Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Standard Bearer

No Standard Bearer
January 16, 2008; Page A12

Mitt Romney finally won the "gold" yesterday, as he so effusively puts it, and the result is a Republican Presidential battle that is more muddled than ever. The most important story out of Michigan is that Republicans are still looking for a standard bearer.

Mr. Romney has the immediate bragging rights with his victory, salvaging his campaign in the process. He was able to win in his native state, and to do so convincingly among Republican voters of all stripes. He helped himself by stressing the economy in a state that has lagged behind U.S. growth for years, even if he did go over the top with his pandering to the auto industry. Mr. Romney can't stop jobs from leaving the state, no matter how often he claims he can. But the economic message suits the former entrepreneur better than his previous reinventions as a social conservative and a Tom Tancredo immigration restrictionist.

The result is a blow to John McCain, who was coming off a victory in New Hampshire and had won in Michigan in 2000. The Arizona Senator lost again among Republican voters, who seem to admire him as a man but have doubts about him on the issues. It didn't help in Michigan that Mr. Romney could attack Mr. McCain for his support for tougher fuel-economy standards and a "cap and trade" regime on global warming. The Senator's "straight talk" on issues is admirable, but it sometimes has the result of convincing voters they don't agree with him enough to vote for him.

Mike Huckabee's distant third means that he hasn't yet been able to capitalize on his surprising Iowa victory. His political religiosity didn't play well outside of evangelical precincts in either New England or the Midwest, and his attacks on President Bush's foreign policy and corporations have pushed away parts of the GOP coalition.

The candidates now head into Saturday's South Carolina primary for what can only be called a free-for-all. Rudy Giuliani is delighted, because the lack of a clear frontrunner means the race might still be jumbled on January 29 in Florida, where he has staked his claim.

Another winner yesterday was Fred Thompson, who is competitive in South Carolina and is running as the conservative who can unite the GOP's fractious wings. The former Tennessee Senator has laid out an impressive policy map, but he's suffered in early contests because his heart and energy didn't seem to be in the race. That has changed in recent weeks, especially with his pungent, quick-witted debate performances. If he can do better than Messrs. Romney and Huckabee among conservatives, he could surprise in the Palmetto State and give himself a genuine chance at the nomination.

The abiding lesson from the last two weeks is that GOP voters are still sifting the field, searching for their next leader. In their wisdom, the voters are looking for someone who can rise to the occasion.

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