Is McCain the Next Kerry?

Andrew E. Busch

November 1, 2007

As the Republican presidential race becomes more interesting in Iowa, it is conceivable that the race is turning into a replay of the Democratic contest in Iowa in 2004.

In that battle, Richard Gephardt held the lead for much of 2003. By the end of the year, he found himself in a close race with a hard-charging Howard Dean, the little-known former governor of a small state who was nonetheless receiving strong support from his party’s most energetic and organized wing. Gephardt and Dean engaged, fought it out brutally for most of January, and both lost. The winner was John Kerry, a reputed war hero and one-time front-runner who had become, in media accounts, an also-ran before the votes were even cast. In the end, Kerry took advantage of the opening and convinced Iowa Democrats that he could beat George W. Bush. Because the national Democratic race was also unsettled, Kerry was able to ride his Iowa momentum to a win in New Hampshire and then all the way to the Democratic nomination. (Of course, the story of Iowa in 2004 is more complicated than that, and some Democratic campaign advisors have downplayed the importance of the Dean-Gephardt fratricide. Regardless, they started January placed 1-2 and ended 3-4.)

Today, there are striking parallels to 2004. Mitt Romney has led in Iowa for most of 2007. The most recent polls have shown former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee coming up fast with the help of conservative evangelicals, either in a close second or even with a small lead. This is serious trouble for Mitt Romney, who has based much of his national strategy on winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney can ill afford to cede Iowa. For his part, virtually Huckabee’s only hope for the nomination is to win Iowa and hope for some magic from there on out. Now that he is actually contesting for the lead, and may have attained it, the expectations game has shifted in ways that are not helpful to Huckabee. If he peaks, recedes, and ends up in clear second, many analysts and Republican activists in upcoming states will conclude that he has reached his high-water mark and is a spent force.

What this means is that Republican voters in Iowa had better brace themselves for a punishing Romney-Huckabee exchange over the next month. It also means that, by the time they get done beating each other up, there may well be an opening for a Republican Kerry to sneak up on them.

To make the parallel complete, the Republican who may be best equipped to do so is John McCain, the war hero and former front-runner who was declared dead by the media last summer.

Why McCain?

Unlike Fred Thompson, he does not have to introduce himself to Iowa voters. He did not contest the Iowa caucuses in 2000, but he is well enough known that voters can turn to him as a second choice without discomfort.

Unlike Rudy Giuliani, he has a solid pro-life record in a state where that issue resonates particularly strongly among Republican caucus-goers.

Unlike Huckabee or Romney, McCain (like Giuliani, but more plausibly) can stress his national security credentials, now burnished further by the successes of the Iraq “surge.”

And, while Giuliani has touted himself as the Republican who can beat Hillary Clinton (or any other Democratic nominee), it is McCain who usually performs best among Republicans in head-to-head polls against potential Democratic nominees. In one recent poll, he even led Clinton 50-43 percent in Ohio, an amazing accomplishment for any Republican given the implosion of the GOP in that state. He has Giuliani’s appeal to independents and moderates, but is better positioned to hold the party’s conservative base.

The parallel is not perfect. McCain has offended many Republicans over the years, including recently, when he failed to take account of the depth of anti-illegal immigration sentiment within the party. Kerry’s 2003 collapse was due not to offending Democrats, but to boring them. For their part, the social conservatives who should be giving McCain a second look may be too caught up in past disputes to do so. One gets the sense that Democratic activists in Iowa in 2004 were more hard-headed. Perhaps it will be Giuliani or Thompson who will capitalize on the end of the Romney lock on Iowa; and there is no guarantee that Romney himself or Huckabee will not finish out on top after all is said and done. Even if McCain manages to pull off an upset in Iowa, he will still have Giuliani to deal with nationally. Once Kerry disposed of Dean, his road was open.

Nevertheless, the parallel is intriguing enough to keep an eye on it. Despite myths to the contrary, lightning does sometimes strike in the same spot twice.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.