Not backing down. McCain has been under strong attack even from conservative talk-show hosts, especially Rush Limbaugh. If McCain is nominated, "It's going to destroy the Republican Party," says Limbaugh. "It's going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren't going to vote. You watch." Former House Republican leader Tom DeLay has said he could not vote for McCain because the senator is not a conservative. But during the MSNBC debate in Florida on January 24, McCain wouldn't back down. He insisted he won't cater to conservatives or anyone else, saying, "I have a very, very conservative record." He added: "I'll put my country above my party every single time."
Romney is still fighting his flip-flop image, thanks to his record of changing his views on important social issues. He now opposes abortion rights and gay rights, and critics consider him too slick and opportunistic. "He panders, and people don't like that," says a leading Republican with close ties to Capitol Hill. Romney says he experienced a genuine change of heart.
He has another problem: his Mormon faith, which some evangelicals consider a cult. Romney says his faith is fundamentally important to him but it will remain a private matter and not influence his decisions as president. What he does consider important is that he is an outsider who, he says, will bring new ideas and fresh perspective to the White House. "Washington's broken," Romney says, arguing that only an outsider can fix it.
Huckabee's stand on various issues also has been unpalatable to key GOP segments. Support for tax increases in Arkansas angered economic conservatives, and his inexperience with national-security issues has troubled others. His granting of clemency to violent felons upset law-and-order conservatives. And his frequent references to his faith unsettle some. "He has his niche as the friendly, smiling evangelist but he needs to expand his evangelical base," says one critic. "Evangelicals are an element in the Republican coalition, not the entire coalition."
On the Democratic side, the election of either of the front-runners, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, would put the first woman or the first African-American in the Oval Office. But each has serious vulnerabilities. "Hillary needs to be more hopeful in her message and show off her likable qualities," says a prominent Democrat. "Barack needs to show he is tough enough, that he can take a punch and throw a punch when he has to, and that he can put meat on the bones of his policy proposals."
Many consider Clinton too polarizing to win over independents, a point Obama emphasized last week. She is criticized for being too calculating, ruthless, and liberal, based on her reputation as first lady. Other critics, including Obama during his campaign in South Carolina, say she—and husband Bill—will do anything to win. Others say her husband would be too influential in the White House, undermining her claims that she would be a strong, independent leader.
Obama has charisma and likability. But, as Clinton has often pointed out, his Washington résumé is thin. Many voters are concerned about his lack of experience and, at 46, his relative youth and whether his conciliatory approach undermines his toughness. He is faulted by some for not providing enough detail in his policy prescriptions, especially when compared with Clinton's expertise.
Another challenge is to persuade white Americans to accept the first African-American president. He won over white voters in Iowa but captured only one quarter of whites in South Carolina.
As the campaign moves forward, candidates' flaws rather than their strengths are dominating the debate. And as the process bounces along, it is coming down to a matter of risk assessment as voters make choices on who should be their next commander in chief.