Sunday, February 25, 2007

HERDING CATS

By Salena Zito

Electing the president of the United States was a lot simpler in the days of our forefathers.

Back in the day, members of Congress nominated a single candidate from their party to put before the Electoral College. The process evolved in the mid-19th century as political party machinery matured and nominations were decided at national conventions.

It was not until reformers in the early 20th century, during the "Progressive Era," pushed through a mechanism to measure the popular opinions of candidates that we saw the first presidential primary.

The 21st century has brought us the era of primaries on steroids. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary once owned the early-decision retail space. But now, not so much. Look for more than 30 states to try to fill that space and jam their presidential primaries into January or February in 2008.

"This early primary process is just courting disaster by creating oversized, sped-up contests," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Thus, the calendar may say 2007 but those who want to be president are running like it's November 2008.

"We are so early right now that only an idiot or a fool could predict who will come out on top," says Sabato.

For the Republican contenders, this race is any man's game. Right now you have former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani running out front. Sen. John McCain is not far behind. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich follows. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, brings up the rear.

Those who distribute conventional wisdom for a living argue that as soon as the social conservatives "find out" about Giuliani's social positions, they will run for the hills. Yet, for now, that wisdom hasn't put a dent in the Rudy Express. Like Bill Clinton, Giuliani sucks up the oxygen when he walks into a room. And while he may disagree with people on issues, he does not stick his finger in their eyes when they disagree.

McCain has growing pains: He is suffering the effects of moving from rebel to Establishment candidate. Being "Straight-talk McCain" was much easier for his personality and style; now he must deal with the infrastructure of his party and other political organizations, elected officials (current and past) and all of their loyalties and fundraisers.

It was much easier for McCain in 2000 when he could just climb on his bus and say, "Whoever is with me is fine and whoever isn't, that is fine too -- I am going to go to the voters."

Why Gingrich? Well, he is the smartest kid in the classroom. His intellect and understanding of issues and how to deal with them are what drive his support at this point. That's particularly among conservative voters who aren't happy with McCain, have trouble with Giuliani or distrust Romney. Plus, Americans have always been fascinated by a reluctant candidate, which is why Gingrich and Gore stay high in the public opinion polls.

Traction for Romney has been slow, but that may change. An open election without the incumbency factor has forced all of the candidates to begin organizing their campaigns and raising money much earlier. Romney was early to do that; his immediate challenge is not raising cash but defining himself.

For Republicans, this early politicking and a front-loaded primary process could be their worst enemy. Party leaders like situations they can control; highly contested, high-profile primaries always run the risk of divisions.

And thanks to this early-out intensity, getting them all lined up behind a nominee by Election Day could be like herding cats.

Salena Zito can be reached at szito@tribweb.com

1 comment:

Mark Johnson said...

Newt has excited the grassroots. Google Draft Newt and check it out.