John Podhoretz has an excellent column on Rudy today, and its appearance on the same day of the Boston Globe’s “Mitt scoop” underscores how the 2008 campaign is so fundamentally different from any previous campaign. The “inside baseball” of past years –the “money primary,” the endorsements, the special interests, the polls, the “scoops”– are all greatly diminished in “indicator” value given the Republicans’ central definition as the party serious about the war and the Democrats’ lurch back to McGovernism. As the early battles on the Hill have shown, this cycle is all about the war, and thus the Republicans will be looking for the nominee best suited to win it, the Democrats for the nominee most committed to its abandonment.
If the would-be nominees are perceived as equally committed to victory, then the second-order issues will come into play. Romney will thus be spending most of 2007 talking about Iraq and Iran in an attempt to catch up to Rudy in credibility on the war while Rudy will be working the second-order issues to avoid eclipse if Mitt makes that sale. Stories on the power point slides of Romney’s strategists, like the stories surrounding the leaked plans from Rudy’s campaign, just don’t matter much because of the seriousness of the campaign and the fundamental divide between left and right in this country.
So, you should be asking, if it is all about the war, why isn’t John McCain surging in his GOP support given his very vocal commitment to the war for all these years? Why is Dick Morris writing the senator’s political obituary? (And not just Morris, but scores of long-time GOP watchers who are quietly switching their attentions elsewhere. Note to Politco: California’s biggest Bush backer Brad Freeman is raising funds for Romney. How many other of the key Bush team have gone over to the Massachusetts governor? If I wanted to be first with the most I’d query each member of the 2005 Inaugural Committee about their preferences for 2008)
The GOP base has a trust issue with McCain, one that flows from the 2000 campaign, McCain-Feingold, the Gang of 14, the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, the September 2006 derailing of the Republican end-game strategy. McCain is fading, and not because of his age or energy level, but because the GOP electorate has to absolutely believe that the next president will be as committed to victory as Bush has been. Senator McCain’s avoidance of new media has been reinforcing the impression that he is unwilling to provide the assurances he needs to in order to regain the trust he has repeatedly broken with the GOP electorate over the years. There is time to turn that around, but Senator McCain is not making the effort, an effort that would begin by a relentless courting of the base rather than the Hardball/Meet The Press audience. Every week that Senator McCain delays launching that effort is a week in which the mayor and the governor gather more pledges and momentum. The big three could be the big two by Memorial Day.