Imagine, if you will, that the three front-runners for the Democratic nomination were: 1) Joe Lieberman; 2) a fundamentalist Christian governor of Utah, and; 3) an anti-choice former mayor of Colorado Springs who isn't just against gay marriage, but who actively and publicly dislikes gay people.
Ouch. That wouldn't be much fun. In fact, it might well sour the Dem base on the entire primary process. Fortunately, we have a much less offensive candidate pool. But Republicans looking at their real field of candidates must feel much the same as we would in the nightmare scenario above. Because each one of the top three candidates in the inaugural 2008 GOP Cattle Call has at least one trait that makes them anathema to large swaths of the Republican base.
1) John McCain has gone a long way toward kissing up to both the Bush Administration and the base, but he's still got many, many miles to go to convince the hard right that he's one of them. Now you and I recognize that McCain’s "maverick" image is just that – an image based on smoke and mirrors – but he’s perceived by many on the right as something other than a true believer. He is, in a sense, the Republican Lieberman, in that he is loathed by much of his party’s base. But he’s the front runner, to be sure. He leads in most polls, he’s got a tidy sum stashed away already, and he’s done a good job of consolidating support and pledges from GOP bosses across the country. Even if the base hasn’t bought his backpedaling to the right, many of their leaders have – or at least have reconciled themselves to the fact that he’s top dog at the moment. And moderate Republicans historically have liked the guy, though Rudy may cut into that already small pool of votes. There’s plenty of ways that McCain could implode, and I’d bet he will, but the Rules of the Cattle Call are that we evaluate the candidates based on How They Would Do If The Primaries Started Today. And if they started today, McCain would be in front by a bunch.
2) Mitt Romney is the governor of much-loathed Massachusetts, and he's a Mormon. Now, some say that Romney's Mormonism won't hurt him, as Dobson and Falwell have given him their imprimatur despite his heresy. But when over 50% of evangelicals flatly tell a pollster that they won't vote for a Mormon, I'm afraid that the Romney ship is in trouble. After all, a good number of folks will lie about prejudice and bigotry to pollsters – that’s the "Wilder Effect." So I’m guessing that it’s probably more like 60% of evangelicals, and a non-trivial percentage of non-evangelical Republicans, who won’t vote for Romney solely because of his religion. Add to that the fact that he’s likely to get Massachusetts-baited , and he’s got disturbing problems with serious conservatives – the group that’s supposed to be his base. On the other hand, he should have no problem raising money, he enjoys the illusion of competence, he’s by all accounts charming and charismatic, and – most importantly – he’s currently the anti-McCain. But that’s a slippery crown to retain, as it’s predicated primarily on the perception that he’s the strongest conservative in the race. Should Huckabee or Newt catch fire, I’m guessing Romney is in trouble. But for now, he’s number two.
3) Rudy Giuliani has a lot going for him. He’s America’s mayor, beloved by independents, capable of raising millions in a single evening . . . unfortunately, Rudy can fail. And he probably will, because Rudy is a pro-choice Italian Catholic mayor of Enyce who, after being tossed out of Gracie Mansion by his wife due to his very public affair, moved in with a fabulous gay couple. And he wants the Republican Party to nominate him. I can’t even begin to imagine an analogue on our side of the aisle. It’s as if Zell Miller decided to run for the Democratic nomination. He just can’t win. But Rudy’s high in the polls right now, and given the weakness of the field, he fits into the Second Tier and third place. For now.
4) Newt Gingrich is flying under the radar of a lot of folks, but he’s got a great deal more support built in than you might think. He’s still generally perceived as the great visionary of the Right, and he’s shaping up to be the non-Romney (that is to say, non-Mormon, non-Massachusetts) conservative alternative to McCain. If nothing else, he should be able to get his hands on enough money to make a serious go of it. His negatives are wide-known and legendary, and they’ll hurt him – but then again, they’re well enough known that most Republican probably came to terms with them long ago. One to watch.
5) Mike Huckabee, unlike Rudy and Newt, is definitely running. And he’s a serious candidate in many ways, as he’s a Southern governor with a good evangelical pedigree who doesn’t appear to be completely out of the American mainstream. But Romney has – at least temporarily – stolen some of Huckabee’s governor thunder. He's generally unknown outside of Arkansas. And there are questions about whether he’ll be able to compete in the money primary. Still, on paper, he’s what a Republican nominee is expected to look like. (And between you and me, I think he'll be the nominee. But per cattle call rules, he's third tier for now.)
Hagel and Brownback both have outside chances, but both are on the fringes of their party.
Hunter doesn’t warrant more than seven words.