The New Hampshire primary helped sharply define the Democratic presidential primary as a two person race even as it further muddied the waters of the Republican Party nomination battle.
The surprise victory by Senator Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire will now set the stage for an all-out battle between the former First Lady and Senator Barack Obama. As expected, Obama’s win in Iowa boosted him into a near tie with Clinton not only in New Hampshire, but also in national polling. The two Senators are now expected to go head-to-head in Nevada and South Carolina, and then on to what is being called "Super Tuesday," February 5th, where the winner may be decided. The basic thrust of the rest of the Democratic contest will be between Hillary Clinton and her experience, and Barack Obama’s message of hope and building a broad national coalition to make change.
No such clarity exists on the Republican side. Former Governor Mike Huckabee’s victory in Iowa was rightly attributed to that state’s sizable evangelical Christian voting bloc. With this movement’s support for Huckabee’s conservative positions on "social values," the underfunded Huckabee was able to overcome the well-funded campaign of former Governor Mitt Romney, who spent well over $10 million in Iowa.
Because there is no comparable evangelical movement in New Hampshire, Huckabee could manage no better than a distant third place finish. And, despite spending another $10 million in New Hampshire, Romney again finished in second place. This time, he lost to Senator John McCain.
McCain’s victory was significant for several reasons. His campaign had been given up for dead just a few months ago. But McCain revitalized his candidacy and focused his limited resources on New Hampshire – the state in which he upset George Bush in 2000. With many mainstream Republican voters concerned by the weakness and lack of commitment to conservative principles of the other Republican candidates, McCain earned a second look. Buoyed by the endorsement of the state’s major newspaper and key Republican leaders, McCain was able to stage his comeback.
The Republican contest now moves on to Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida before the critical date of February 5th when 19 states will hold contests on the same day.
With Huckabee and McCain having each won a state, and Romney having placed second in both (Romney did, however, win a rather insignificant contest in Wyoming), the Republican field is scattered, without a clear frontrunner.
Of all the candidates mentioned, thus far, only Romney (who will continue to spend his personal wealth) presently has the money to compete. To remain viable, Huckabee and McCain must now transform their early wins into cash so as to be able to build their organizations and buy advertising needed for the next round of contests.
Romney is betting on a win in Michigan, a state where he is heavily invested (and where his father was once a popular Governor). McCain, however, has support in the state, and will be helped by the endorsement he recently received from the Detroit Free Press. Should Romney fail to prevail there, he could very well enter the February 5th contests without a win, which almost certainly dooms his candidacy.
Huckabee must win in South Carolina, a state where evangelical conservatives are more prominent than Iowa. A loss there would doom his candidacy as a "one-state wonder." In South Carolina, though, Huckabee will face a stiff challenge from McCain, who ran well there in 2000 and has secured endorsements from both establishment Republicans and some religious leaders. The strong military tradition in South Carolina also likely plays well for McCain, the only combat veteran in the Republican field.
Next comes Florida, where former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s has taken the somewhat controversial step of basing his campaign strategy on skipping the early states, counting on a big Florida win to launch his campaign in time for the February 5th showdown.
The difficulty here is not that the Republicans lack a front runner, but why no front runner exists.
In several ways, the Huckabee and McCain wins represent not so much the emergence of Huckabee and the reemergence of McCain, as they do the demise of the Republican coalition that has largely held sway for the past three decades.
Former President Ronald Reagan forged a unity among the many currents of within the Republican Party, bringing together the social values (read: religious) conservatives, the defense hawks, the pro-business community, and the libertarians. All found a home in Reagan’s "big tent." Not one of the current Republican candidates fills Reagan’s shoes.
Giuliani and Romney have been roundly criticized for being less than consistent on "values" issues and their economic policies. Huckabee, who combined his religious message with a populist economic appeal is deeply distrusted by economic conservatives. Texas Congressman Ron Paul has captured the imagination and enthusiastic support of libertarians, but has been criticized as an isolationist by the defense hawks. McCain, a long-time maverick and social moderate, who was for many years a thorn in the side of President Bush on a number of domestic issues, is also distrusted by many in the Republican establishment. And former Senator Fred Thompson, who many Republicans had hoped would be their savior, has proved to be a lackluster campaigner.
Compounding this situation is that fact that, waiting in the wings, are a number of senior moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats making noises about an independent third-party candidacy. The principal contender in this group is New York City’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg (who was a moderate Republican but has recently declared himself an independent), whose enormous personal fortune could self-finance a run for the White House in a way that even Ross Perot could not have done back in the 1990s.
Should one of the more partisan Democrats succeed in overtaking Obama, and should one of the more conservative and controversial Republicans emerge as that Party’s nominee, a major third-party challenge will be likely.
However, should Obama succeed, and should McCain rebound enough to win on the Republican side, the push for an independent candidacy will in all probability dissipate. Despite the dissatisfaction that Obama and McCain may generate among the fierce partisans in both parties, the contest between these two would not only be a battle for the center ground in American politics, but one of the more fascinating contests and studies in contrast in our lifetimes.