There’s one thing that is clear the morning after the New Hampshire primary: We don’t know anything. The chattering class chatters, but what have folks been saying for the last week? That the Clinton era was over? Well, it’s apparently not! (I can’t say I’m shocked.) Politics is not a science and we should stop pretending it is.
One thing we need to bear in mind: Relatively few Americans knew former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at this time last year. He’s come far, when you think about it, and has taken second place in two key states in this process so far. Obviously, it would have helped him tremendously had he won the New Hampshire primary last night. And, additionally, it would have helped if expectations weren’t set on him winning Iowa or New Hampshire. We kept hearing that he had an extensive organization in Iowa and New Hampshire. Well, organization didn’t deliver in the chaotic caucus system in Iowa, and now it didn’t deliver in a normal primary. And that, of course, hurts him — even with a win in Wyoming.
Michigan is not going to be easy for Romney — especially with Democrats voting in the Republican primary, presumably for McCain. Losing would be a deep wound — it’s his home state, after all. Still, I don’t think that a second-place finish there finishes Romney. Let’s say that, by next week, he’s won second place in three major early contests. That’s respectable. And let’s not forget the continued presence of Fred Thompson — if he makes his first real showing in South Carolina, it makes it all the harder for someone (McCain, they say today; Huckabee, they said last Friday morning) to run away with the nomination. Meanwhile, if Thompson bows out after South Carolina, the most viable choice for conservatives may be a simple decision. In short: Romney can fight on — and I think he should.
To Senator McCain, congratulations. But he has not got this thing wrapped up by any stretch. It’s less than a year since he tried to push a disastrous immigration bill into law — one as manipulative as any pork-laden appropriations bill — with vigorous opposition from talk radio, conservative bloggers, think tanks, and the grassroots. I don’t see how such a man wins the Republican nomination. I’m second to none in praising him on his surge leadership. But on a whole host of issues — including water boarding, tax cuts, and the freedom of speech — he’s not one of us. Rush Limbaugh has emphatically stated that McCain is not a conservative — and he has more than a few listeners with similar instincts. McCain’s not going to be handed this nomination. Conservatives suspect that he’s a recipe for heartache. Sure, they may not be enthused about anyone else in a united way, but I still can’t imagine that they’ll settle for McCain.
This race remains open-ended. I say that in part because I want it to be. But also because it is.