The Republican race moves into meltdown

Dateline: 05 December 2007

It has been understood for some time that the Republican race is far more open than the Democrats’. It is possibly the most open race in a governing party ever. But it has also been understood that there have been two frontrunners for most of this year, with the rest of the pack trailing.

As to which candidate has the best chance, the commentariat has been deeply divided. There are two principal metrics and different candidates are winning each of them. For most of 2007 Rudy Giuliani has been the easy leader in national polls. At the beginning of the year he was sometimes challenged by John McCain, but McCain faded fast. In the summer there were high expectations of Fred Thompson, but they were not sustained. Giuliani’s figures remained constant.

Critics countered that national poll leads don’t count. There is no national primary, and national polls measure, mostly, name recognition. Polls in the early states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, are the best guide. In those states the leader for most of the year has been Mitt Romney. He has money and organization. The fact that he trails in national polls may not matter: as a state governor he is unlikely to have the name recognition of a Giuliani or a McCain. But the counter-argument is that with so many states voting on February fifth, there very nearly is a national primary this time.

When Fred Thompson faded, John McCain’s numbers began to recover. Both ended with numbers similar to Mitt Romney’s. But all trailed Giuliani, and Romney maintained his lead in the early states. There were still two front-runners. But when abortion crusader Senator Sam Brownback withdrew, former Baptist minister and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee began to rise. Suddenly he was making an impact in the national polls and, especially, in Iowa.

When Giuliani’s national figures began to slip, Huckabee rose from fifth place to joint first – at least in one poll. And he now equals or bests Romney in Iowa. And Romney is now on the defensive in New Hampshire too. Giuliani – never a threat in Iowa – is a player in NH, though he has never been the favorite there. And McCain’s numbers there have remained strong. Now McCain has the endorsement of the influential Manchester Union Leader. Romney is definitely not out of the race. He remains a major competitor in both IA and NH, and is very strong in Michigan. He has more money and a better campaign infrastructure than any other candidate. But his early state dominance is under real threat. Unless he achieves significant wins before February fifth he will probably fade.

Giuliani is still a major contender too. He has far more money than Huckabee and is much better known than Huckabee or Romney. He alienates social conservatives, but McCain and Huckabee are controversial with significant elements of the Republican coalition too.

If the race has narrowed by super-Tuesday to just Giuliani and one other, the other candidate will probably win. If there are still five candidates competing seriously beyond that date Giuliani’s candidacy will remain formidable.

There is a very real chance that, for the first time since 1976, the Republican race will go all the way to the Convention.

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