearing himself declared the Henry Cabot Lodge of ‘06.

Mitt Romney, the unlikely governor of Massachusetts, a conservative Republican and a Mormon to boot in the bluest of the blue states, ran far behind with 14.4 percent and Sen. George Allen of Virginia was tied for third with President Bush, who can’t run for re-election and probably wouldn’t if he could. Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas was the also-ran with three or four stray tenths of a percentage point.

Mr. Huckabee gave the rousingest speech of the occasion, bringing the delegates to their feet with preacherly evocations of Stonewall Jackson’s admonition to his troops to “never take counsel with your fears.” Cried the governor: “Knock off the hand-wringing and cut out the talk of the ultimate and imminent decline of the Grand Old Party. If we think we are in trouble, then we are in trouble.”

Mike Huckabee is the darkest of dark horses, but he, like Bill Clinton before him, can “still believe in a place called Hope,” because their remarkable hometown in Hempstead County clearly has something in the water to make a politician think he can become president even if he hails from what was once the most obscure of all the states of the South. Mr. Huckabee’s chief claim to fame is that he dropped 106 pounds on a diet prescribed for him by the state medical school, making him the only prospective candidate who can take being called “lightweight” as a compliment. But, as a Baptist pastor before he abandoned the ministry for politics, he can still preach.

As befit the gathering in Memphis, the likeliest candidate didn’t partake of the straw poll and the man who might make the strongest candidate (and maybe even the strongest president) didn’t show up.

Sen. John McCain, figuring that Bill Frist had all the home-field advantages, urged his friends to vote for President Bush as a show of fealty if not loyalty. Mr. McCain either didn’t have a lot of friends in Memphis or his friends didn’t pay him mind. Rudy Giuliani, who might be the most electable Republican and who is definitely the most un-nominatible, pleaded a prior business commitment, the rough equivalent of saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. But why take the night train to Memphis only to collect a negative? So Bill Frist becomes the front-runner. Henry Cabot Lodge might tell him not to give up a perfectly good day job.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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