The Unclear Republican Presidential Contest

The Republican presidential primary contest appears to be in great flux. The field is large, with ten candidates competing for the nomination.

Almost since the beginning, the rank order of the announced candidates has remained the same, defined by three distinct tiers. The top tier includes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The next tier includes former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and former Wisconsin governor and Bush cabinet member Tommy Thompson. Also running are three Republican members of Congress: California’s Duncan Hunter, Colorado’s Tom Tancredo, and Ron Paul of Texas, and former Virginian Governor Jim Gilmore.

Early on, personality appeared to driving the poll numbers of the top three candidates: Giuliani was seen as the tough mayor who secured his role as a national figure for the confidence he inspired in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; McCain retained his highly regarded reputation as the maverick Republican who, while strong on national security and traditional conservative issues, was willing to break ranks with his party on issues like campaigns finance reform, torture and immigration reform; and Romney, a moderate Republican governor, twice elected in liberal Massachusetts, was seen as filling the role of the "electable one."

More recently, however, issues have come into play; and their impact may alter the landscape.

The Republican coalition, as defined recently by the leader of a prominent conservative group has, since Reagan’s time, stood on three legs: fiscal conservatism, national security, and defense of family values. Holding the three together has long been central to ensuring Republican victories. The defeats of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole in 1992 and 1996, respectively, were attributed to their failures to sustain this coalition. And while John McCain appeared set to win the Republican party’s nod in 2000, it was his alienation of religious conservatives which both helped define him as a maverick independent and ultimately cost him the votes he needed to win the Republican nomination.

It is not surprising, therefore, that this year McCain would make overtures to religious conservatives in an effort shore up his candidacy, even though in doing so it took the luster off of his claim to be an independent. In the same vein, it was not surprising to see Romney, whose support for abortion rights and gay rights helped to define his moderate governorship, would similarly move towards religious conservatives by professing conversion on both issues.

Alone among the top tier candidates, Giuliani has consistently stood his ground in defense of abortion rights. While winning the praise of some, this may ultimately cost him the support of the religious right. This week, for example, the heads of two major organizations announced that they could not support Giuliani’s candidacy because of his position on abortion. They speculate that, while Giuliani remains in the lead in national polling, it is because most Republicans don’t know of his unorthodox positions – and when they do, his numbers will drop.

And so it is, with McCain looking less independent and Romney’s late term conversion being questioned, and Giuliani under attack from the religious right, the possibility now exists for second tier candidates with more solidly conservative records on social issues to emerge as competitors.

As the field currently stands, with Giuliani in the lead followed by McCain and Romney and the others trailing far behind, the questions to be asked are: will Republicans, hungry for victory, support Giuliani despite his personal "indiscretions" (among them his three marriages) and his position on abortion? Does McCain continue to inspire more independent-minded Republicans, or has he lost them with his courting of the religious right? And will religious conservatives support Romney despite their questions about his commitment to their issues, and his Mormon faith (which many fundamentalists view with suspicion).

Even if second-tier candidates do not emerge as competitors, looming on the horizon are four strong Republican figures who may, by entering the race, significantly alter its dynamic. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, continues to signal that he may enter the contest in the fall. Gingrich is a nationally recognized figure and, despite his troubled personal life, is clearly one of the most articulate conveyors of the Reagan vision. Former Senator Fred Thompson, who broke onto the national stage as lead Republican attorney during the Watergate crisis, and is now nationally known as a television and movie actor, is also considering entering the contest. A draft Thompson effort underway among southern Republicans, is gaining ground. Thompson may enter as early as next month

If this were not enough, two other Republicans, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, appear to be flirting with a joint independent run for the White House. A Bloomberg-Hagel/Hagel Bloomberg ticket has been the subject of press speculation following a recent luncheon between the two men. Hagel is a long-time critic of Bush’s foreign policy, and Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire, is known to be a man of great ambition with the finances to back them up. An independent candidacy of the two men would create enormous havoc not only for Republicans, but in the national contest as well.

Despite the hyperactivity that characterizes the contest thus far, all signs point to the fact that it is far too early for a clear picture to emerge of how the contest will play out.