Don't count out the GOP in '08

The sun is shining on the Democrats, but there are reasons a Republican could claim the White House

November 04, 2007|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON -- One year before the 2008 election, the Republican Party is a gloomy place.

Its congressmen and senators are retiring in droves. Donors are slamming their wallets shut from coast to coast. Worst of all, voters are turning away.

Barely one in three Americans now leans Republican, according to the latest opinion survey by the independent Pew Research Center. Republican malaise has given Democrats their widest advantage in voter identification in two decades.

So, with the presidency and control of Congress on the line, will '08 be a wipeout for Republicans?

Not necessarily.

As bad as things look - and they could get worse, if the economy tanks - it's easy to imagine a Republican presidential candidate declaring victory on the first Tuesday in November 2008.

Of course, forecasting an election before the nominees are picked is pure guesswork. Any number of surprises could alter the outlook, such as the nomination of a long shot such as John Edwards or Mike Huckabee.

Still, a contest that might seem to be a slam-dunk for Democrats could well go the other way. Here are some reasons why:

By all accounts, Americans want the next president to take the country in a new direction. But who the "change" candidate will be is less clear.

For the first time since the 1920s, no incumbent president or vice president is running. That's good for the Republicans, given the enormous unpopularity of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

The leading Republican contenders, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, are campaigning as D.C. outsiders. Nobody is posing as Bush's heir.

At the same time, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is, in the eyes of many voters, seeking a third term for her husband and herself. That could make the former first lady, who is campaigning on the Clinton administration's record and her 16 years in Washington, the quasi-incumbent in an election about change.

To a striking degree, the '08 campaign already revolves around Clinton, just as 2004 was about Bush. Half of the voters who favor Giuliani over Clinton in a test match say they'd be voting against her, rather than for the Republican - just as half of John Kerry's support in '04 was anti-Bush, according to Pew polls.

In many ways, America is still a 50-50 country in a presidential election. And this time, the split might be along more than partisan lines.

If either Clinton or Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate, voters will face a novel choice: the first woman or African-American atop a major national ticket. Republicans can be expected to exploit the potentially polarizing impact of gender (or race).

Clinton pollster Mark Penn estimates that she'd attract the support of 24 percent of Republican women in the general election. But as is often the case, there's another side to the gender gap: men, who now favor Guiliani over Clinton in the polls.

Anticipating the reaction to a black candidate is even trickier: Voters have been known to lie to pollsters to conceal racial prejudice. Early test matches show a closer contest if Obama is the nominee.

By February, the general election campaign could be in full swing, thanks to the mad rush of early primaries. That means more time than ever before to see a candidate get ripped apart by the other side.

Bush strategist Karl Rove and others have argued that Clinton entered the primary season with higher negative ratings than any previous candidate. If she's the Democratic nominee, those negatives could shoot higher once Republicans start attacking in earnest.

Of course, Republicans who can't wait to take on Clinton might be repeating a mistake Democrats made when they underestimated Ronald Reagan, wrongly thought to be out of the mainstream in 1980.

Clinton would likely unite the fractious Republican base in a way that other Democrats couldn't. For example, nearly six in 10 white evangelical Protestants, a key part of the Republican coalition, say they don't want Bill Clinton back in the White House, according to the Pew survey.

At the same time, Bush, whose unpopularity is hurting Republican chances, will no longer be the sole face of his party.

"Donors will begin to come back to the Republican Party once it's rebranded with a nominee who can put the Bush era behind us," says Republican strategist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

Presidential elections often turn on personality and character, but issues matter, too.

The continued U.S. presence in Iraq could hurt the Republican nominee, no matter how deftly he dances away from Bush. But Clinton and Obama envision a continued U.S. troop presence, too.

Further reductions in the U.S. casualty rate, however unlikely, could defuse some of the anger boosting Democratic prospects. And though polls are mixed, Republicans tend to do better when voters are asked which party they trust to handle national security, a central part of the '08 debate.

One fight that does seem hopeless for Republicans is for control of the House and Senate. The Democratic-led Congress gets even lower marks from the public than Bush, but a race-by-race analysis makes it tough to see the Republicans back in charge.

Still, if Republicans could pull off the seemingly impossible - dragging their party out of the dumps and winning the presidency for the third time in a row - they'd happily settle for more divided government in Washington.

paul.west@baltsun.com

In the running

A year from now, Americans will choose a new president. The Republican malaise has given Democrats their widest advantage in voter identification in two decades.

But there are reasons to picture a GOP presidential candidate declaring victory on the first Tuesday in November 2008.

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