The non-McCain primary has begun. There are two major slots in the battle for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination–one for Arizona maverick John McCain, the other for some other candidate. So the battle is on to be, as insiders put it, “the non-McCain,” the conservative who will try to stand athwart the sometimes unorthodox, party-defying McCain for the nomination.
McCain is assured top billing in the nomination race, and his challenge has little to do with other candidates–his imperative is to re-assure GOP regulars that they can trust him. But there will be clawing to get to the top of the non-McCain heap. Depending on how successful McCain’s reassurance campaign is, this fight could be for the inside track to the nomination. It is shaping up as a battle between Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Virginia Sen. George Allen.
Romney vs. Allen could well become a classic of intra-Republican conflict, featuring two equally formidable politicians jockeying to occupy nearly identical ideological ground. Romney is off to a strong start. He is a polished performer on TV, and people are noticing. He is good-looking, charming and articulate–so impressive that at times one has to wonder how he found himself tossed among all of us mere mortals.
The governorship of Massachusetts isn’t a natural launching pad for a Republican presidential run. But Romney has shrewdly leveraged his position there into an ongoing social-conservative credential. He has been in fights with liberals on every social issue imaginable–gay marriage, cloning, abstinence education, emergency contraception, gay adoption. At times, it’s almost been as if the conservative capital of America has been in that tiny slice of Boston occupied by Romney’s office.
Romney isn’t running for a second term this year, which frees him up for energetic presidential stumping and organizing, all for the cause of getting a leg up on Allen. The Virginia senator is as affable a politician as exists in America. The son and namesake of the famous football coach, Allen is such a perfect representative of football-obsessed, NASCAR-loving Red State America–down to the cowboy boots and the spit cup–that you couldn’t create a better specimen in the laboratory.
Allen’s natural political skills and his down-the-line conservatism have fueled the strongly favorable insider buzz about his candidacy. But Allen is running for re-election this year, limiting the organizing he can do in early primary states. If his Democratic challenger in Virginia is former Reagan Navy secretary and Iraq War critic James Webb, and if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, Allen could find himself embroiled in a bruising, nationally watched referendum on the course of the war.
Allen’s circumstances are sticky in another way. A great populist wave is building against Washington, and he has been sitting in the Senate for six years, losing some of his edge. Romney is perfectly positioned to blast away at the bloated and out-of-touch Beltway, since he has never voted for any federal spending programs nor taken any congressional pork. After eight years of President Bush, there might be a thirst, even among Republicans, for a different cultural feel in a candidate, a sentiment that would help the smooth Romney.
But Allen has advantages of his own. For many primary voters, a conservative from Virginia will more naturally compute than one from Massachusetts. Although Allen doesn’t have flawless social-conservative credentials himself, he will be able to point to Romney’s stark recent conversion from pro-choice to pro-life. Perhaps most importantly, beneath Allen’s easygoing exterior is a fierce competitor who knows how to hit, and hit hard. Opponents beware.
It is early yet. A dark horse could emerge, or Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist–a candidate who is widely discounted because he is thought to have a political tin ear–could surprise. But it looks like it’s going to be Allen vs. Romney–a race that could be tremendously entertaining and, with Bush’s domestic and foreign agendas increasingly tattered, momentous for the GOP.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate