Assessing the Republican Field

Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain prepare for a Republican debate. i

Rudy Giuliani (from left), Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain prepare for a Republican debate Sept. 5, 2007, in Durham, N.H. Darren McCollester/Getty Images hide caption

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Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain prepare for a Republican debate.

Rudy Giuliani (from left), Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain prepare for a Republican debate Sept. 5, 2007, in Durham, N.H.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Mike Huckabee button

Huckabee's strong showing in the Iowa polls has added a new dimension to the fight for the GOP nomination. hide caption

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'Rudy is a Rino' button

Is Giuliani the one who can keep the White House in GOP hands? Or is he a "Republican in Name Only?" hide caption

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Earl Dodge button

Earl Dodge had been on the Prohibition Party's national ticket every time since 1976. hide caption

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March on Washington button

Thirty-eight years ago today, 250,000 marchers descend upon Washington to demand an end to the war in Vietnam. hide caption

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Last week's column offered a snapshot of the Democratic presidential contenders, two months to go before the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa. This week, we attempt to do the same for the Republican field. In some ways, it's even a tougher assignment with the GOP, a party whose ostensible front-runner is a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control thrice-married former mayor of New York City, not the kind of resume that is known for attracting Republican delegate votes at their national conventions.

Iowa could determine whether there will indeed be a fight for the Democratic nomination. On the GOP side, the battle could be more prolonged and complicated.

Rudy Giuliani - For months now, wags have been saying the reason Giuliani remains on top of the polls is that voters don't really know his views on social issues (abortion, gays, guns) and are only aware of his role on Sept. 11, 2001. Maybe there was some truth to it back then — though I seriously doubt it — but that can't be the case now. It's certainly not plausible that Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition who endorsed Giuliani last week, is unaware of his record. And whether Giuliani is truly the liberal that some say he is, that's a debate we can have at another time; what is undeniable is that Giuliani's views on the aforementioned social issues have been anathema for a party that has moved to the right since 1980. Also undeniable is how many voters see his role as mayor of New York in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In this post-9/11 world, to the extent that national security, defending the homeland, has trumped abortion/gays/guns, is all you need to know when you look at the polls. Some see the argument for Giuliani as being even simpler: He is the one Republican who can slay the evil Hillary Clinton (perhaps that was what motivated Pat Robertson). Others see the argument against him as being that he is no different on these issues than Hillary is, and a true conservative voter would stay home, or back a third-party candidate, if he were the Republican nominee. The terrains in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire don't, at this stage, appear to be especially encouraging for Giuliani — both seem to be Mitt Romney country — but Rudy's prospects markedly improve in Florida and the Feb. 5 states of New York, California, New Jersey and elsewhere. The question is whether the battle for the nomination will still be going on by then. (For those with short memories, Bill Clinton also failed to win Iowa or New Hampshire in 1992 and, correct me if I'm wrong, but he wound up doing quite well in subsequent tests that year.)

Mitt Romney – If the paradox of Hillary Clinton is that she has a huge national lead but is in a tough fight in Iowa, the opposite is true for Romney. Nationally, he polls far behind the front-runners. But in Iowa, where Romney has spent heavily and is popular with social conservatives, and in New Hampshire, which neighbors the state he once ran as governor, he is ahead. What used to be Romney's Achilles' heel — his newfound conservative positions on abortion and gay rights – seems to have faded. But there remains the question whether Southern evangelical conservatives will ever lose their distrust of Romney's Mormon religion, and that could come into play with the always-important South Carolina primary later in January.

John McCain – Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, John McCain was considered the Republican candidate to beat for the 2008 nomination. That was indeed a very long time and many millions of dollars ago. Since then, the 71-year-old McCain has run out of money and staff, and his polling has taken a nosedive. While critical of President Bush's war effort, he remains a supporter of the "surge" and steadfast in his belief that victory can be achieved in Iraq — perhaps a popular position among Republican rank-and-file, but hardly one that could gain the kind of independent voters he won over when he ran for president in 2000. But McCain is also out of step with his party on immigration policy and overhauling the campaign finance system, and has stood up to Bush on issues such as torturing enemy combatants, another reason why many Bushies will never trust him. McCain's debate performances have gotten good reviews, which has translated into somewhat of a spike in his polling numbers both nationally and in New Hampshire. And while none of the leading Republicans are pure on this, McCain has stayed honest to many of the ideals that have guided his political career. It's a trait that has been observed and appreciated by many who still question whether he has a legitimate shot at the nomination. But his campaign is really hurting for money, and one wonders if its ability to live or die would even survive a win in the Live Free or Die State.

Fred Thompson – Thompson got a potentially big, if surprising, endorsement this week from the National Right to Life Committee. "Surprising," because his pro-life credentials have been questioned by some in the anti-abortion movement (and by his own statements), though Thompson insists he has had a consistent pro-life record from his eight years in the Senate (1995-2002) to the present. "Big," because Thompson has yet to become the GOP savior some envisioned him as while he was mulling a candidacy for the better part of this year; perhaps the endorsement will put his name back into the mix. He is not seen as a factor in either Iowa or New Hampshire but hopes that his Southern roots and charm will help make South Carolina and its late-January primary hospitable territory. As for the Right to Life endorsement, it shows if nothing else that the anti-abortion movement has failed to coalesce behind one candidate. In addition to Pat Robertson backing Giuliani, pro-life Sen. Sam Brownback, a former prez wannabe, has thrown his lot to McCain, and both Paul Weyrich and Bob Jones III are on board with Romney.

Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul – This might sound like an odd pairing, but right now these two are the most interesting candidates of the bunch. Huckabee seems to be the media darling this time out, winning rave reviews during the debates but unable to raise much money or establish a big-league organization. Paul is dismissed by nearly every pundit and analyst around, but there's no denying that his eye-opening fundraising totals, mostly via the Web, make him more than an oddball curiosity. Of all the talk about a third-party candidate emerging next year — the name of liberal NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been bandied about, while some social conservatives have threatened to recruit one if Giuliani is the nominee — one candidate who should not be dismissed out of hand is Paul, who bolted the GOP in 1988 to be the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee. Neither Paul nor his followers fall into an easy ideological labeling. For instance, Paul is strongly opposed to the Iraq war — one of only six House Republicans to vote against it from the start — but he also wants Roe v. Wade repealed, wants out of the U.N., and supports the gold standard. Still, many of his supporters, who have little faith in the two major parties, see him less as an ideological soul mate and more as someone who hears their frustration. Paul is not challenging the leaders in any state polls, but his backers suggest that he could surprise in New Hampshire. Speaking of polls and surprises, the news that Huckabee is running a strong second to Romney in Iowa (according to this week's CBS/New York Times survey) is probably the biggest news of the week. The numbers caused many to blink: Romney 27, Huckabee 21. But it also leads to the obvious question: Can someone with no discernible organization to speak of make a big splash in a caucus state? And even if he finishes in the top two in Iowa, does he have enough to propel him in any subsequent states? Obviously, at this stage of the contest there are no clear answers. And while we have a long way to go in this regard, Huckabee seems to be gaining in favor as a potential VP pick.

The Rest of the Field – The "rest" means Reps. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, who have both announced that they will not seek re-election to the House in 2008 whether or not they win the GOP presidential nomination (prediction: They are not going to win the GOP presidential nomination). Neither candidate is a factor anywhere. Tancredo at least has gotten some press over the past few days with his stark TV ad about illegal immigrants that is running in Iowa. Whether that coverage is positive or not is another story. Still, that's more than can be said about Hunter, who seems to be invisible on the campaign trail and has not stood out in any of the debates.

HILLARY PILLORIED: Last week's column was filled with reader reax to Hillary Clinton's debate performance in Philadelphia. Since then, she has gotten some more bad press, the latest questioning whether her campaign was responsible for planting questions at press availabilities. On that issue, we received an e-mail from Mari Tonn, a University of Maryland professor from Baltimore, who writes, "I've just returned from New Hampshire where I attended several candidate events. At Clinton's event in Somersworth, microphones were set up in the aisle for people to line up and ask questions. While that system did not preclude a 'planted question,' it did not prevent a citizen from asking a difficult question. At the Romney event in Hudson, however, I saw staff members trolling the crowd before the Governor arrived, asking them if they had questions and what those questions were. I saw this happen right next to me. During the Q&A, the Governor would not call on audience members directly, repeatedly saying that his staff members had the microphones and, thus, would choose the questions. Given the controversy over Clinton's staff planting questions, I am curious as to why the media also has not reported on this obvious screening and cherry picking of questions by the Romney campaign."

Another observation comes from John Olsen of Ankeny, Iowa: "The Clinton campaign is trying very hard to make us think she has already won. I think one particular chant her campaign uses frequently in Iowa is SO ARROGANT. They spell out HILLARY and then say, 'OUR NOMINEE!!' I don't know how you interpret this chant/slogan but I perceive it as saying she already has the nomination. The extreme way her campaign tries to dominate the scenery outside any multi-candidate event with a plethora of the nearly billboard-sized Hillary signs just screams ARROGANCE to me and turns me off completely."

Needless to say, we are very interested to see what will happen in Thursday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas.

Now your questions:

Q: I hear the Republicans, as well as other Democrats, are bashing Hillary's health care initiative. Here's my question: Where do the candidates, especially the Republicans, get their health insurance? Rudy Giuliani had cancer a number of years ago. What free-market insurance company did he turn to? Fred Thompson had/has cancer; what free-market company is he using? Mitt Romney doesn't seem to have a job; what free-market company is he using? What about John Edwards? What about any of the other candidates who are not in the Senate? – Ruth Lezotte, Okemos, Mich.

A: A great question. I turned to Julie Rovner, NPR's health-care correspondent who is an expert on these things, and she also loved your question. She's not only working on answering it, but is also planning to work this into a piece for NPR. I'll let you know when it's going to run.

Q: You wrote in your column, "Mike Gravel is no longer welcome at any NBC-sponsored debate." I'd very much like to know your source for this quote. As I understand it, it was just that one debate [in Philadelphia] and primarily based on fund raising. If NBC/GE has excluded him from future debates, it lends much credence to his claim that GE specifically targeted him on politically motivated grounds for speaking out against Hillary's vote to authorize force against Iran. Regardless, as a journalist, I'm dumbfounded that you would so nonchalantly, offhandedly report on blatant corporate censorship of a political figure, a great American and a veteran. And to suggest that this ends his campaign, when he's already on the ballots of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida is rotten and biased to say the least, and I'm appalled that it would come from someone working at NPR, as it's more on the level of Fox News. Perhaps you should pursue another line of work; you obviously are not paying attention. – Jerold H., New York City

A: One of us is not paying attention. Gravel is no longer considered a candidate by the Democratic National Committee and has been uninvited for future Democratic-sanctioned debates. He has raised little money to speak of and has been excluded from tonight's debate in Las Vegas as well.

Q: I read that when Gus Hawkins, who died this week, was first elected to Congress from California in 1962, he was one of only six black members of the House at the time. Do you know who they were? – George Levine, Los Angeles

A: Actually, he was one of only five. The others, like Hawkins all Democrats, were William Dawson (IL), Charles Diggs (MI), Adam Clayton Powell (NY), and Robert Nix (PA).

EARL DODGE: Some may know that Earl Dodge was the presidential nominee of the Prohibition Party six times, running in each election since 1984, as well as being the party's VP nominee in 1976 and 1980. We knew him as a valued member of the political collector community, a genuinely fair and honest dealer of rare campaign items, as well as a longtime fan of this column. His death on Nov. 7, at the age of 74, came as he was arriving at Denver International Airport en route to, of all things, a button show in Pennsylvania. He will be missed.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Nov. 15 – Democratic presidential candidate debate, Las Vegas (CNN)

Nov. 28 – CNN/YouTube Republican presidential candidate debate, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Dec. 1 – Brown and Black Forum, Des Moines, Iowa

Dec. 4 – Democratic candidate debate, Des Moines (NPR/Iowa Public Radio)

Dec. 10 – Democratic candidate debate, Los Angeles (CBS)

2 P.M. START FOR THE TOTN 'JUNKIE' SEGMENT: Don't forget, the "Political Junkie" segment that has been heard every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, has become (uh oh) even longer, now starting at 2 p.m. ET and running 40 glorious minutes. The "expanded" Junkie segment will continue each week through next year's elections. If your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, don't do what Ken Rudin would do, by sending them threatening letters. You can always hear the program on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here. This week: Ron and I will be podcasting within minutes after the conclusion of the Democratic presidential candidate debate this evening in Las Vegas. Just the thought of that gives me tingles as I type those words.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: More than 250,000 people march in Washington, D.C., protesting the war in Vietnam. It is the largest protest march in the history of the nation's capital (Nov. 15, 1969).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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