Friday, November 30, 2007

A True Race on the Republican Side

Ronald Brownstein's column today is an excellent analysis of the changing dynamics of the GOP presidential race as the first caucuses and primaries approach:

The Republican presidential contest is rapidly escalating into a war of all against all. Confrontations between the candidates are multiplying so fast that to describe the race as a circular firing squad actually understates its complexity. It's more as if the leading contenders are scorpions in a bottle, striking at anything else that moves.

The marquee Republican matchup pits former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney against former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Romney is also jostling more aggressively with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Meanwhile, Giuliani has endured a steady pounding from former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who is also targeting Huckabee. Huckabee is responding in kind to Thompson and Romney.

This is a much more intricate pattern of hostilities than in the Democratic race. The lines of argument among Democrats follow a simple spoke-and-hub model, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the hub. Both Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards regularly target Clinton, but neither has contested much with the other or with any of the second-tier hopefuls. Clinton has confined her responses mostly to jabbing back at Obama.

Why is the conflict so much more dispersed in the Republican race? The biggest reason is that every other Democratic candidate understands that he cannot win the nomination without getting past Clinton. None of them have an incentive to challenge each other unless they can weaken her first.

No Republican, by contrast, has emerged as a clear national front-runner comparable to Clinton. Five candidates (Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, Huckabee, and Sen. John McCain) have a chance to win at least one of the three key early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

As a result, the race has been balkanized into a series of regional showdowns. Tension is rising between Romney and Huckabee because they are now running almost step for step in Iowa. Romney and Giuliani are dueling for New Hampshire, with McCain still lurking. If Huckabee gets a boost with Christian conservatives from a strong Iowa showing, he would divide the voter base that Thompson is relying on in South Carolina.
I noted yesterday how Mike Huckabee was stirring the pot on the GOP side, and his debate peformance was likely to give him a boost in Iowa.