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Romney’s New Hampshire Lead And McCain’s Bubble

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The USA-Gallup Poll puts Mitt Romney solidly atop the New Hampshire field, with a 7 point lead over John McCain, 34 to 27, and Rudy at 11 and Huck and Ron Paul at 9.  Expect Romney to fiercely defend this lead even as he attempts a comeback in Iowa.  Romney has the best position –at or near the top of the first three contests, plenty of money, and a lot more story to tell.  He’s absorbed every hit the field could deliver including the latest silly debate over whether his father was with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement.The anti-Romney spammers fill my e-mail box with accusations, and the mature voters laugh and laugh at them.  This is an election about the war, the global economy, the border, the teetering mortgage industry, and the future of the courts, the explosion of entitlement debt.  It is, in short, an election about an enormous array of very complicated issues.  Voters are serious and informed in ways they have never been before, and the first GOP primary in the era of new media does not allow the absurd to derail the serious.  Thus Romney’s support has and will remain solid, and may even grow as focus on the challenges ahead underscore the importance of smarts and competence married to energy and a presidential appearance.

Mike Huckabee continues to take spear after spear, and the renewed signs of life in John McCain’s campaign are bringing back the memories about why he faded so far in the summer and fall (and remains far back among the base that will decide the nomination –opposition to tax cuts, McCain-Feingold, the Gang of 14, the McCain-Kennedy immigration amnesty, and the McCain-Graham theatrics of September, 2008 which derailed many judicial nominations and GOP momentum into the 2006 vote.  More to follow.)

Despite Patrick’s analysis below, Rudy remains the biggest threat to Romney, though one that will materialize in late January, after Romney has carried two or three of the earliest contests and reminded the punditocracy what the National Review editors already knew:  The GOP nominates the most conservative candidate who is electable.  At that point Rudy will stake his claim on electability grounds, with attempts to win in the big blue states.  That will be a test of the GOP base’s belief in its beliefs.  Romney’s conservative platform, strengthened by primary wins, against Rudy’s magnetism.  February 5 will be a very interesting day.

On the Mike Huckabee front, many are worried that the former Arkansas governor is splitting the party.  He’s not, of course, even though Michael Barone and E.J. Dionne are debating whether Huck is channeling William Jennings Bryan. 

Barone: “Republicans should understand that [Huckabee’s] nomination would move the party left on foreign and economic issues. He’s more like William Jennings Bryan than like Ronald Reagan.”

Dionne:  “Huckabee is no William Jennings Bryan, the great fundamentalist scourge of big business a century ago.”

Huck’s a pro-life, pro-marriage neopopulist.  He won’t be the nominee, but he also won’t split the party.  Instead he’ll be a fixture on the campaign trail with either Romney or Giuliani. (Though not as the VP –Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty still looks like the perfect match for Romney, while Romney would be the obvious choice for Rudy.)

To the prophets of party doom, I note only that Justice Stevens is 87, Justice Ginsburg 74, Justices Kennedy and Scalia 71, Justice Breyer 69 and Justice Souter 68.  There’s plenty to bring the party together after the playoffs are over.

The unfortunate byproduct of the McCain bubble in New Hampshire is the obligation to revisit why it is that McCain faded in the first place.  It would have been better all around if he’d bowed out after a disappointing finish in the Granite State, a resolute voice for victory, an American hero, but a fellow who’s time had come and gone.  But Huck’s rise in Iowa combined with the Lieberman endorsement has created a certain to be short-lived boomlet in McCain futures.  It also reminds us why he faded in the first place when he ought to have been triumphing in the way MSM has been predicting since 2004.

Let’s start with the Gang of 14 coup that undercut a carefully calibrated strategy developed between then Majority Leader Frist and the White House, a coup that still rankles. The line of stalled judicial nominees –good men and women whom John McCain threw under the bus for a headline, along with other nominees sacrificed in the spring of 2006– is long and growing longer with every month.  Senator McCain avoids every serious discussion of his failed “compromise” and declares that he saved the judicial filibuster for the GOP, an extra-constitutional power the GOP ought not to want.  Up-or-down votes for nominees who clear committee was the rule that Frist and the vast majority of Republicans wanted –the constitutional option.  John McCain put his interests ahead of those of the party and the base.  It was the moment that undid his comeback with the party willing to forgive the McCain-Feingold folly, and he hasn’t recovered and cannot recover because the courts mean so much to each part of the party, but not to Senator McCain.

To that sharp memory of McCain as anti-party maverick, add the McCain grandstanding of September, 2006 when Bill Frist convened the Senate with a timetable to address the treatment and interrogation of terrorists, surveillance of terrorists and confirmation of judicial nominees beginning with Peter Keisler, and Senators McCain and Graham threw in enough monkeywrenches to derail the entire schedule –for what?  The language on torture that emerged made no substantive change to American law, but Senator McCain’s theatrics did stop Bill Frist from a series of legislative victories that might have made him a rival to the perceived McCain lead in the GOP nomination race.

The GOP Senate majority was lost, of course, and many believe the 55-45 solid majority was a victim of McCain’s grandstanding throughout the second Bush term combined with the rise of the 527s that his vaunted anti-First Amendment law, McCain Feingold, birthed.  Peter Keisler never got his committee vote, and still languishes in the Patrick Leahy controlled Judiciary Committee.  The McCain-Feingold powered 527s continue to proliferate and distort the politics of the new century, and parts of the McCain masterpiece have been declared the obvious unconstitutional restraints on political speech that they are, but from Senator McCain we get zero remorse for this First Amendment fiasco. 

There hasn’t been much point in discussing this record while Senator McCain faded and saw his funds dip to almost nothing.  But now he’s back, the favorite of Independents in New Hampshire, and his pals in the MSM are trying to foist him again on the GOP.  Romney’s lead hasn’t buckled in New Hampshire, and McCain’s numbers haven’t risen with GOP regulars for a very good reason –you don’t get to lead the party you have consistently undercut for a decade. 

So as attention turns to Christmas and then football and resolutions, we are exactly where the GOP always ends up: gathering behind the most conservative, electable Republican, who this year turns out to be Mitt Romney.

UPDATEThe Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza calls it the same way:

The Fix has spent countless hours trying to figure out which Republican will ultimately claim the nomination. And, for this week at least, that man is Mitt Romney.

Yes, Romney has been passed by Huckabee in Iowa, and his record as Massachusetts governor is coming under heavy scrutiny. But when you look at the entire early playing field, Romney seems the best positioned wind up as the final GOP candidate standing.

As the Post-ABC Iowa poll showed, Romney’s support in the state has remained remarkably stable in the face of the Huckabee surge. Romney is still seen as the most electable candidate in the field and the one with the right experience to be president. The growing importance of immigration as an issue to Iowa Republicans dovetails nicely with Romney’s attacks on Huckabee’s record as governor of Arkansas.

And, in New Hampshire Romney continues to hold a double-digit lead in most independent (and reliable) polling. With Giuliani deemphasizing New Hampshire, that leaves Romney, McCain and (likely) Huckabee to duke it out in the state. Romney should feel good about his chances in that fight.

Don’t forget — as many people seem to be doing — that Michigan’s Republican primary is set for Jan. 15. Romney, who was born in the state and whose father served as its governor, is a strong favorite to win there. The Nevada caucuses, set for Jan. 19, remain an unknown variable in the nominating calculus, but Romney is running a strong second there (behind) Giuliani and should benefit from the state’s large Mormon population.

So, even if Romney loses Iowa, he still appears to be on solid ground in New Hampshire and Michigan — giving him wins in at least two of the first four voting states. No other candidate has two states on such solid footing at the moment. Therefore, Romney takes over the No. 1 spot on this week’s Line.


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