It's Super Tuesday. How Did We Get Here?

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Eli Bebout was the Republican nominee for governor of Wyoming in 2002. hide caption

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In 1968, Darrell Manning (D) sought a House seat in Idaho's 2nd District. hide caption

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Adlai Stevenson, the Dem nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, was born 108 years ago today. hide caption

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With all the ups and downs of this incredibly unpredictable primary season, the only thing that seems safe to say with a fair amount of confidence is that Super Tuesday falls on a Tuesday. (And for all I know, I could be wrong about that, too.) But before voters in 24 states weigh in on the presidential candidates, it might be worth a look back at where we are and how we got here.

We always knew a lot was at stake in this election, given the war in Iraq, the spiraling gas prices, the general unease in the country. And we always knew that at least some political upheaval was destined; it's the first election cycle since 1928 that we've had no president seeking re-election and no vice president running to succeed him.

Further, it's a cycle where, from the beginning, there has been no clear Republican front-runner. The GOP — as we've seen in the past with Nixon, Reagan, Dole and both Bushes — likes things in an orderly manner. And as for the Democrats, while we were long aware of the national pull of a former first lady as their front-runner, we have been lulled by recent campaigns — Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 — to expect the battle for the nomination to be over almost before it began.

For all we know, Tuesday could very well settle the nominations for one or both parties. Or not.

REPUBLICANS — I'm sure we sound like a broken record by now, but it still jars the mind that, going into Super Tuesday, John McCain is the leading GOP candidate. I've seen many campaign cycles where the presumed nominee falls from grace and never recovers. But never have I seen what McCain has apparently accomplished this cycle: left for dead in the summer, out of money and staff, still on the outs with many conservatives in the party, only to come back and win crucial contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. The withdrawal of Rudy Giuliani — speaking of front-runners who withered away on the campaign vine — helps McCain going into Tuesday's contests in the winner-take-all states of New York and New Jersey (153 delegates between the two of them). Other states in the Northeast, such as Connecticut and Delaware, could go his way, too, along with Arizona, McCain's home state.

McCain still has a ways to go before he can claim the nomination. His views on immigration, campaign finance and an assortment of other issues have led some conservatives to say there is no way they will ever be able to embrace his candidacy. McCain's task, should he triumph on Tuesday, is to work to unite the party. It won't be easy.

As for Mike Huckabee, he started off as the feel-good candidate in the race, this year's embodiment of Juno. His views on the role religion plays in politics may not have been mainstream, and his record as governor of Arkansas led some on the right to question his conservative bona fides. Still, he sparkled in debates, was seen as genuine and approachable, and wound up with glowing reviews from media critics. The problem is, the religious conservatives who populate the Iowa caucuses — which he won — were not to be found in huge supply in subsequent primary and caucus states. In one state where he had a shot at winning, South Carolina, he found himself competing for conservative votes with Fred Thompson, another former media darling who decided to make his stand in the Palmetto State. Thompson was gone from the race within days of South Carolina; the guess here is that if he had withdrawn before then, Huckabee would have won the state. Huckabee still won't be insignificant on Super Tuesday: He has a shot at winning Georgia (as well as Arkansas), and should not be counted out from doing well in states like Alabama or Tennessee. What happens in Missouri, a winner-take-all state, is anyone's guess. But no longer is he a threat to win the nomination.

That leaves Mitt Romney. If you had asked me in 2007 who I thought would be the Republican nominee — and you did, actually (see June 20 column) — I would have said (and did say) Romney. Attractive, confident and wealthy, Romney's resume included turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and a fairly successful term as governor of Massachusetts. If Republicans around the country were despondent about President Bush's decline and their chances in 2008 — and, if the disparity in the amount of money raised by candidates of both parties was any indication, they were — then Romney, with his outsider appeal and bulging checkbook, might be what the GOP doctor ordered.

Plus, the way the early states lined up on the calendar bode well for Romney. He had long invested in organizing in Iowa, where he had become the odds-on favorite. Then, Romney had the luxury of heading shortly after to the safe confines of New Hampshire, where he had the support of popular Sen. Judd Gregg and where he was widely known, thanks to his four years running nearby Massachusetts.

He won neither state.

As a presidential candidate, Romney ran as something he had not been: a conservative true believer when it comes to abortion and taxes and immigration. There's nothing wrong with being pro-life; opposition to abortion has been a staple of the Republican Party ideals since at least Ronald Reagan. But when Romney ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994 and for governor of Massachussets in 2002, he was pro-choice. That in itself was not enough to doom his presidential candidacy. But it wasn't just that Romney shifted positions. It was that, if you listened to his campaign, only he was the true conservative, and the others — mostly Huckabee and McCain — were pretenders. And Romney spent millions of dollars on TV ads castigating his Republican opponents' credentials. I suspect that had he run from the beginning as the candidate with business acumen who was going to turn around the economy, he would be in a stronger position today. Ultimately, the voters didn't trust or believe him, no matter what his $40 million tried to bring him. He got blindsided by Huckabee in Iowa and by McCain in New Hampshire. He won Michigan, but many attributed that to the fact that it was his birth state, a place where the Romney name still means something. And he won the Nevada caucuses, but many attributed that to the large number of Mormons residing in the state. (And don't forget Wyoming!)

Romney still could have a credible Super Tuesday. California, with its 170 delegates, remains competitive, and I'm not convinced that the endorsement of McCain by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger brings him all that much. Massachusetts and Utah should be Romney country. But Huckabee's presence in the race hurts Romney (and I suspect that is to the delight of the Arkansan). And unless he can win a big one on Tuesday — say, Missouri or Illinois — Romney may decide to give it up in pretty short order.

DEMOCRATS — If the Republican race has been hard to navigate, the Democratic contest is just as complicated. Hillary Clinton has been, and in my view remains, the likely nominee. I originally thought that she might have trouble with those most furious with the war in Iraq, given her 2002 vote in favor of it. John Edwards, in fact, spent much of his campaign in the early goings insisting that Clinton apologize for her vote. But for the most part, she got a pass, one, because many of her fellow Dem candidates — Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd — voted the same way, and, two, because she has since become a strong critic of the war. Throughout 2007, throughout all of the debates, Clinton seemed to emerge untouched by her rivals, far more focused on the Bush White House and the Republican Party and willing to ignore the barbs from the guys sharing the debate stage with her. And the polls showed it.

Then came a debate in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, sponsored by MSNBC. I always think of that as a turning point in the campaign, because for the first time her "inevitability" — if not her "electability" — suddenly appeared to be in question. Her seeming inability to give direct answers on questions such as drivers licenses for illegal immigrants and the fate of the Clinton papers in the National Archives made a lot of people wonder whether the heretofore well-oiled Clinton machine was on the verge of breaking down, if it wasn't a myth to begin with. At the same time, voters were starting to take a second look at Barack Obama.

Obama, even more so than Clinton, launched his candidacy with great fanfare. Crowds were responding to him as if he were a rock star; some were likening him to Bobby Kennedy. He may have been a bit green or unsteady on some of the issues, and some thought he needed more seasoning in the Senate before reaching for the brass ring. But he, like Clinton, was raising an extraordinary amount of money. And if there was the sense that Clinton was too (take your pick) polarizing/cautious/establishment for the Democrats to put up as their nominee, then that could only mean good news for Obama.

Finally, the voters began to have their say. Obama won the Iowa caucuses, and suddenly people began questioning the viability of Clinton's candidacy. Then, five days later, as people were writing her political obituary, she surprised everyone and won New Hampshire — and suddenly words like "inevitable" popped back into the lexicon.

Then came South Carolina, and another word appeared on the scene: race.

From the outset, Obama was favored to win the state. African-Americans comprised greater than 50 percent of the Democratic electorate. That wasn't the issue. At least, it wasn't supposed to be the issue. But a strange thing began happening, even before South Carolina: politicians friendly to the Clinton campaign suddenly felt the need to remind us about some of the less savory aspects of Obama's past. Back in December, Billy Shaheen, who was running the Clinton New Hampshire effort, said he feared that Republicans would "jump on" Obama's past cocaine and marijuana use, which the Illinois senator freely acknowledged in his memoirs; in South Carolina, another Clinton supporter, Robert Johnson of BET, made a similar comment.

To many observers, what these Clintonites were doing was obvious: deliberately raising these issues while feigning distress that the evil Republicans would bring it up should Obama become the nominee.

(Shaheen was fired from the campaign; Johnson had no official role to be removed from.)

Also in December, Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator, had this to say during a speech in which he endorsed Clinton: "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal."

Kerrey denied any ulterior motives. Then came an anonymous campaign in which e-mails were sent out claiming Obama "is a Muslim," attended a "Wahabi" school in Indonesia, took his Senate oath on the Koran, and refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. None of this is true.

And to top it off, there is the role of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton may be the most popular Democrat in the country, and Democrats may have fond memories of his two terms as president; he is especially beloved in the black community. But here is Bill Clinton, following the South Carolina results, in which his remarks were seen as, at best, incredibly ungracious, and, at worst, a form of race-baiting: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."

In case anyone forgot: Barack Obama, like Jesse Jackson, is black. Thanks, Bill.

The tensions between Hillary Clinton and Obama, so raw in the moments after South Carolina, seem to have eased a bit. The Jan. 31 debate in Los Angeles, sponsored by CNN, showed policy but not personal differences between the two. From this vantage point, Clinton seemed to get the better of the exchange on health care, Obama on Iraq. But I suspect that what will make up voters' minds will be more style and personality. Obama has been winning the high-profile endorsements as of late; he's picked up Sen. Edward Kennedy and the MoveOn crowd from the left, as well as red state Democrats Janet Napolitano in Arizona, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Ben Nelson in Nebraska, and Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas. He benefits from whatever "Clinton fatigue" exists. And the announcement that his campaign raised an astounding $32 million in the month of January was, well, astounding.

One major casualty of South Carolina, in addition to decency, was the candidacy of John Edwards. Having failed to win in Iowa, where he had camped out since 2004, and in South Carolina, his birth state and the only primary he won four years ago, Edwards was destined for a string of third-place finishes had he stayed in the race. No one knows for sure what his withdrawal means; it could benefit Clinton in the event that Edwards was splitting the white vote, or it could benefit Obama in the event that he was splitting the anti-Hillary vote.

I could be surprised, as I often have been. But my gut tells me that Clinton will win the war of attrition and triumph over Obama for the nomination. It may not come as quickly as once advertised, but it won't go all the way to the convention.

It certainly won't happen on Super Tuesday. With all of the Democratic delegates awarded proportionally, it is impossible for either Clinton or Obama to reach the magic number of 2,025 on Feb. 5.

SUPER TUESDAY PREDICTIONS: Well, I was wrong about Clinton winning in New Hampshire, as well as McCain in South Carolina, so it's not that I have a great track record in this year's primaries. What the heck — this is what my gut is telling me in some of the Super Tuesday states:

CALIFORNIA: McCain, Clinton

NEW YORK: McCain, Clinton

ILLINOIS: Obama

NEW JERSEY: McCain, Clinton

MASSACHUSETTS: Romney, Clinton

GEORGIA: Obama

ALABAMA: Obama

ARKANSAS: Huckabee, Clinton

OKLAHOMA: Clinton

ARIZONA: McCain

UTAH: Romney

MINNESOTA: Romney

CONNECTICUT: McCain

DELAWARE: McCain

MISSOURI: Clinton

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: The dates when the other candidates left the race.

2008:

Jan. 30 - John Edwards (D), Rudy Giuliani (R)

Jan. 24 - Dennis Kucinich (D)

Jan. 22 - Fred Thompson (R)

Jan. 19 - Duncan Hunter (R)

Jan. 10 - Bill Richardson (D)

Jan. 3 - Joe Biden (D), Chris Dodd (D)

2007:

Dec. 20 - Tom Tancredo (R)

Oct. 19 - Sam Brownback (R)

Aug. 12 - Tommy Thompson (R)

July 14 - Jim Gilmore (R)

Feb. 23 - Tom Vilsack (D)

Because we are on the precipice of Super Tuesday and this column is already a bit long, we'll put off readers' questions for another week. But this question, answered in the April 12 column, is worth reprising:

Q: I see that a record number of states ... are planning to hold presidential primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5. How does that compare with previous "Super Tuesdays?" — Elaine Cooper, Albany, N.Y.

A: It would be the biggest one-day primary event in history, a day which many people are calling "Super Duper Tuesday."

The idea first came into existence in 1988, four years after the Democratic debacle in which nominee Walter Mondale lost 49 out of 50 states. Mondale's landslide loss was attributed by some to his inability to stand up to liberal interest groups. That led some centrists in the party to come up with the idea of a "Super Tuesday": Primaries would be held mostly in the South; it was designed, theoretically, to result in a more conservative nominee, such as Sen. Al Gore (D-TN) or maybe even Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA). It didn't happen.

On March 8, 1988, primaries were held in 16 states, 11 of which were in the South. Gore managed to win only four of them: Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and his home state of Tennessee. Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts and hardly a conservative, carried the two largest states, Florida and Texas. But Jesse Jackson, perhaps the polar opposite of the conservatives who devised "Super Tuesday," was the big winner, taking five states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.

With Super Tuesday more or less a bust, there was less interest in duplicating the tactic in 1992. That year's mega-primary day came on March 10, when just eight primaries took place. Seven were held on March 12, 1996. The big day in 2000 came on March 7, with 11 primaries. And in 2004 (March 2), there were nine primaries.

SUPER SUNDAY: Because of the hostile e-mails we've already received from livid fans of the New England Patriots, there will be no mention of the incredible upset by the New York Giants in last Sunday's Super Bowl. None whatsoever. Not even a button.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Feb. 5 - Primaries or caucuses in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho (D), Illinois, Kansas (D), Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana (R), New Jersey, New Mexico (D), New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia (R). Congressional primary in Illinois.

IF IT'S WEDNESDAY, IT'S "JUNKIE" TIME ON TOTN: Every Wednesday at 2 p.m. Eastern is time for the "Political Junkie" segment on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program. However, this week is a two-hour special, reviewing what happened on Super Tuesday and looking at the contests to come.

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 me. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here. Want to subscribe? Go to the iTunes Web site, type in the name of the podcast — or just "Ken Rudin" — and voila. It's easy to find, and easy to subscribe to.

And if the presidential candidates who profess to be concerned about our nation's health-care crisis are reading this column, then they'll certainly get in contact with Joe Szymczak of Pittsburgh, who writes, "I am horribly addicted to 'It's All Politics.' I work in a mentally unchallenging, cubicle office job and, unfortunately, waiting for your podcast is the highlight of my week."

******* 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: Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956 who had earlier served one term as governor of Illinois, is born in Los Angeles (Feb. 5, 1900).

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

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