Shaken and Stirred
A changing field of insurgent GOP candidates
Last week's election didn't just change the lineup in Congress; it also winnowed the Republican presidential field. The big casualties were Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and George Allen of Virginia, two conservatives who lost their bids for re-election-and probably any hope for the White House.
That still leaves plenty of presidential wannabes for '08, led by Arizona Sen. John McCain. But two other men are generating buzz as they jockey for position as the main alternative to the front-runner. First on the list is former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who leads some public-opinion polls. In a recent Gallup survey, 29 percent of Republicans supported him, compared with 24 percent for McCain (everyone else was in single digits). But Giuliani's position is based largely on name recognition and his reputation as a dynamic leader in the aftermath of 9/11. "He is the gold standard for leadership in the war on terrorism," says a key GOP strategist. As such, Giuliani has been a big draw as a fundraiser for GOP candidates.
The former mayor says he is considering a run, but political pros say his popularity could melt away once GOP voters understand his liberal views on issues like gay unions, abortion, and gun control. His abrasive manner can also be a turnoff. "Rudy plays well in the boroughs of New York but not in the Republican heartland," says a GOP critic.
Perhaps the most aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign is being waged by outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a strong conservative with movie-star looks and big-time charisma. Romney is modeling his approach on George W. Bush's pattern from 1999, when Bush, then governor of Texas, invited party leaders to Austin for persuasive get-acquainted sessions. Romney is doing the same thing in Boston and is apparently making a good impression as a fresh-faced Washington outsider who radiates competence and optimism while advocating smaller government. He is also a good listener, which impresses many of his guests, and in the past has appealed to independent voters and some Democrats in Massachusetts.
Drawbacks. Romney's Mormon faith, however, is greeted with suspicion by many evangelical Christians, while his lack of national-security experience could drag him down if the war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq remain top concerns. Just as important, his popularity back home in Massachusetts has declined, which isn't a good sign.
Among the others who have expressed an interest in running are Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Gov. George Pataki of New York (both of whom are leaving office), Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
One of the longest of long shots is Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the gruff chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter has little national following; in fact, few have heard of him outside Washington and his home district in San Diego. That hasn't stopped him from declaring his candidacy as he attempts to find a niche as a hard-liner on national security and illegal immigration.
In a blast from the past, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is impressing the GOP faithful as he talks of a need to return to Republican ideals of smaller government, a strong national defense, and tough-minded realism in foreign policy.
But Gingrich was a polarizing figure in Congress, and voters may be more interested in a less divisive style of leadership for 2008. "People are fed up with politics as usual," says a prominent Republican who advises the White House. "They want to see politicians work together. That's one lesson we learned from last week's election."
This story appears in the November 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.