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January 7, 2008

Presidential Wannabes – The GOP Field

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Since offering unwanted advice to national presidential candidates seems to be the new media cottage industry, here’s my attempt to play with the big boys.

For the Republicans, it begins with the national polling leader, Rudy Giuliani.

Rudy, I love ya’, but it just isn’t happening for you right now. You’ve taken an insurmountable lead and turned it into a real question mark. The “sit back and wait for Super Tuesday” strategy might feel right, but it dismisses the fact that either Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, or John McCain might emerge from Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina with the appearance of invincibility.

You started out as the guy we can all depend on in a tough spot; the hard-nosed mayor of New York who took on the mob, the squeegee gang, and hookers, pimps, and drug-dealers in Time Square. Now you’ve been tagged as Bernie Kerik’s loudest defender and a guy who tried to hide the security for your girlfriend (now your wife) by burying it in the city budget.

Your best hope is in reminding GOP voters why we loved you back in October, and doing that over and over again in New Hampshire, and basically everywhere else.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is cruising right now, capitalizing on his significant powers of persuasion and his mastery of the art of communicating. His strategy seems to be twofold: engage the values voter by reminding them that he is an ordained Baptist preacher who loves Jesus, and focusing his economic message on the middle class.

He risks alienating Wall Street, so much that the ultra-conservative and free-market stalwarts at The Club for Growth have begun to attack the Huckabee populist economic message as bad for America.

The “Huck” came out on top in Iowa, but that could turn into a hollow victory if the hardcore economic conservatives turn on him.

Remember the Reagan mantra; it takes the social, economic, and international security conservatives to win national elections. The Huck needs to keep his past public service buried until after the big primary states, because the skeletons (pardons, taxes, and spending) keep raising question with the base of the party.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is saddled by his religion, a problem that really has me doing some head-scratching. I keep wondering why voters care about his faith. At least he believes in something; and he’s made it very clear that his church leaders will have no influence on him.

Seemingly the total package, Mr. Romney has movie star good looks, a decent record of public service, accumulated personal wealth beyond anyone else in the field, and a family portrait right out of a Life magazine article.

Unfortunately, he also has the reputation of a flip-flopper, having run as a liberal-to-moderate Republican against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and in his successful bid to be governor of Massachusetts. He was pro-choice, pro-civil unions, and pro-public education, a deadly trio for Middle America.

Not to worry, though. The new presidential-candidate Romney is a very different guy than he was as governor of the most liberal state in the nation. He has made the full conversion, now vying to be the most conservative in a field of other guys trying to do exactly the same thing.

He’d better figure out how to sell the conversion claim more convincingly than he has to date, or Super Tuesday won’t be so super for him.

Arizona Sen. John McCain is making a serious, below-the-radar comeback. It turns out that while everyone else was ducking and covering over the war in Iraq, trying to create as much distance from the Bush “surge” policy as possible, John McCain actually had it right all along.

Had the president listened to him after the fall of Saddam Hussein, this war might have been over years ago. The media loved John McCain four years ago; he needs to fire up the Common Sense Express again.

When he speaks bluntly about the manipulation of power and money in the political process, he has the moral authority of his long record in the Senate behind him. The recent endorsement by Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is a signal to Senator McCain’s potential strength in the general election cycle. If he does as well as I predict he will in New Hampshire, look for a long spring and summer, and possibly even a (gasp) brokered convention!

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is one of the greatest puzzles of this whole cycle. When rumors of his impending entry into the presidential sweepstakes were first floated, he quickly rose to the top of the national preference polling. He seemed like the missing link, the great communicator with bedrock family values and the brand of fiscal conservatism not seen since Ronald Reagan.

Then he actually entered the race, choosing to skip an evening Iowa GOP debate in order to announce his candidacy at a gathering of faithful in New Hampshire. Instead of the forceful, dominant presence that overwhelmed the field, what we’ve seen is a weak and almost flippant afterthought of a candidacy.

The few flashes of the district attorney he plays on TV seem to energize people, like his refusal to let a debate moderator turn a serious question on climate change into a show of hands without appropriate discussion.

To reinvigorate his flagging candidacy, Senator Thompson needs to bring Law and Order’s Arthur Branch out of retirement, that stately father figure GOP voters can rally around. Another dumb debate moderator would help too, but that might be too much to ask. His only serious chance to pull this off rests in reconnecting with that Reagan legacy thing, otherwise this case is already closed.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul is another real puzzle. He has raised multiple millions in one-day web bombs, online contribution marathons through his campaign website.

One recently set a one-day record of over $6 million dollars in donations, many in increments of less than $50 apiece. Representative Paul is a one-note Charlie, essentially arguing for a return to a federal government as envisioned by the Founders, small, lean, and local.

He’d immediately end our foreign military interventions, likely causing such havoc in the Middle East almost assured to result in a dramatic increase in terrorism. He’d scale back international aid, just as we’re making major progress in the fight against AIDS and other diseases.

He’d pursue a flat tax, eliminating the need for the IRS. He’d abolish the U.S. Department of Education, and only appoint judges who’d agree to strictly interpret the U.S. Constitution. He’s undoubtedly different, likely too different for GOP primary voters, and definitely too different for most Americans in a general election. There’s something appealing in his libertarian quirkiness, though.

California Congressman Duncan Hunter just hasn’t caught on with Republican voters. Research proves that he is a reliable defense hawk, fiscal conservative, and possesses traditional Republican social values. Nothing about him screams president, and the electorate reflects that lack of enthusiasm.

I can’t even imagine Representative Hunter as a vice presidential candidate; so since he lost big in Iowa and likely will tomorrow in New Hampshire, he’ll probably disappear from the radar completely.

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the first casualty of the presidential sweepstakes, made this whole election about illegal immigration. In fact, that single issue is the defining moment in his public service career.

He used to stand in the well of the House and give Special Order speeches (the kind where they speak to an empty Chamber) about the evils of unchecked illegal immigration. Like Senator McCain and the surge strategy, Tom Tancredo was right all along.

In a sadly ironic twist, other, more popular candidates are licking up his message. Giuliani, Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson are all calling for the construction of a wall or barricade. People used to laugh at Congressman Tancredo for the making that same call.

Representative Tancredo’s lasting legacy will be to make our next president fully accountable for addressing the issue of illegal immigration, and that may be a bigger benefit to the GOP than anything anyone else has done.

Upcoming will be my take on the Democrat candidates, a list that is shrinking ever so quickly. Believe it or not, there are a few I like for various reasons, but they’re buried at the bottom of that particular pile.

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