It seems like they've been campaigning forever, but tomorrow the presidential candidates will finally face the voters for the first time. In all likelihood, everything will be decided after February 5, and there'll be a lot of farting around until the party conventions in the summer.
My trip out to Flagstaff and back offered me an opportunity to listen to both parties' most recent debates in their entirety. In something of a reversal from previous years, the Democrats all pretty much agreed with each other while the Republicans couldn't have been a more disparate bunch. In recent history the Republicans have generally been a lot better at maintaining "party discipline," keeping the candidates in agreement and nominating the next guy on the list. This time with the Democrats the message is more clear and the debates are more about who can best make that message work. On the other side, it's hard to believe guys like Giuliani and Huckabee are even on the same stage.
First, the Democrats. I still like Obama best. As I've said before, I think a lot of presidential politics is not necessarily a matter of voting for the guy with the best resume or whose platform most closely resembles your own, since you can't predict what sort of challenges they're going to encounter in the White House. But I do like Obama's approach - reaching out across the aisle not by compromising his values, but by listening and paying attention to people while still disagreeing with them.
There was a while where I felt like I was waiting for him to make his move, where I thought maybe he'd hit a ceiling and America just wasn't going to vote for a young, unabashedly liberal half-African guy whose middle name is "Hussein." But while some may think he still needs more "experience," as if hanging around in the Senate for another election cycle would make him a better candidate, I say, "What better time than now?" I don't have any illusions that he'll be able to accomplish everything he sets out to do, but it will be nice to see somebody actually inspiring in the White House, something I've never seen in my lifetime.
John Edwards is hanging on better than I thought he would. I saw him on Jay Leno several months ago, where he seemed okay but still very much a politician, a bit of a phony. Since then, though, he's seemed better at articulating his little guys vs. the corporations theme and I've liked him more. And his wife is genuinely spunky and should be a real asset on the campaign trail, assuming her health keeps. But I still have to wonder if his nice-guy class-warfare approach is really what the general public wants. I read somewhere a while ago that voters' perceptions are that Edwards is the most centrist of the Democrats' top three, while in actuality he's the farthest to the left. Are people just conditioned to believe that a white Southerner with a slick haircut is the conservative kind of populist rather than the liberal kind?
Then there's Hillary. If she ends up as the nominee -- probably still the most likely outcome -- I'll support her, but it would be the grudging, "Well, she'll be a lot better than the alternative" kind of support that I've grown to loathe heading into an election. On the issues, she's close to the other Democrats, though perhaps more willing to take a compromise position where Edwards and Obama would be more idealistic. Personally, though, she seems like the sort of robo-candidate who responds to nothing but polls and handlers, like her husband without the charisma.
Any three of the above could end up with the nomination. Bill Richardson is leading the rest of the field --- he's got the best resume but seems pretty lackluster as a national candidate. I think Richardson's best hope is to shoot for Secretary of State in somebody else's administration. Even as a VP candidate, I think he's likely to be something of a dud on the campaign trail. Joe Biden, on the other hand, would be a great complement to Obama or maybe Edwards on a ticket. Biden could be the ticket's attack dog in the campaign, letting Obama keep his hands clean. He's the consummate Washington insider the way Obama isn't, and his experience with the Senate would help him actually implement his ideas.
As for the Republicans, I think the most likely candidate is Mitt Romney, who is in many ways as a candidate the GOP version of John Kerry, a bland, rich, flip-flopping Massachusettsian who has the same follow-the-polls behavior of a Clinton. He's exactly the kind of oatmeal candidate I've become accustomed to the Democrats nominating, and losing with, for decades.
Six weeks ago, Mike Huckabee looked like an ascendant juggernaut, which got him noticed enough to start getting criticism, and now he seems to have peaked maybe a month early. He certainly seems like the nicest of the Republicans, but his economic policies are anathema to conservatives, and his social ideas are anathema to just about everybody else. Not living in the South or Midwest, maybe I'm just underestimating the appeal of conservative populism. I think he's going to be a factor in the race for a while, but I seriously doubt he'll actually become the nominee. Check out this recent flub.
Fred Thompson peaked even longer ago than Huckabee. For a while there seemed to be this idea that he'd come riding in on Ronald Reagan's horse to reclaim the "real conservative" position, but since actually becoming a candidate, he's been nothing but fizzle. I don't really see him even being a factor.
Another guy whom I think has peaked is Rudy Giuliani, maybe the scariest of the viable GOP candidates. An authoritarian like Giuliani might be able to get some good accomplished as a mayor, but once he starts appointing judges, civil libertarians will be nostalgic for the days of Alberto Gonzales. If a big-city serial adulterer like him somehow won the nomination, he'd completely alienate the Christian Right, maybe even to the extent that they'd split the vote with a third-party candidate. Incidentally, this is a guy who's said he favors using public funding to pay for poor women's abortions, not a popular stance popular with economic conservatives, social conservatives, or, for that matter, many Democrats. (It's probably popular with eugenicists, though.)
One of the few Republicans on the uptick is John McCain. I'm not really sure what he did to piss off the GOP establishment and earn a reputation as a "maverick" -- was it really just campaign finance reform? Anyway, I think he's looking like a familiar old face to Republican voters unhappy with their other choices. He may yet have his moment, and he'd be a tougher opponent in the general election than the other Republican candidates, but it may just be that his time has passed. Even my "well, I disagree with him, but at least I respect him" feeling for this guy took a blow when he caved in to Bush on torture.
Well, of course, anything here will certainly be revisable pending the results of tomorrow's caucuses, and the rest of the voting over the next few weeks. This is our last chance to pontificate on these things without any real, you know, votes to get in the way of our theories.