We’re talking Horse Race now on the Cocktail Hour … I predicted, back in January of 2007, that McCain would find himself in a freefall over his deadpan support of President Bush’s Iraqi misadventure; and sure enough, within a few months, John McCain was no longer a front-runner. I also predicted that Newt Gingrich would emerge as the voice of the Right, but he was effectively outflanked over the summer by what looked initially like the promising candidacy of actor/Senator Fred Thompson. Not only was I wrong about that one, but so was Gingrich.
Instead, Mike Huckabee, a formidably smooth political actor, has emerged as a voice of the Social Right, and will likely be the winner in Iowa. It is the emergence of Mike Huckabee that now convinces me that John McCain is the most likely candidate to receive the Republican nomination this summer … that, combined with the long, slow slide of Rudy Giuliani. But the moment that really sealed the idea in my mind was when Independent/Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman publicly endorsed John McCain for president two weeks ago. You see, Rudy Giuliani’s strategy was being the national front-runner while skipping Iowa and New Hampshire. Skipping New Hampshire was an easy decision, since it neighbors Mitt Romney’s former home state, a fact which usually gives such candidates an advantage. Under the old Giuliani strategy, if Mitt Romney were to win in Iowa and New Hampshire, Giuliani would be able to spin the victories as faits accomplis, the result of Romney’s outrageous campaign spending in Iowa and his “favorite son” effect in New Hampshire. Then, Giuliani would drive hard in Michigan on January 15, Florida on January 29 and Super Tuesday on February 5, proving his national electability. Florida was going to be a key win for Giuliani.
Huckabee’s rise in Iowa now means that Mitt Romney is no longer Rudy Giuliani’s main rival. The first winner during the 2008 campaign will be treated as a front-runner, for at least a nanosecond. And while Mike Huckabee won’t win in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney will be severely weakened by Huckabee’s success on a shoestring budget. In fact, this dynamic is already playing itself out in McCain’s rising numbers in New Hampshire, to some degree at Romney’s expense.
So, what’s left? Lieberman’s endorsement of McCain now means that Florida is in play for Giuliani, whose campaign has already been plagued by character leakage. The kind of older “Security Conservative” voter in Florida who might have supported Giuliani now has many reasons to question whether Giuliani has the character to lead us in a post-9/11 world. Lieberman’s timely endorsement of McCain will no doubt come as a reminder to such voters that McCain is a man of character. Besides, they love Lieberman in Florida. McCain will use New Hampshire as his second debut in the 2008 race, and the old Republican guard will turn to him to be the “Anti-Huckabee.”
The Democratic race is much harder to gauge at this point. I mentioned last January that Barack Obama’s greatest enemy was the process of anaerobic decay, and that there was a Harvard wonk in him just dying to expose itself during the primary debates. I still believe I was correct on both accounts — Obama’s “newness” wore off quickly as Hillary Clinton sped to an early lead in national polls, and Obama was stiff and deadly serious in most of the early debates. Obama’s secret has been peaking late, and waiting for Hillary Clinton to make a mistake. When Senator Clinton was tripped up on an immigration question in Philadelphia, Obama was ready — not with a position statement or a direct attack, but with a star power offensive. The Oprah Effect, ultimately immeasurable by statistical tests, will best be described by historians as having given Barack Obama a second chance at the nomination at the precise moment that Hillary Clinton looked vulnerable. It was the thing that John Edwards did not have at that same moment, the thing that has relegated him to sloppy seconds in the battle for media attention.
That having been said, it is still possible that Hillary Clinton will win in Iowa. It is still possible that Barack Obama will win in Iowa. It is still possible that John Edwards will win in Iowa. It is still possible that Joe Biden will come in third. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Barack Obama will win in Iowa; he will be in for a close race in New Hampshire, and may in fact lose there; but ultimately, that he will prevail as the “Anti-Clinton” candidate through Super Tuesday and beyond. (Incidentally, if Hillary Clinton happens to win in Iowa, that might make New Hampshire that much more difficult for John McCain to win, since independent voters may cross to the Democratic side to engage in an Anti-Clinton onslaught.)
I further predict that the vast majority of potential voters will have lukewarm feelings about both the Republican and Democratic nominees; and that while one of the mainstream candidates will certainly win the White House this November, Americans will yet again feel let down and dissatisfied by the whole experience.