Polman: Republican presidential race is no clearer after New Hampshire
Remember the scene in "Godfather II," when various warring factions engaged in a gun battle on a New York City street corner, firing in all directions, and it was impossible to keep track of who was shooting at whom?
The race for the Republican presidential nomination is starting to look like that.
We now have three different winners in three different states - John McCain in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, Mitt Romney in Wyoming over the weekend, and Mike Huckabee in Iowa last Thursday - and the plot hasn't even begun to thicken.
Up next is a showdown between McCain and Romney in Michigan next Tuesday, followed by a showdown between Huckabee and Fred Thompson in South Carolina a week from Saturday (perhaps along with the Michigan winner), followed by a showdown in Florida one week after that between Rudy Giuliani and whoever else might still be standing.
This is not the way Republicans traditionally conduct their business. Normally they coalesce around either a senior figure who has earned his turn (say, Bob Dole in 1996), or the person the party establishment designates a front-runner (say, George W. Bush in 2000) and gives him so much money that a lot of would-be rivals are scared away long before the voting begins.
Not so this time.
President Bush, given his broad unpopularity, was in no position to anoint a successor. And some top-tier Republicans (say, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) took a pass, figuring that 2008 would be a rough Republican year.
Hence the current absence of clarity, and the alarms that are ringing within the GOP establishment. Romney is arguably the closest thing to a mainstream conservative candidate - well-heeled, business-friendly, willing to bend rightward on the litmus-test issues. But Romney spent about 200 days visiting New Hampshire, and he just got waxed by McCain, whose contrarian instincts have long been anathema to the party establishment. In Iowa, Romney got waxed by Huckabee, an up-by-the-bootstraps Baptist preacher who rails against big business and Wall Street. (Memo to Romney: You'll always have Wyoming.)
Romney also employed a traditional Republican practice that really backfired in New Hampshire: He led the league in negative TV ads. In exit polls, Republican primary voters cited Romney as the architect of the most "unfair" campaign. Romney misread the mood of the electorate. Republican voters are fed up with business as usual (which is why they have chosen Huckabee and McCain) and want more civil campaign conduct.
It's hard to figure how this race will sort itself out. Romney was born in Michigan, and his dad was a popular three-term governor there - but McCain won that state's primary when he first ran in 2000, largely because registered independents are allowed to participate. McCain remains strong among independents (who were permitted to vote in New Hampshire), but, lest we overlook this important finding, he also defeated Romney Tuesday night among registered Republicans. According to the exit polls, they saw McCain as most qualified to be commander in chief in the war on terror.
But wait ... isn't that supposed to be Rudy Giuliani's political raison d'etre? This is another complication of the race. Giuliani finished way down in the pack, somewhere in Ron Paul territory, supposedly because he had decided to skip New Hampshire and wait for the pack to find him in Florida. It turns out, however, that Giuliani spent 126 days in New Hampshire, surpassing McCain and Huckabee, so apparently his alleged 9/11 luster didn't mean squat.
So perhaps Giuliani will battle it out with McCain three weeks hence for the right to be perceived as the toughest antiterror leader - assuming that Giuliani's Florida numbers don't go south, simply because he's off the radar screen for so long; and assuming that McCain survives Michigan and South Carolina, the latter of which is heavily populated by religious conservatives who might give Huckabee enough bounce to stay in the fray. All of which assumes that Romney won't simply write himself a check - he's personally worth about $200 million - to keep himself alive, and that Fred Thompson, marketed last summer as the party's savior, somehow gets a pulse.
This race will go on for a good while. As I well recall, "Godfather II" clocked in at three hours and 20 minutes.
DICK POLMAN is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org