Remember when Rudy Giuliani was the talk of the Republican presidential contest? It wasn’t so long ago, and it’s worth recalling that in addition to winning the “pundit primary,” the mayor had a real strategy for winning the GOP nomination despite being out of step with a key voting group, social conservatives. It was to count on Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson to split the conservative vote in the early states, eliminating the possibility of a momentum candidate and allowing Giuliani to win the biggest January prize, Florida, and thus bounce most of the Super-Duper Tuesday pinballs into his slot, winning the game.
Rudy’s strategy essentially succeeded — but he didn’t. The scenario still required the moderate protagonist to compete in the early states, even if he didn’t win them, in order to stay in the headlines and not fade into the background. John McCain lacked Giuliani’s fundraising prowess and campaign pros, but he strode valiantly into the fight, anyway. It was a telling decision for a war hero and famously combative senator, and it worked.
Romney’s people are right to point out that McCain’s margin isn’t large, and that next Tuesday’s balloting is the real do-or-die for him, not Florida’s. But Huckabee is staying in (possibly in hopes of winning McCain’s favor when the veep selection rolls around), Giuliani is likely getting out (at least tacitly endorsing McCain), and that means a continued split among GOP conservatives vs. unity among GOP moderates and GOP-leaning independents.
The larger significance? I’d say we are seeing the return of the Republican party of Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. The Republican party of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich will sit on the sidelines for a bit, perhaps to rest up for the next game. The mainstream media, a key McCain political constituency, will cheer. The conservative movement will groan, grimace, and then after Super-Duper Tuesday start talking up what they like about McCain — beginning but not ending with his Iraq policy — while turning their attention back to the manifest flaws of one Hillary Rodham Clinton.
– John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation.