The next presidential campaign won’t officially start until after the midterm elections, but it is of course already underway. Here’s a roundup of the GOP field, with advice for what each potential candidate might do in 2006 to boost his (or her) chances of winning the Republican nomination in 2008.
Below, the contenders are listed in the order of how they placed in the National Journal’s December “insiders poll”–a survey of 100 Republican politicians and consultants who were asked to rank the candidates and their chances. The results are based on a calculation that grants five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place vote, and so on, for a maximum possible score of 500. In the parentheses after the candidates’ names are two numbers: Their score in the National Journal poll, followed by the percentage of Republicans who picked them as their preferred choice for the nomination in a CNN/USA Today poll conducted in the second week of December.
GEORGE ALLEN (365/7%): The Virginia senator’s top priority must be his own reelection, which shouldn’t pose a serious problem because the one candidate who might give him trouble (outgoing Gov. Mark Warner) isn’t running. Yet Allen knows the perils of looking upfield before catching the ball–and a lackluster win rather than an impressive one will raise eyebrows. Because so many Beltway Republicans think he holds the inside track to the nomination, Allen will be tempted simply to nurture his already good relationships with conservatives. But risk avoidance may also make him vulnerable, and the senator could benefit from picking a fight on an issue that motivates the Right, especially one that contrasts his own position against McCain’s. Illegal immigration is one possibility, especially with McCain cosponsoring guest-worker legislation with Ted Kennedy. Another possibility is paycheck protection on the federal level, because McCain never bothered with it during the campaign-finance debate.
JOHN MCCAIN (337/22%): The Arizona senator is the most defined figure among the 2008 candidates. The upside is a high name recognition that will help him if the GOP field is crowded; the downside is that his relationship with many conservatives is beyond repair. McCain would do well to join forces with Sen. Tom Coburn and attack Washington’s spendthrift ways–he has always been rhetorically strong on government spending, and conservatives are viewing the problem with rising levels of exasperation. It is perhaps the best and only way for McCain to offset his record of opposing President Bush’s tax cuts. He would also do himself a lot of favors by campaigning for conservatives in 2006, including perhaps in a contested primary or two. McCain almost certainly won’t endorse Steve Laffey over Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. But suppose he did. Some conservatives might give him a second look.
MITT ROMNEY (168/2%): As the front-running governor, Romney of Massachusetts occupies a privileged position. This is his final year to accomplish anything as an office holder; starting in 2007, he’ll be limited to delivering speeches. His top goal for 2006 is to enact health-care legislation that provides universal coverage through market mechanisms, which could put some real substance behind new claims of a Massachusetts Miracle. As head of the Republican Governors Association, he should travel the country and spend time among red-state voters who may be skeptical of a politician from Massachusetts. He will also need to burnish his pro-life credentials, possibly through a Cooper Union-style speech that explains his rhetorical record and convinces activists that he has experienced a conversion of conscience rather than convenience. Finally, Romney should establish a media presence during the Winter Olympics, in order to remind Americans explicitly of how he cleaned up the Salt Lake City games and implicitly of how he’s unblemished by D.C. corruption.
RUDY GIULIANI (149/30%): The former mayor of New York City is both one of the best-loved and least-electable Republicans–conservatives embrace his anti-crime and post-9/11 record, but they can’t see themselves supporting a man who holds the social values of a Manhattan liberal. To create goodwill, Giuliani should spend every waking minute stumping for conservative candidates at all levels. Visible and vigorous campaigning for Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania especially might help. He should also talk about judges as much as possible, and let everyone know that he regards John Roberts and Sam Alito as outstanding Supreme Court nominees. This would allow activists to believe that he’d be friendly on the issue that lies at the heart of pro-life and pro-marriage activism.
BILL FRIST (93/3%): For the Senate Majority Leader, the sooner the year ends, the better. Frist’s current job has elevated his stature, but it also holds him at least partially responsible for Republican failings in the Senate. Has there ever been a Senate Majority Leader who was more admired at the end of his tenure than at the start? November’s Senate elections will be interpreted as a referendum on Frist’s leadership and losing seats–especially Santorum’s in Pennsylvania–would be a major blow. Given the widespread expectation that 2006 will be a good year for Democrats, merely holding the GOP’s 55-seat majority might be enough for Frist to declare victory and provide a bounce heading into 2007.
HALEY BARBOUR (92/2%): Hurricane Haley is perhaps the only elected official who boosted his reputation in the wake of Katrina. It’s too bad that he couldn’t have been the governor of Louisiana in addition to Mississippi. His challenge for 2006 is to help reconstruct his own state’s coastal region without demanding unseemly levels of federal aid. He may also want to put out the word among his well-positioned network of GOP activists that they shouldn’t sign up with other candidates. From his time as head of the Republican National Committee, Barbour retains enormous levels of goodwill among the party’s county chairmen and grassroots activists. If he runs in 2008, he will need their help to run a flawless ground game and score some early upsets. But will voters flock to a successful former lobbyist or will the stench of K Street encourage them to pass over a man with Barbour’s resume?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE (61/N.A.): Many candidates who run for president lack foreign-policy credentials. Rice’s challenge would be the reverse: She has virtually no record on domestic matters–and what conservatives know about her isn’t encouraging. On abortion, she is apparently pro-choice; on racial preferences, she is apparently a supporter of affirmative action. She would need to demonstrate that she is a conservative on just about everything else. It probably isn’t wise to seek the presidency in a first attempt at public office, and Rice has said she isn’t running. If and when she throws her hat in the ring, perhaps it should be for governor of California, in 2010. For now, it may best that Rice devote herself fully to the problems of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as well as jump starting the stalled world-trade talks.
GEORGE PATAKI (39/N.A.): Apart an unlikely round of tax cuts that will return the governor of New York to the form he displayed during his first term, there is probably only one thing that could revive Pataki in 2006–and that’s the tall order of seeing a Republican succeed him in Albany. It would go a long way toward undoing the perception that Pataki has been an abominably bad party builder in the Empire State. Without some new accomplishment, Republicans will wonder why they should support a governor who continues to preside over a state with the country’s highest tax burden despite having served a dozen years in office.
NEWT GINGRICH (37/N.A.): The former Speaker of the House has made headlines recently for teaming up with Sen. Hillary Clinton on health-care legislation that would modernize medical record-keeping. It is apparently a worthy bill, and Gingrich should see that it becomes law as quickly as possible. This will allow him to quit having his picture taken with the front-running Democratic presidential candidate and also provide enough time for the law to have a noticeable effect. In addition, Gingrich would be smart to associate himself with House spending reformers, such as Jeff Flake (Arizona), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), and Mike Pence (Indiana). This would demonstrate that he’s not an ousted revolutionary from a bygone era but the ever-watchful guardian of conservative reform. Gingrich is also probably helped if 2006 is a lousy year for GOP candidates–it might create a hunger for a guy who once demonstrated an ability to build majorities.
CHUCK HAGEL (35/N.A.): The Nebraska senator has been perhaps the biggest Republican critic of the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq. In this one area, he should aspire to be more like McCain, the senator to whom he is often compared: He should be forthrightly pro-war. GOP primary voters are unlikely to find themselves casting ballots for the Council on Foreign Relation’s pet Republican.
JEB BUSH (30/N.A.): If this presidential brother were to suggest he might run in 2008, he would immediately become a major contender. His last name would be both a blessing and a curse. The main reason why conservatives like him has much less to do with his bloodline than with his impressive record as governor of Florida. Because of this, Bush’s priorities in 2006 should be to build upon prior accomplishments. Expanding school choice in his state would be an important victory.
MIKE HUCKABEE (28/N.A.): The governor of Arkansas should undo his second-term tax increases. Otherwise, he’s just a pro-life Pataki.
SAM BROWNBACK (18/N.A.): Among social conservatives, the senator from Kansas possesses sterling credentials. He could become the John Ashcroft of this cycle, which perhaps isn’t saying much because Ashcroft dropped out of the 2000 race before the first primary. Brownback would serve himself well by courting economic conservatives in 2006; he might begin by proposing a major piece of pro-growth legislation or identifying himself with the flat tax. If he can unite the former supporters of both Ashcroft and Steve Forbes, he might stand a chance. A better-than-expected showing in the primaries could catapult him to the top of many vice-presidential short lists.
MARK SANFORD (7/N.A.): The governor of South Carolina appears to have taken himself out of the 2008 race without ever having gotten into it, but conservatives applaud him so loudly he shouldn’t be discounted until it really is too late. Sanford would be well served by achieving the major legislative accomplishments that so far have eluded him: Delivering on tax cuts or school choice would provide a big boost.
RICK SANTORUM (7/N.A.): Win!
TIM PAWLENTY (5/N.A.): The darkest of dark horses, the governor of Minnesota might have been wise to hold out for a better budget agreement than the one he got last summer, after Democrats forced a temporary government shutdown. Aggressive tax cuts should be the next item on his agenda. He could become an attractive running mate.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..