I watched the New Hampshire Republican Forum on Fox last night. Chris Wallace was an excellent moderator, asking tough questions, quoting candidates’ previous statements back to them, and instigating debate between the candidates. One such debate that was really interesting was over whether executive or senatorial experience was more important, which turned into Romney-Huckabee-Giuliani against McCain and Thompson. The discussion turned into a travelogue of sorts, with the various candidates citing all the countries they had visited. Huckabee brought up the rear on this one. He did mention that he had been to Israel nine times. The format wasn’t good for him; he was on the defensive for most of the night, and he didn’t have the opportunity to be folksy. There were times when he looked and sounded very much like the governor of a small and insignificant state. Giuliani answered every question with some variation of, “I have more experience at this than anyone else.” On experience with foreign affairs, it was that he dealt with foreign affairs more than anyone else because it is in the DNA of the job, with the United Nations in New York City. Not persuasive. He did make the point that he was the only candidate who had actual experience with a terrorist attack. Romney gave one of his better performances (of which there have been few). He and McCain had another testy exchange over illegal immigration and amnesty. McCain’s response was a bit too disgusted. If it were not for this issue, McCain would be pulling away from the pack.
Readers are no doubt aware that the latest polls show Obama and McCain with comfortable leads in New Hampshire. One of the big questions about this election cycle was whether the accelerated pace of the early primary season, culminating with 22 primaries on February 5, would make Iowa and New Hampshire more or less important in determining the eventual nominees. As of today, you would have to say that the first two states, so unrepresentative of the country, are having their usual disproportionate effect. The most significant thing that happened in Iowa was who lost: Romney and Clinton. Romney was the threat to run the table: win Iowa, win New Hampshire, and ride the momentum and his money to the Republican nomination. Ain’t gonna happen. Clinton posed the same threat on the Democratic side, but she and Romney share the same defect: They are stiff and overly cautious and play the game not to make a mistake — and that was their mistake. They just don’t relate well to ordinary people, and candidates who don’t relate well to ordinary people should not choose politics for a career. Neither of the favorites could inspire voters. Romney has always seemed like a cipher to me. I felt that he never provided the country with a rationale for his candidacy, except perhaps that he was the establishment candidate, the representative of the conservative economic mainstream. Not a bad way to position yourself, except that the conservative economic mainstream is not where the action is in this particular election year. Clinton’s rationale was inevitability, but her unstated message — an encore for the previous Clinton administration — ran counter to the electorate’s desire for change. The most amazing stat of the night is that Obama had more support from women than Clinton.
The likely result in New Hampshire will be to boost Obama and McCain, to inflict more wounds on Romney and Clinton, and, possibly, to eliminate Thompson from the Republican race and Edwards from the Democratic. The question then becomes whether the lagging candidates — Clinton, Giuliani, Romney — can tap into February 5’s mother lode of 22 primaries. Before we get there, however, four more states will vote: Michigan on January 15, South Carolina on January 19 (Republican) and January 26 (Democratic), Nevada caucuses (January 19), and Florida (January 29), where Giuliani hopes to regain his lost momentum. The media’s fascination with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, which traditionally have been the most important early states, obscures the fact that these three states together will have 110 delegates to the Republican convention, while Florida alone has 113.
Then we come to February 5, when 9 of the 20 most populous states (bold face) will hold primaries:
Idaho (Democratic caucus)
Kansas (Democratic caucus)
New Mexico (Democratic primary)
North Dakota (caucuses)
Clinton, Giuliani, and Romney have the resources to stay in the race until February 5. But they may not have any appeal left by that time.