Is Rudy v. McCain already a two-man race?
One of the most interesting things about primary fights between two or more heavyweights is that they tend to suck all the oxygen out of the race. This is true, as near as I can tell, because the media likes the "battle of the titans" storyline, and thus all the media attention goes to the heavyweights, and the result is that the middleweights are squeezed out, even when a few of the middleweights are highly credible candidates. And this dynamic remains true even when none of the heavyweights are as ideologically pure as the party's primary voters would prefer. As such, considering we just witnessed basically a race between Rudy and McCain to see who'd be first to file, it's fair to say that the battle of the heavyweights is underway, with the middleweight squeeze out about to begin.
This race reminds me a lot of the fight for the GOP nod in 1988. That year, the race was basically one between the formerly pro-choice Republican vice president with northeastern roots who had been loyal to president and party, and a western senator who had opposed the president during his fight for the nomination eight years back and had spent the past few years criticizing the president from the Senate. Sen. Dole, of course, was technically the better "conservative" of the two. He had always been pro-life and had represented the interests of what we would now call a "red" state for quite some time. Vice President Bush, with his New England demeanor and socially liberal past, should've been easily bested by a conservative from Middle America amongst Republican primary voters. At least that's what the 1988 iterations of Chuck Todd and Charlie Cook would've said (and probably did).
But, aside from an early victory in Iowa, Sen. Dole lost the nod to the vice president. Trustworthiness trumped position papers; a collective gut check defeated an appeal for an accounting by the issues. Republicans liked and trusted Vice President Bush in 1988. The same could not be said for Sen. Dole. Rudy and McCain observers should ask themselves which of the two 1988 heavyweights each 2008 superstar is analogous to before jumping to conclusions based on conventional wisdom.
But wait, there's more. Why were conservatives limited to a choice between these two imperfect candidates in 1988? Weren't there others who should've easily trumped one candidate who was ideologically impure and another who was untrustworthy? The answer is "yes, but..." Yes, there were lots of other more conservative candidates in the race. Jack Kemp was viewed by many to be the true ideological heir to President Reagan. Pete DuPont was an interesting governor from Delaware. And Pat Robertson was the favorite of social conservatives in the race. Yet none of these individuals made it past New Hampshire. They were the middleweights squeezed out in a battle of the titans.
In a post-NH presidential field, two's a crowd. How a Romney or a Huckabee survives given the money and media attention that will be focused on these two heavyweights is something that I cannot envision.
It's Rudy v. McCain for most primary voters in 2008.