Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Field Is Narrowing--Thank Goodness

Okay, I don't want to be a spoilsport and pooh-pooh those Presidential hopefuls who threw their hats gleefully in the ring over the past year or so in both parties. But let's be honest, did many of them even bother to gauge their support or chances beforehand? I mean, at least Ross Perot had some support to show for his effort, and stayed with it till the end. But why did Tancredo or Duncan Hunter even bother? And why did Fred Thompson let himself be pulled into it if he didn't want it any more than he apparently did not, if his lackluster campaigning was any indication?

To me, it meant the early debates had to give time to candidates who really had little to distinguish themselves from the leaders. Ron Paul is at least a refreshing and consistent point of view, as his internet fundraising appeal demonstrates to everyone else's consternation. He hasn't a snowball's chance in you-know-where of being his party's nominee, but the others have had to allow and accomodate his debate time. Some, like Governor Bill Richardson, had impressive experience and skills to offer, but couldn't inspire the mainstream to get behind them with the votes or the funds to go very far into the primaries.

Today Duncan Hunter and Fred Thompson have thrown in their respective towels after poor showings in the early state primaries. But the race, as Mike Huckabee said in conceding the South Carolina victory to John McCain, is far, far from over. Who will be the ultimate nominee in either major party isn't clear yet, but the time draws near. Florida's ego-driven, ill-advised early primary that got their delegates barred from their conventions as of this writing backfired bigtime, with major candidates refusing to campaign in the state by a like advance date, and then we have Super Tuesday coming, when we'll probably get some sense of who's going to get the prize.

But I wouldn't be surprised if Guiliani, who has pinned all his hopes on a huge Florida victory, comes in second at best or even third or fourth behind McCain, Huckabee, and Romney, simply because they've kept themselves in the public eye and made the headlines and Rudy hasn't. Why he passed on every primary to date is mind-boggling to me, and that strategy alone, the poor decisionmaking, takes the lustre off his once-leading candidacy for me. If I am like most voters I want to hear what the leading candidates have to say about the issues, whether they're in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, or anywhere else. I don't want to have to wait till they build a base on some state down the road somewhere and not learn their views about the regional issues of earlier contests. Rudy seems to think all those ex-New Yorkers down here in Florida will vote for him. I think they may have if he had shown some spunk earlier. All he's shown me is he won't fight. He wants a sure thing. I want a fighter.

What may happen, if Rudy comes in less than a close second, which I think is likely, is he'll pout and drop out like no-show Fred, and Mike Bloomberg will jump in as an independent and scoop up support from the democratic side primarily, split the vote in that party and hand the election back to the Republican candidate again. He has the potential to be the Ralph Nader or Ross Perot that can't win the election but can make others lose.

On the Democratic side, I must say I was impressed by the well-informed arguments of Chris Dodd and the straight-shooting, direct answers of Joe Biden, though I doubt anyone so little willing to pander and primp to the voters as either of them would have much of a chance for a wide base of support. And Dennis Kucinic is, well, Dennis Kucinic. Good for him, but he's not a broad-appeal candidate for the same reasons as Dodd and Biden. No, the nomination will be won by someone willing to be more patient, considered, political and even-tempered to the sensibilities of the electorate at large. That, after all, is the art of politics. The winner will have that intangible ability to convince voters of almost every constituency, ethnicity, age, race and special interest that he or she will best represent their interests for the next four years.

It wouldn't surprise me if one or even both nominations went undecided clear to their national conventions--something almost unheard of in recent times. But I can remember some roaring ones from the past, let me tell you, and it's probably a healthy thing.

Nonetheless, I think if I had to bet on the nominees today, I'd bet on Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Hillary will finally win the Democratic nomination based on her greater national experience despite Barack Obama's inspired idealism and excellent speaking skills. The perception that he just doesn't have enough experience for the job will return at day's end, and all the idealism in the world won't overcome it. Hillary will run against John McCain, and McCain will win the election in a tight race, because, ironically, he will not have Bill Clinton, who will turn out in the end to be Hillary's greatest liability rather than her greatest strength. As the system showed when their roles were reversed, when he was in power and she was trying unsuccessfully to influence health care legislation, Americans don't want a shared Presidency, or even one which appears to be strongly influenced by a non-elected spouse of either gender. They want a single, clear, unequivocal leader. Well-meaning but outspoken spouses sank John Kerry and will sink Hillary also. In today's egalitarian mood between the assertiveness of spouses and the candidates themselves, the spouses would do well to remember the role of the vice president--golden silence publicly--and the fondness the country felt toward supportive but nonassertive first spouses of past Presidents: Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Ladybird Johnson, and Nancy Reagan come to mind. Each championed noble causes effectively but non-politically and did not try to upstage their President in national affairs.

As the country slips into recessionary hard times, the economy will upstage Iraq, immigration, and every other as the deciding issue of this election, and will propel Mitt Romney to frontrunner status for a time because he will appear to have the best remedies and managerial skills. But ultimately John McCain will beat him for the same reason Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination: experience, experience, experience. It's the intangible people consider in that moment they cast their ballots. For in that brief single moment they set aside personal preferences, prejudices, affiliations, special interests, and all the emotional clutter of the campaigns totally and vote their consciences: Who would be the best President for the next four years? Who would do the best job?

It's going to be interesting.