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January 20, 2008

Where Now From Here?

The South Carolina primary turned out to be a clarifying event after all. Instead of the potential for five front-runners in the Super Tuesday contest in two weeks, it appears we will have at best three viable candidates for the nomination, and only if Rudy Giuliani proves his strategy correct by winning Florida. What will be left will be the three candidates that the conservative blogosphere has relentlessly criticized for their lack of lifelong fealty to the Ronald Reagan legacy, but whom voters have nevertheless trusted enough to support in the primaries.

First, the failure of Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson to win in South Carolina signals the end of their campaigns, whether they recognize it or not, especially for Fred. He made South Carolina his explicit firewall, the place where he had to have a great showing in order to retain credibility as a candidate. A third-place finish among one of the most conservative groups of voters in the primaries does not bode well, nor does the fact that he actually placed fourthamong self-professed conservatives in the CNN exit polls. He became the first "front-runner" to fail to win a must-win contest, and he will likely withdraw sooner rather than later.

Huckabee's dream took a beating last night. The Arkansas governor should have won the first Southern primary, especially given the high numbers of evangelicals turning out for the election. He took 43% of them, but McCain got 27% to mostly negate Huckabee's big advantage. His populist rhetoric ran out of steam in the Palmetto State, and although he made it close, he failed to convert. And if Huckabee can't win in South Carolina, where else can he win? What is his path to the nomination? Without the kind of name recognition that McCain has or the money that Romney and Giuliani can command, he's probably reached the end of the line as well. He'll stay in the race and collect delegates from proportional contests, but he won't win a significant state.

That leaves Romney and McCain, and possibly Giuliani. Rudy needs Florida to keep the delegate gap from getting too large and to maintain credibility in the large coastal states that could carry him to the nomination. All three of these candidates have significant issues with the party's base, McCain most of all -- and yet these are the three left standing as the smoke begins to clear.

My e-mail sounds the frustration of this situation. Messages and comments on the blog have become filled with declarations of sitting on hands, the destruction of the party, and so on. However, the plain fact is that the actual party -- the people voting for the candidates -- have made it clear that they have a high level of comfort with Romney and McCain, and potentially Rudy as well.

I'm actually a lot more optimistic than most about the result. If these three contend for the nomination, we have two candidates who employed conservative principles in very liberal settings as executives and showed remarkable success, and a Senator who at least understands the nature of the conflict of this age and knows how to fight it. All of them have more applicable experience than any of the Democratic candidates, and perhaps more than all three of them combined.

Rather than focus on the negatives, the Republicans still left to vote should focus on the positives. Which of these three can lead this nation in war, can implement conservative policies on economics and foreign policy, and work to reduce spending and taxes in meaningful ways that expands liberty rather than constraining it? Which of them have actually done this successfully, and which can use that experience in a general election to beat either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?

From where I sit, I'd say we have good candidates, any of which are easily supportable by Republicans in a general election. Instead of declaring that the sky is falling, let's keep our eyes on the prize. These are the candidates that have resonated with the voters, and so these are the choices. The party only disintegrates if we keep wishing for a resurrection of Ronald Reagan rather than working pragmatically to find the best in what we have.


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