After more than a year of campaigning, the expenditure of more than $250 million, countless TV ads, innumerable polls, and endless media speculation, the 2008 presidential race remains a muddle and is fast becoming a marathon.
Last week's first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses produced two clear and somewhat surprising winners—Republican Mike Huckabee, riding a wave of support from conservative Christians, and Democrat Barack Obama, on the strength of a huge turnout of new caucusgoers and young voters. Just as important, the winners were the youngest candidates in the field and both apostles of change. This signals that a powerful movement for shaking up the status quo could be underway across the country. "We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come," Obama told a rally in Des Moines last week, promising a new era of hope and reconciliation. In some ways, that change seems embodied in Obama himself, who if elected would be the first African-American president and,
in a parallel to John Kennedy that he welcomes, one of the youngest chief executives in history. The first-term Illinois senator, 46, won Iowa with 38 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for John Edwards and 29 percent for Hillary Clinton.
For his part, Huckabee, 52, a genial and sometimes eloquent former Baptist preacher who made his Christian faith a cornerstone of his campaign, won with about 34 percent, while Mitt Romney came in with 25 percent and John McCain and Fred Thompson each had about 13 percent. "Americans are looking for a change," Huckabee said, adding that the challenge is "to bring this country back together" and sweep elitism from Washington. It's unclear whether he can expand his base much beyond Christian conservatives, but his aides say he has the communication skills and down-to-earth charm to succeed.
Not that the race is over. Not by a long shot. The winners' margins fell far short of majorities, guaranteeing that the race will remain wide open. Several also-rans could still surge to the top, including GOP contenders Romney, McCain, and Rudy Giuliani, and Democrats Clinton and Edwards. The campaign moves to New Hampshire this week and to Michigan January 15 and Nevada January 19—and then to key primaries in South Carolina. Next, there will be a string of caucuses and primaries leading up to February 5, when 24 states hold nominating contests.
Far to go. Aside from the unpredictable horse race, the Iowa results underscored how far both major parties still have to go to assemble a majority coalition. Beyond the general mantra of "change," neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have found a unifying ideology or candidate so far. To some, the motivating principle comes down to a simple desire for victory. "What is there to hold them together?" asks presidential historian Robert Dallek. "They want to win. They want to control."
Still, the Democratic candidates seem more consistent in their basic objectives. They are contrasting themselves as much as possible with George W. Bush, promising to end the Iraq war, expand government social programs, tax the rich, broaden access to healthcare, take on special interests, and break the partisan stalemate in Washington. They are appealing to the 7 out of 10 Americans who say the country is headed in the wrong direction. But more than anyone else so far, it is Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, who has captured the mantle of change.
And it was Clinton, the former first lady who has led in national polls for many months, who endured the most serious setback on the Democratic side. Iowans never warmed up to her, reflecting her "likability problem" nationally. Many voters feel that she is too combative and calculating. And her message of Washington experience was trumped by Obama's message of starting anew. Now Clinton must scramble to somehow re-establish herself.
For the Republicans, Huckabee has catapulted from obscurity to contender by projecting himself as a populist and reformer, all wrapped in a witty, nonthreatening, and telegenic package. Significantly, he has been the strongest critic of President Bush's foreign policy aside from libertarian Ron Paul, faulting a "bunker mentality'' and arrogance that he said was counterproductive. Despite having relatively little money and making some stumbles, Huckabee persuaded his supporters to ignore attacks from former Massachusetts Governor Romney and others on his Arkansas gubernatorial record of raising taxes, increasing spending, and giving clemency to violent felons. Romney, who had gambled on a strong showing in Iowa, actually slid in recent weeks amid concerns about his Mormon faith, his changed positions on abortion and gay rights, and his perceived slickness.
Huckabee now faces a big challenge in New Hampshire, more secular and libertarian than Iowa and a place where his Arkansas record might be extremely damaging. It is a state that Arizona Senator McCain won in 2000, only to lose the GOP nomination to Bush, but a state where McCain remains popular. The former POW's campaign faded badly last summer when he seemed to abandon his maverick ways and nearly ran out of money. But he has been making a strong comeback. McCain's immediate problem, however, is that independents are permitted to vote in the New Hampshire primaries, and the independents may be more attracted to Obama this time around. This could seriously depress McCain's support.
Former New York Mayor Giuliani largely bypassed Iowa, and he is also lagging badly in New Hampshire. He is staking his campaign on winning the Florida primary January 29, where he has enjoyed a solid lead, and on winning most of the primaries on February 5, including the big states of California, New York, and New Jersey.
More broadly, the GOP faces intense head winds in the general election. The president and many of his policies remain unpopular; there is strong opposition to the Iraq war and growing anxiety about the economy. Candidates must walk a tightrope between loyalty to their national standard-bearer and, in the words of a strategist for a top-tier GOP presidential candidate, making a "break with the past." Just as important, the coalition cemented together by Ronald Reagan in 1980 has now fractured among economic conservatives, social conservatives, national-security hawks, and libertarians.
All this guarantees that the race for both the Democrats and the Republicans won't be decided anytime soon, perhaps not until late winter. If the muddle continues beyond February 5, the tests will keep coming with primaries within the following month in several states, including Louisiana, Virginia, Ohio, and Texas.
Third-party opening? Beyond the primaries, the way is open, at least potentially, for a serious independent or third-party presidential candidacy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is widely considered the best bet to fill that role. Even though Bloomberg says he isn't planning to run, his supporters point out that he hasn't ruled it out. He has been talking with prominent political veterans, including former Sens. David Boren of Oklahoma and Sam Nunn of Georgia, both Democrats, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, about ways to break the deadlock in Washington and move beyond partisan rancor. This has again fueled speculation about a Bloomberg candidacy. And he could be formidable. A billionaire, he could self-finance his campaign as a pragmatic progressive with a solid record of accomplishment in New York.
But the odds are daunting. The strongest independent or third-party candidate in recent years was Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire who rode a wave of dissatisfaction with the status quo to 19 percent of the vote in 1992. Yet Perot failed to win a single state or electoral vote—showing just how difficult it is for an outsider to capture the White House even when the desire for change is powerful and pervasive.
With Liz Halloran in Iowa