Having spent more than a fortnight in North America (San Diego and Las Vegas) it's been revealing to see the 2008 US Presidential election starting to take shape and it looks a most fascinating contest - arguably the most interesting since 1968 though I think it was 1952 when we had a contest not involving either an incumbent President or Vice-President.
Both the Republicans and Democrats are looking for the "right" candidate. The Democrats are arguably in the stronger position having won control of both Congress and the Senate in the November 2006 elections (as well as some key gubernatorial races). In addition, polling evidence suggests many "independents" (voters not affiliated to either party) who had backed President Bush in 2000 and 2004 are now leaning Democrat by almost two to one. This gives the Democrats a clear advantage in many key states such as Ohio and Florida given the nature of the Electoral College.
It's not of course as simple as that...
On the Democrat side, the frontrunner is Hillary Clinton who revealed her universal healthcare plan on September 17th. This is a hugely contentious issue in America with an estimated 47 million Americans lacking any kind of health insurance in a country with no "national health service" or "socialised medicare" as conservatives call it. She is popular with much of the core of the Democratic party but, and this is a huge but, she is detested by media conservatives. Outlets such as Fox News do little to disguise the contempt in which she is held by American conservatives and therein lies the problem. She cannot win on core Democrat votes alone and her ability to reach out to the aforementioned independents seems limited. In short, she may be the candidate the Democrats want but not necessarily the one most likely to win.
Her main challenger is Senator Barack Obama from Illinois. He is much more inexperienced being only in his first term in the Senate but he is seemingly able to do what Clinton cannot. All the polling evidence shows he can attract independent support in a way Clinton cannot and certainly the conservative media is (so far) being relatively kind. Having listened to him at the Democrat debate in New Hampshire (on tv), he comes over very well and is Cameronesque in some ways but the policy areas remain vague and much more meat is needed on the bones. That said, he is the Democrat, in my view, most likely to win the General Election against any Republican.
Of the other Democrat contenders, the most interesting is John Edwards, who ran as John Kerry's Vice-President in 2004. Although extremely articulate and telegenic, he just strikes me as the wrong man this time up against two candidates from outside the traditional WASP environment. Most polls put him third in the Democrat race but he will pick up some delegates to the Democratic Convention. Could he join with Obama in a "stop Hillary" ticket ?
As a betting man, I wouldn't rush to back Hillary Clinton to win the Democrat nomination. The conservative media will analyse every syllable of everything she says and try to paint her as a "far left" candidate. To that end, it was interesting to see Clinton distance herself from the moveon.org movement and the controversy over the Petraeus ad in the New York Times. I think Obama could still win and his choice for VP would be fascinating.
One final thought on the Democratic side - IF the party fails in 2008, Mark Warner (who will presumably win the Senate race in Virginia) looks a good bet for 2012.
Now to the Republicans (or GOP as they are often called). This is, if anything, even more confusing than the Democrat race.
The frontrunner (arguably) is Rudi Giuliani whose main claim to fame (or notoriety) was as New York Mayor during the terrorist attack on September 11th 2001. His actions on that day and those following earned him the plaudit "America's Mayor" but he has hit problems in the Presidential campaign over his stance on some social issues and recently had a run-in with the powerful NRA. That said, polling evidence shows him doing well in New York, Florida and California among Repubicans and thse states are the key to winning the nomination. In a crowded race, he may get the delegates where they matter but he remains vulnerable.
Joining the race (officially) earlier this month was Senator Fred Thompson from Tennessee. Apart from his politics, he is known to most Americans as an actor in the series "Law and Order". As Ronald Reagan showed, being an actor is no encumbrance to becoming President but Thompson's appeal is (currently) strongest in the southern states including Texas, most of which are GOP heartland these days. He needs to get traction in places like New York, California and Ohio to get the nomination but he appeals to the older socially-conservative GOP core vote that aren't convinced by Giuliani or Mitt Romney.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is another interesting candidate. He won the gubernatorial race in this traditionally-Democrat state in 2002 utilising problems within the Democrats and the national pro-GOP swing to take victory. Though much of what he says puts him on the conservative wing, he has "flip-flopped" (to use the Americanism) on the issue of abortion which has left doubt in the minds of many conservative Republican activists.
That said, Romney's campaign has been the most successful so far - he won the Illinois straw poll and is polling strongly in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. These states aren't important in terms of delegate numbers but because they hold their primaries early, any candidate doing well in these states stands to gain valuable momentum for the bigger states later on (and might knock out a more illustrious opponent). Romney must be hoping to get that early momentum in order to take on Thompson in the south and Giuliani on the East and West coasts. If he fails, he could be on the way out very quickly.
As a fan of counterfactual history, I've often wondered what would have happened had John McCain won the 2000 Republican nomination. He could have done - he easily beat Bush in New Hampshire - but made some serious errors in the south and failed to court the evangelical vote. As a Republican, he appealed more to the liberal areas of the country and would surely have beaten Al Gore far more easily than Bush did. Now, in his seventies, he has re-entered the race. He is argably the staunchest advocate of the military intervention in Iraq but has managed to distance himself from some of the domestic mistakes of the Bush Administration. The GOP conservative base has doubts and his campaign has failed to fire in many of the key states and he risks being crowded out in a big field. I suspect he will exit sooner rather than later.
Of the other GOP contenders, the most interesting is Congressman Ron Paul from Texas. Of all the GOP contenders, he is arguably the most socially conservative but he is also the only GOP candidate (of the main contenders) to have publically opposed the invasion of Iraq. This puts him in a unique position which he has sought to exploit. There is evidence that he has wide support within the Armed Forces but little or none from the traditional funding strengths of the GOP. He has adroitly used the Internet and a small core of dedicated local activists to further his campaign but he remains at a fiscal disadvantage to the likes of Giuliani. As anecdotal evidence, the only campaign stickers I saw in Las Vegas were for Ron Paul.
I suspect he will do better than anyone expects early on and may force the likes of Mitt Romney from the race. The question remains as to whether his anti-Iraq position will cost him too much support among GOP activists to get the delegates for the nomination. I believe so.
One reason some Republicans might be breathing more easily this morning is that Newt Gingrich has decided not to run for the GOP nomination. If you think that the likes of Ron Paul and Fred Thompson are the body and soul of conservative Republicanism then Gingrich is undoubtedly the brain. Best known for the "Contract with America" and author of the 1994 Republican landslide of both Houses, Gingrich's reputation was wrecked in the mid-90s following suggestions he had orchestrated the shutdown of the Federal Government because he had felt snubbed by Bill Clinton (Gingrich had been made to sit at the back of Air Force One). This, and the losses suffered by the Republicans in the 1998 Congressional and Senate elections saw Gingrich ousted as Speaker.
Now, he is chairman of American Solutions, a largely conservative (though in some areas bi-partisan) think-tank. He has wisely opted to remain in that role where he can influence and support the successful GOP candidate. Gingrich is a regular contributor to FOX News and has been able to distance himself from the problems of the GOP-controlled Senate and Congress from 2000 to 2006. He has argued for a return to traditional fiscal conservatism.
With Gingrich a non-runner, how will the GOP race go ? My guess is that it will quickly develop into a three-horse race with Giuliani, Thompson and Paul surviving. I think Giuliani will have the delegates in the right places to win the nomination but he will need to pick a conservative running-mate to shore up the GOP base.
Overall, I think the 2008 election is the Democrats' to lose. In a race between Clinton and Giuliani, I think Giuliani will win if only because the conservatives will have nowhere else to go. Obama would beat most GOP runners I think. Clinton vs Thompson would be the traditional liberal vs conservative standoff and the choice of VP might be significant.
Interesting times ahead...