Lookin' For GOP Love
The faithful seem restless with the current field
Another week, another debate. This time, the 10 announced Republican presidential candidates will be jousting in Columbia, S.C.-the second in a seemingly endless series of such encounters for both parties that will last well into 2008. The problem is that there are so many White House wannabes and so little time-90 minutes in each debate. So the chances for a breakthrough performance are low. And unless these face-offs grow more interesting, the chances of creeping voter fatigue are high. So for now, what most candidates are hoping for is simple: to make a good impression, to look "presidential," and to avoid embarrassing gaffes that might end up on YouTube or the Daily Show.
Beyond all that, the debate will underscore two important dynamics in the GOP race-one centering on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the other on former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. Giuliani, the front-runner in GOP polls, is trying to regain his balance after giving contradictory explanations of his pro-choice views on abortion at the first GOP debate in California earlier this month. "He has fallen into a murky middle, trying to straddle a line [on abortion]," says a GOP strategist allied with a rival campaign. Such equivocation runs counter to his image-forged in the aftermath of 9/11-as a strong leader with firm convictions.
Acknowledging the problem, Giuliani strategists say he is now working to make clear that he is pro-choice-take it or leave it. In tactical terms, Giuliani is likely to compete in-but play down-the first caucus and primary states where his liberal views may not go over well, such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Instead, he will focus more aggressively on the early megastates where his views are likely to be more popular-states like New York, California, and New Jersey, which all vote on February 5.
Partly because of the abortion issue, and partly because he's the current leader, Giuliani finds himself in the cross hairs for the first time. "He is having trouble making the transition from celebrity to candidate," says a GOP strategist. Others point out that while Giuliani twice won the mayoralty of liberal New York, he is having trouble appealing to conservatives who dominate the wider GOP.
Angst. The other theme of the moment is Republicans' dissatisfaction with their presidential choices so far. This angst may explain why so much GOP and media attention has suddenly focused on Thompson, who is considering a presidential run. Thompson is solidly conservative, has a record of electability in the key swing state of Tennessee, and is an effective communicator in movies and on TV-reminding many Republicans of former Hollywood star Ronald Reagan. He currently plays District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's Law & Order.
So far, so good. But Thompson's much-analyzed May 4 address to conservatives in Orange County, Calif., drew tepid reviews. He talked about the need for lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong national defense-surefire talking points for the conservative base-but he didn't convey the excitement that the audience was looking for. Thompson promises to do better.
Senior Republican strategists point out that the punditocracy tends to make too much of such insider events. What's more important, the strategists say, is that Thompson will lag far behind in crucial ways if he does get into the race-in fundraising, in setting up a state-by-state organization, and in assembling a campaign team.
But Thompson allies say getting into the race late could actually be an asset, enabling him to use his appeal as a Washington outsider and fresh face to gain huge amounts of free media coverage. It would also allow him to escape the media scrutiny that the other candidates, such as beleaguered Rudy Giuliani, are enduring now. And these days, that would be no small advantage.
This story appears in the May 21, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.