Mitt Romney’s comfortable win in Michigan highlights the utter helplessness that many GOP voters must be feeling about the field of Republican candidates from which they are expected to choose.
There have been three major tests in this primary season for Republicans. And Romney is the third candidate to emerge victorious. After the Iowa Caucuses, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee surged into the lead in the national polls. His frontrunner status lasted until the New Hampshire primary when Senator John McCain picked up a must win. Within days, it was McCain’s turn to ride the tiger as he vaulted into the lead nationwide.
Now with the former Massachusetts governor’s victory in Michigan, is Mitt Romney the next victim/frontrunner?
Republican voters have so far made being the frontrunner the kiss of death. How long can this go on? There is a possibility – made a little more likely by Romney’s win in Michigan – that the primary in South Carolina could be won by yet another candidate.
Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, whose moribund campaign appears to have revived, is surging in South Carolina. The former Law and Order star is drawing overflow crowds and raising enough money to be competitive in a state he actually led in the polls a couple of months ago. While a victory for Thompson is not likely, given the wackiness in this primary season, nothing and no one can be dismissed as impossible.
And to complete the nightmare, the January 29th contest in Florida features a desperate Rudy Giuliani who is pouring everything he has into a state that he must win if he expects to remain a viable candidate. A Thompson win in South Carolina would help Giuliani in Florida as it would weaken his two main rivals in the state McCain and Romney. Thus, the unthinkable prospect of 5 different GOP candidates winning one of 5 early races would come true and all 5 would move on to Super Tuesday on February 5, laying claim to some legitimacy as a potential nominee.
But it is an eternity to Super Tuesday and between now and then, you will witness the spectacle of Republicans playing with the tag “frontrunner” as it were a hot potato.
The GOP isn’t necessarily demoralized as much as it is perplexed. Exit polls show Mitt Romney won a third more Republicans in this “open” primary state as John McCain while the Arizona senator won decisively among Democrats and independents. McCain was supported by barely a quarter of Republicans who voted. His highly visible advocacy for the ill-fated immigration bill as well as his thumbing his nose at the conservative establishment from time to time has earned him the enmity of many in the party.
And it appears that many in the GOP had second thoughts about supporting him. After McCain’s bounce out of New Hampshire, he enjoyed a temporary lead in Michigan last week according to several polls. But over the last weekend, Republican undecided voters surged to Romney by a significant 40%-29% margin. That could mean that McCain’s momentum out of New Hampshire has either stalled or perhaps even begun to ebb. We’ll have to wait for the vote in South Carolina where McCain currently enjoys a comfortable lead over Mike Huckabee in order to determine the answer to that question.
Huckabee can also pull off a win in South Carolina. Nearly 50% of voters in the Palmetto state are self-identified evangelicals – the same voters that gave him his win in Iowa. But by tomorrow night, Mr. Huckabee will have had some tall explaining to do.
Speaking on Monday night before a group of supporters, Huckabee made the kind of gaffe that destroys campaigns. He called for amending the Constitution of the United States to bring it in line with “God’s standards:”
“[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards.”
Andy McCarthy of the National Review puts it succinctly:
Huckabee is made to order for the Left: his rhetoric embodies their heretofore lunatic indictment that we’re no better that what we’re fighting against. Let’s “amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards”? Who needs to spin when the script speaks for itself? Where has Huck been for the last seven years? Does he not get that our enemies – the people who want to end our way of life – believe they are simply imposing God’s standards?
It doesn’t matter that Huckabee was apparently referring to amending the Constitution to ban abortion and gay marriage. The idea that the Constitution should be amended to reflect the religious beliefs of any group is so far beyond the pale that it may very well drive most secular Republicans and even some evangelicals away from his candidacy. This is the price Huckabee is paying for pandering to evangelicals and setting himself up as a “Christian leader.” Eventually, he was going to go too far in order to excite his base. Well, his base may be pleased but he very well could have lost most of the rest of the party then and there.
Each successive contest in the Republican primary gauntlet has shown that GOP voters are dissatisfied with their choices and have very little idea of who should lead them. They tried on the center-left populism of Mike Huckabee’s religious crusade of a candidacy and didn’t like the fit. They decisively rejected the maverick McCain in Michigan. Now they’re tasting Romney a la King and will decide whether to enjoy the repast or send it back to the chef for being overdone.
Meanwhile, the Democrats watch the Republicans deflating and are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of running against a GOP candidate that elicits little enthusiasm among the rank and file. And while the Democrats have their own problems with trying to resist the temptation to play identity politics with their African American and female candidates, they will have no difficulty energizing their own base whoever the nominee might be.
The aimlessness of Republicans as they continue to search for a leader is not a catastrophe – at the moment. But if the GOP can’t make up its mind prior to the end of the primaries, the small but not impossible chance that they would enter their convention in September without a nominee stares them in the face.
Perhaps that prospect alone will spur the party to unite behind one of the current candidates who would then win the nomination basically by default.