The smartest assessment this week of the presidential campaign was not typed on deadline by a world-weary pundit nor whispered into a cellphone by a shadowy political operative nor even concocted by the wild-and-crazy writers for a late-night TV comic. Instead it sprang from the unlikely lips of Mitt Romney, who uttered a sentence that should be enshrined in Bartlett's and pasted on the BlackBerrys of every campaign reporter in the land. In the midst of a self-serving, but nonetheless spot-on riff Thursday about the unreliability of polls, Romney said, "The fun thing about this stage in politics is that almost everything that's being written will be proven wrong."
Political journalism normally has the life expectancy of a child's first goldfish. But the struggle to become the man in the spotlight under the confetti drop at the climax of the 2008 GOP convention defies all rational handicapping. Each of the four leading candidates -- Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain -- has crippling liabilities. In fact, the Republican competition resembles not so much a race (even a three-legged one) as it does a sick call for elephants.
Just this week alone, a secret cabal of 50 social conservative leaders threatened to bolt the Republican Party if a pro-abortion-rights candidate like Giuliani is the nominee. McCain, who continues to take flak for his moderate stance on immigration, announced his fundraising total of $5 million for the third quarter, a paltry sum that put him on par with -- drum roll, please -- antiwar libertarian gadfly Ron Paul. Meanwhile, a front-page New York Times story reflected the revised conventional wisdom about the only actor-politician in the race with this headline: "Subdued Thompson Stirs Few Sparks on Stump." Once hailed as a Ronald Reagan for the 21st century, Thompson seems to be channeling only the former president's "Bedtime for Bonzo" phase.
Romney, the former one-term Massachusetts governor, should in theory be the beneficiary of this collective meltdown. Addressing a largely student audience at St. Anselm College here Thursday morning, the 60-year-old Romney certainly looked like a prospective president with his dark hair, jutting chin and crisp white shirt with sleeves carefully rolled up. In fact, he looked so good that it was easy to imagine his doppelgänger -- a grotesque painting in the attic of this straight-arrow version of Dorian Gray.
His campaign is built around town meetings that are billed as "Ask Mitt Anything," though in truth they should carry the disclaimer "But Expect Canned Answers." In New Hampshire, where economic conservatives dominate, Romney is on firm footing when he warbles an anti-tax message and boasts of his fidelity to the Red Sox. (He did admit to making only his first pilgrimage to Fenway Park this season for Wednesday night's playoff game, but the indefatigable Romney has logged far more hours on the stump than his major rivals.)
But Romney risks being associated with another sport -- windsurfing. Far more than any Republican in the race, Romney is ridiculed as a flip-flopper, running as a social liberal against Ted Kennedy in a failed 1994 Senate bid, as a moderate in his successful 2002 race for governor, and now as an unswerving traditional-values conservative. Romney has a more serious problem, and it's not that he lacks even a glimmer of foreign-policy experience, aside from his service as a Mormon missionary in France during the Vietnam War. In a year when an African-American, a woman and several Catholics are major presidential candidates, Romney is a contender who risks being upended by bigotry. A national poll in August by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 39 percent of white evangelical voters admit to an unfavorable view of Mormonism.
Desperate Republicans hoping that another candidate would somehow displace this flawed foursome might as well give up and spend their time rereading Dick Morris' prophetic work: "Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race." Newt Gingrich -- a Republican savior mostly in his own mind -- ended his dance of indecision this week. And Gov. Mike Huckabee, long the press pack's favorite GOP long shot, just released D-for-dismal third-quarter fundraising numbers: An embarrassing $1 million in his best showing yet. After two terms as governor of Arkansas, it remains baffling that Huckabee cannot attract more major donors eternally grateful for, say, guardrail contracts with the state.
Contemplating the Republican race conjures up manager Casey Stengel's famous lament over the hapless (they lost a record 120 games) 1962 Mets: "Can't anybody here play this game?" But, despite downward trends to the contrary, someone bearing the name of Romney, Giuliani, McCain or Thompson is going to be on the Republican line on every ballot in November 2008. With roughly three months to go before the opening-gun contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, how to sort it out?
Beware of all national polls, no matter what they say. History consistently has shown that national horse-race numbers gyrate wildly after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. As Romney (who has not scored above 13 percent in any recent national survey) adroitly argued at a Thursday morning press conference, "When you start winning -- if you start winning -- primaries and caucuses, you will see that translate into higher national numbers." Put another way, a mid-September Pew Research Center poll found that only 27 percent of American voters claimed they were giving "a lot" of thought to the presidential race. This number suggests that many of the impressions of the candidates (particularly Romney and the still ill-defined Thompson) remain vague and the outlines will be filled in only after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Believe it or not, we still do not have firm dates for the formal start of the political season. The best current guess is that the Iowa caucuses will be on either Jan. 3 or Jan. 5, immediately followed by the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8. Scott Reed, who was Bob Dole's campaign manager in 1996 but is not taking an active role in the 2008 race, predicted, "That calendar magnifies Iowa by a factor of 10."
Reed's point is that if the window between Iowa and New Hampshire is only three days (compared with eight days in recent campaigns), voters here in the Granite State will go to the polls heavily influenced by the headlines emerging out of the caucuses. That truncated schedule might well imperil McCain (who skipped the Iowa caucuses in 2000 because of his then opposition to ethanol subsidies) and cause difficulties for Giuliani. (The awkward fact that he moved in with a gay couple when his second wife, Donna Hanover, threw him out of Gracie Mansion may not play well in the heartland.)
But Giuliani's larger problem in Iowa and New Hampshire may simply be that he does not appear to enjoy personal campaigning. Accompanied by his current wife -- Judi Nathan, who wore more gold jewelry than is usually seen on the campaign trail -- Giuliani spent Wednesday touring the fine diners of southern New Hampshire. It was an odd procession, since Giuliani's major contact with the voters came from signing baseballs, copies of the 2001 Time magazine that named him Person of the Year, campaign brochures and stray pieces of paper. At times, it was hard to tell whether Giuliani was winning new supporters or just creating new merchandise to be sold on eBay.
Over an egg-white omelet (mandated by his wife) at MaryAnn's diner in Derry, Giuliani engaged in his one lengthy conversation of the campaign day -- an animated discussion of the Yankees (a major passion) and the Red Sox. Those searching for clues to the depths of Rudy's social conservatism might note his old-school baseball beliefs: "I think every player should bunt and they should bunt more." His wife broke in to add, "It's a moral position with him."
But more telling were the three New Hampshire voters in the booth with Giuliani and Nathan: the candidate's state coordinator, and the diner owner and his son. Normally when candidates work diners, they actually eat with the customers. But while the thrice-married Giuliani and his thrice-married wife talked baseball, watching from afar was a woman clearly enamored of another New York institution -- the theater. She was wearing a T-shirt advertising a community theater production of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
Given Giuliani's limitations as a handshaking candidate and Romney's all-too-convenient social conservatism, it is premature to write off McCain (who seems to be on the rebound in New Hampshire) and the folksy Thompson, who still has time to learn how to play a presidential candidate.
But it may prove troublesome for the former Tennessee senator -- ballyhooed until recently as the stop-Giuliani candidate -- that he upped the ante in his own feud with James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family who in March sniffed, "I don't think he's a Christian." At the end of a 30-minute Fox News interview Wednesday night, during most of which Thompson held his squirming 4-year-old daughter on his knee, Thompson grumpily said of Dobson, "If he wants to call up and apologize ... it's OK with me. But I'm not going to dance to anybody's tune."
Rich Galen, a strategist for Thompson, summed up the factors likely to animate GOP voters. "There are three questions," Galen said. "Can you defend America? Can you defeat Hillary? And who are you comfortable voting for?" The candidate -- not necessarily Thompson -- who scores highest on this three-part test is indeed apt to be the nominee. But any more definitive prediction, as Romney knows well, is almost certain to be proved wrong.