Politics & Policy

The GOP’s Wide-Open Race

At the Values Voters conference and Orlando debate, candidates make their moves.

We’ve just come through the most revealing three-day period in the Republican presidential race so far. Before Friday and Saturday, when all the candidates appeared at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, and Sunday, when they gathered for the Fox News debate in Orlando, we wondered whether Rudy Giuliani could survive an appearance before socially conservative voters; whether Fred Thompson could show the energy that primary voters demand in a candidate; whether John McCain could regain his place in the contest’s first tier; and whether Mike Huckabee could fully ascend to that top grouping. Now, we know the answers are “yes” on all counts. Those answers, along with the continued strength of Mitt Romney — despite doubts about his record among the voters to whom it means the most — mean that there are now five real contenders for the Republican nomination. It is the most wide-open race in a very long time.

First, Giuliani. When he arrived at the Washington Hilton Hotel for the Values Voters Summit Saturday morning, he had no hope of actually winning over the crowd. There wasn’t going to be a moment when the members of the Family Research Council said, “Wow! — We were wrong about this guy and we’re now going to vote for him.” But Giuliani could show them who he was, demonstrate his respect for them by showing up and taking their concerns seriously, and emphasize the significant parts of his record — freeing New York City from the crime, drug dealing, and pornography that threatened to overtake it in the years before he became mayor — that they would find meaningful.

On that count, Giuliani succeeded, and his efforts might bear fruit later in the campaign. “He didn’t win any converts,” one FRC insider told me after Giuliani’s speech. “Not in the primaries. But he might have won some of them over for a general election.” Another insider conceded that Giuliani had probably helped himself a bit, to the dismay of some FRC staffers who felt that he should not have been invited to the gathering. “We worried about that,” the insider said. “We knew there was an upside for him.”

Giuliani did it by acknowledging the values voters’ problems with him — and by not misrepresenting himself to please them. “I’m not going to pretend to you that I can be all things to all people,” he said. “I’m just not like that. I can’t do that…Isn’t it better that I tell you what I really believe, instead of pretending to change all of my positions to fit the prevailing winds? I believe trust is more important than 100 percent agreement.”

Giuliani stressed his positions with which the audience agreed — support for welfare reform, lower taxes, law-and-order, the protection of religion from government interference, school choice, home schooling, the war on terror, and support for Israel. He listed specific things he would do to try to reduce the number of abortions and increase the number of adoptions. None of that changed his record on abortion — by far, the key issue separating him and the FRC voters — but it didn’t hurt him, either.

In the end, he came out marginally better than he went in. In the straw poll of FRC voters attending the convention — as opposed to the larger poll that included Internet votes — Giuliani placed fifth, behind Mike Huckabee, who blew the field away, Romney, Thompson, and Tom Tancredo. It wasn’t bad, given the expectations beforehand.

Next, Thompson. In his Values Voters appearance, he didn’t dispel any of the doubts about his candidacy; his speech was listlessly delivered and gave people in the room little reason for enthusiasm. But in Orlando Sunday night, Thompson woke up and became a real candidate.

“I was conservative as soon as I put down Conscience of a Conservative,” Thompson told the crowd. “In eight years in the United States Senate, I fought for tax cuts, a balanced budget, and welfare reform, all of which we achieved, and I also fought for judges who would abide by the Constitution and the law and not make it up as they went along.” As the audience began to applaud, he added, “All the time, I compiled a 100-percent pro-life voting record.” As he spoke, Thompson gave off a sense of real conviction, not of just reading a script. And when he attacked Giuliani, he really attacked: “Mayor Giuliani believes in federal funding for abortion. He believes in sanctuary cities. He’s for gun control. He supported Mario Cuomo, a liberal Democrat, against a Republican who was running for governor; then opposed the governor’s tax cuts when he was there.” It was sharp stuff, and after the lost opportunity at the FRC — and a brief and poorly-received appearance before Republican activists in Orlando — it was a critical moment for the Thompson campaign.

Next, McCain. He, too, had not done himself any good with a lifeless and pro-forma appearance at the FRC gathering — he finished seventh in the on-site straw poll, behind Sam Brownback, who had just withdrawn from the debate. But in Orlando, he showed why, whatever his faults, he will always have a place in the Republican top tier.

Denouncing excessive federal spending, he focused on the recent attempt to appropriate money for a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock festival. “In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on a Woodstock Concert Museum,” McCain said. “Now, my friends, I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event — “As the audience began to laugh — not a big laugh, but an amused one — McCain added, “I was tied up at the time.”

The audience roared, applauded, and then stood up to show their appreciation for McCain. It was McCain’s single most effective use of his record as a naval aviator and prisoner-of-war in this campaign. And it reminded Republicans how much they deeply respect him, despite his sometimes maddening positions. It was a major I’m-still-here moment for the senator from Arizona.

As for Huckabee — he did well in Orlando, but he has done well in all the Republican debates. His true winning moment came in Washington, where he simply ran laps around the other speakers at the Values Voters Summit. It was perhaps the most overtly religious speech that Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, has given on the campaign trail — more of a sermon at times. For readers who were not there, it is worth an extended quotation:

We ought not to see things like the world does because most of you, probably like me, grew up being tutored in Sunday school. And I don’t know about you, but I never outgrew some of that. I don’t guess I outgrew any of it. You see, I was led to believe that it was a lot better to be with David — that little shepherd boy with five smooth stones– than it was with Goliath with all his heavy armor. I was thought that it was better to be Daniel than it was a whole den full of lions because Daniel would come out better off then those lions. It went to sleep before it was all over. I was taught that it was better to be one of the three Hebrew children than it was to be the fiery flames of the furnace, because with God’s power those flames couldn’t even leave the smell of smoke on the lives and the clothes of those three Hebrew children.

I was taught to believe that it was better to be Elijah with an altar that had been soaked not once, not twice, but three times with water than it was to be 850 prophets of Ba’al screaming and yelling all day long for the fire to fall on Mount Carmel. I was led to believe that we serve a God who stood in the middle of a boat in the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a storm and said for the storm to stop and it did, or a Jesus who took mud and put it in the eyes of a blind man and he could see again. And one who could take two little fish and five biscuits and feed a crowd of 5,000 people and have enough leftovers that it would make the disciples realize that there was never an end to the supply of what our God could do when our people had faith — a savior who in fact could even go to the tomb of a dead man named Lazarus, so dead that the Scripture says he already was stinking — that’s pretty blunt, folks — (laughter) — and he made him live again.

I don’t want ever for us to let expediency or electability replace our principles as the new value. The new value needs to be the old value. We believe in some things. We stand by those things. We live or die by those things.

It was a speech Huckabee would not have given in another situation, and it was too strong for many general audiences. But in the room at the Washington Hilton, it was an enormous success. Huckabee destroyed the field in the FRC on-site straw poll, and that performance, plus his rise in polls in Iowa, led many observers to begin including him among the top-tier candidates.

Finally, there is Romney. Both his performance at the Values Voters Summit and in Orlando were workmanlike and professional; it’s unlikely that a man as thorough, careful, and successful as Romney would ever be anything less. But it’s fair to say that Romney did not move the ball at either event. The doubts that nag socially conservative voters about him still remained after the FRC gathering, and after Orlando it became clear that he faces a newly-energized and expanded field. There are still more than ten weeks to go before the first voters head to the caucuses in Iowa. After this weekend, it is a big and wide-open race.


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