The 2008 presidential election is a wide-open contest, and Democrats, as we saw here last week, have responded with a broad field. What could have been an early consensus in favor of Hillary Rodham Clinton is so far anything but, as Democrats fight over how they want to position themselves. The Republican field, by contrast, seems surprisingly underpopulated, again given the givens.
Notwithstanding a recent Gallup Poll that gave former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani an edge among Republicans, Sen. John McCain is the Republican front-runner. In the first place, that’s because he clearly wants the job and is working to lock up key endorsements, political operations and funding. Mr. Giuliani, meanwhile, has yet to give a clear signal that he is really running.
In the second place, a Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll conducted at the same time as the Gallup survey had the same 29-24 split, but with Mr. McCain ahead. Interestingly, the poll also recalibrated results based on the second choices of those picking Mr. Giuliani, in the event he decides not to jump in. That produced a substantial boost for Mr. McCain, to 37 percent, an increase in the “undecided” tally from 15 percent to 21 percent, and modest one- or two-point gains for the rest of the field.
Now, you could observe that a number of Republicans for whom conservative ideological commitment counts most are uncomfortable or worse with Mr. McCain. But this disposition is longstanding, and the sentiment hasn’t caught on among Republicans more broadly, as we can see. Mr. Giuliani, meanwhile, is anything but a conservative ideologue; he’s pro-choice, to pick the most obvious example, whereas Mr. McCain is pro-life. If Mr. McCain is unorthodox, Mr. Giuliani is unorthodox squared. Yet they are currently the dominant figures of the campaign. And also balancing the conservative ideological opposition to Mr. McCain is the non-ideological conservative tendency within the party to nominate the person whose turn it is: Ronald Reagan not in 1976 but in 1980, George H.W. Bush and not Bob Dole in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996. George W. Bush is an outlier, but the fact that Mr. McCain got close to the nomination in 2000 suggests the senator is highly eligible for the next opening.
What about those now in single digits? Mitt Romney is an attractive and popular conservative governor from a distinctly liberal state; the question on everyone’s mind is his Mormon faith. Is this a problem with voters or, more likely in my view, is this something voters worry that others will think is a problem? Or is it, in the end, not an issue, but something that needs to be worked through, like the idea of a Catholic president? Former House Speaker and perennial ideas man Newt Gingrich bids to make the ultimate political comeback. Bill Frist has the resume but seems not to have translated his four years as Senate majority leader into much in the way of popular support. Sen. George Allen of Virginia is the conservative’s conservative, down to the cowboy boots, but if that’s going to be the party’s top priority, it has yet to emerge as such. I don’t really see much enthusiasm for New York Gov. George Pataki, and Tom Tancredo seems mainly to be seeking to raise the profile of his position on immigration.
But is that all there is? Shouldn’t there be more heavy-hitters? Why this seeming lack of GOP starters, let alone bench? Well, as it happens, there should be more heavy hitters, three in particular, and in each case a distinct anomaly keeps them out.
No. 1, the vice president. Apparently, Dick Cheney meant it when he said he had no aspiration for the top job. In consequence of this decision, he is likely going to be the most-studied vice president in history among those who did not go on to the Oval Office. And no, it’s not a health problem. If he’d been working the past six years to prepare the way for his own accession, especially if that’s what Mr. Bush had in mind also, then Mr. Cheney would be the front-runner (and as buff as the current occupant).
No. 2, the world-famous governor of the most populous state. Arnold Schwarzenegger has had his ups and downs in California, but were it not for his Austrian birth, and thus his constitutional ineligibility for the presidency, he would undoubtedly be a major contender. He dazzles crowds like the Hollywood superstar he is, and he has proved wrong all the caricatures questioning his substance.
No. 3, the very popular and successful governor of a big swing state. Jeb Bush may get to run for president one day, but not as his brother’s immediate successor. Were it otherwise, party bigwigs and money would be flocking to Florida in a way reminiscent of the 1999 procession to Texas.
So there you have it: The Republican contest is short two major governors and a sitting vice president. It’s the strangest alignment of the stars since Mario Cuomo and Dick Gephardt bailed out in 1991, leaving the field to the “seven dwarfs.” Mr. McCain, however, is no dwarf.