So it's finally here: 2008. Four years of speculation, two years of fundraising, one year of campaigning, and now we've actually reached our next presidential election year. The Permanent Campaign is about to give way to actual voting; slowly at first, then in great torrents of ballot-casting that should choose the Democratic and Republican nominees by Lincoln's Birthday (which happens to be mine, too).
And who will those nominees be? I'm proud to say I used to have a pretty good track record at picking them. Since January 1976, I have gone out on a very thin limb every four years, before the first primary or caucus, and published (or at least announced to my nerdiest friends) my predictions of the two parties' nominees. In '76, I gambled on Jimmy Carter, mainly because I was a big Allman Brothers fan, resisting my buddy Andy Borinstein's enthusiasm for Jerry Brown and my own soft spot for Mo Udall (he had "MO-mentum") and Birch Bayh (he was "BAYH-partisan"). I simply thought that in the aftermath of Watergate, the folksy peanut farmer routine might just work. On the GOP side, I decided President Jerry Ford would hold off the insurgency of Ronald Reagan. Okay, so I got lucky.
In 1980, it was easy: Carter and Reagan coasted to the nominations. Two for two.
1984 wasn't so tough either; Reagan ran essentially unopposed and Fritz Mondale was the obvious choice on the Democratic side (although you'd be surprised how many people miss the obvious when making these predictions. Gary Hart? John Glenn?? give me a break).
1988: The first race I covered as a reporter. Mario Cuomo told me to my face he wasn't going to run, so I tabbed his backup - Michael Dukakis. I figured a Greek-American liberal from Massachusetts was a reasonable replacement for an Italian-American liberal from New York. A lot of pundits (and my big sister) went with Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole, especially after they both won in Iowa, but I thought the Duke would take it, and I went with Vice President George Bush for the Republican nomination.
1992: Yes, I stuck with my original prediction of Bill Clinton, even after the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke; I'd had my eye on the Boy Wonder from Arkansas for a long time, and I figured his time had come. None of that Paul Tsongas or Tom Harkin stuff for me. President Bush's re-nomination was never in doubt, so that was easy.
1996: Again, it was an easy year: Clinton again, and this time, Bob Dole seemed a shoo-in for the GOP.
2000: Gore, natch, and George W. for the GOP; he'd been a lock for about a year before the primaries.
But the 21st Century is where it's all fallen apart for my fearless prognostications. In the 2000 general election, I predicted something crazy: that George W. Bush would win the popular vote, but that Al Gore would win the electoral vote, and the presidency. Whoever heard of such a thing? That happens once every century or so. But I went for it. I got it exactly backwards, of course. And then came 2004, when President Bush was an easily picked, unopposed GOP candidate...but the Democratic field was a MESS. As with Clinton, I had eyed John Kerry for the presidency for years, but when he finally ran, he blew it, with a wretchedly timid campaign. Howard Dean was my dark horse from the start that year, so when December 2003 rolled around, and Kerry was at 3% in the polls, and Dean was racking up dollars and supporters on that newfangled Internet thingy, I threw experience to the wind and picked Dean as the Democratic nominee. Ouch. We all know how Kerry surged out of Iowa, rolled into New Hampshire and locked up the top spot within a few days. Then, I predicted Kerry would beat Bush in the fall. Oops. Wrong again.
So, it is with great trepidation, no confidence at all, and no better shot than a blindfolded man throwing darts, that I make my annual predictions. I have no choice; I have to do it. But this exercise has gotten much more difficult than it used to be. Maybe my vision's getting fuzzier with middle age. I don't see this race clearly at all. It's quite close on both sides, and I think the general election will be another nailbiter, much like the last two, perhaps muddied further by a third-party independent candidacy (Mike Bloomberg? Ron Paul?).
So, again, who will the parties nominate for president? Let's run down our choices, two days before Iowa voters caucus. First, the easier one, the Democrats:
HILLARY CLINTON: The presumptive nominee for a year, with the highest name recognition, the best organization, the most money, the party establishment behind her - and the highest negative ratings, too. She's stumbled a bit down the December stretch, and has struggled to explain just how her "experience" makes her the smartest choice, but she remains the overall frontrunner.
BARACK OBAMA: He's gained momentum with a strong campaign in Iowa. Still a little vague on the stump, but his newness seems to have trumped his relative lack of government experience. He's successfully cast himself as the candidate of "change" - a campaign theme as old as the hills (remember Bill Clinton's "agent of change" campaign in '96?) - forcing his rivals to argue that THEY will better be able to actually effect change than the young Obama. Has the most passionate followers, but their numbers might not match their fervor.
JOHN EDWARDS: Edwards has put everything he's got into Iowa. If he loses there, he's toast. He's been campaigning there for eight years. He's running an angrier, feistier campaign this time but his one-note, anti-corporate schtick might not play that well with those mellow, corn-fed Iowans. The only way he gets the nomination is if he pulls off the upset in Iowa, rides a surge into New Hampshire, then rolls from there. That's asking a lot, I think. He does have a shot in Iowa if the Biden, Dodd and Richardson voters who aren't viable (a candidate needs 15% at each caucus or his/her supporters have to re-align with someone else) all end up in his corner.
JOE BIDEN, CHRIS DODD, BILL RICHARDSON, DENNIS KUCINICH, MIKE GRAVEL: The field. Forget it, folks. Of course, I would've lumped John Kerry into this group if I were writing this four years ago, so what do I know? But do you really think your 2008 Democratic nominee is coming from this bunch? Richardson could be Hillary's running mate if she gets the nomination, but I think she will also consider Wesley Clark and Bill Nelson.
Now, for the much tougher side - the Republicans. Damn, this is hard this year. They all have their flaws, making this the toughest nomination prediction I think I've ever had to make. I could go three different ways on this.
RUDY GIULIANI: Everyone's frontrunner but mine for most of 2007. I just have never seen how Rudy can win this thing. See my previous posts for the reasons why, but he's done nothing lately to change my mind. His "multi-state" strategy (which means he realizes he has no hope in the early states) just doesn't work. When was the last time someone won the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire? Well, Bill Clinton did it in 1992, but these states have grown in importance and it's a lot tougher to do now. Rudy will be completely forgotten while Huckabee, Romney and McCain get all the glory for their early state triumphs. By then, it will be too late for him.
MITT ROMNEY: I pegged Romney as my frontrunner last spring, but I think he's in real trouble now. He had the most money and the best field operation, which made up for his lack of national name recognition, but he doesn't come off as authentic on the stump, and that hurts him with voters who are looking for someone who at least SEEMS real. For the last two weeks, he's been lashing out savagely at Huckabee and McCain, as he watches his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire evaporate. There's a whiff of desperation about him all of a sudden. If he holds on and wins the first two states, he could yet be the nominee, but if he loses them both....
MIKE HUCKABEE: The December darling. Is he for real? Yes. Can he sustain the momentum, under greater media scrutiny and harsher attacks from his rivals? I'm not so sure. Will his Baptist conservative folksiness play outside Iowa? Again, tough to say. He does have the air of authenticity and likeability that can carry a modern presidential candidate a long way, but he has zero organization outside of the early states, which means he will have to parlay an Iowa upset into an extremely rapid infusion of donors and volunteers to capitalize in the two dozen states that vote on Super CaliTexIllistic Tuesday.
JOHN MCCAIN: The most interesting guy in the bunch. Now, McCain is starting to look like John Kerry four years ago: the early favorite who stumbles and is written off, only to recover on the strength of his foreign policy credentials. Kerry rode his opposition to the war in Iraq to a surprising win in Iowa. McCain could ride his sense of vindication over the apparent success of the surge in Iraq to a comeback win in New Hampshire. I would feel better about his chances if he were competing in Iowa; since he's not, he will have to overcome some early momentum for either Huckabee or Romney to get the nomination. McCain has the authenticity and a tremendous sense of honesty and integrity; he's also racking up endorsements from major, influential newspapers. He's less conservative than Huckabee, which appeals to everyone except the evangelicals; he's the most experienced candidate of all and can argue that the U.S. needs his steady hand right now. He's also wickedly funny. But he would be the oldest president ever, and doesn't have the money or organizational strength to compete with Romney right now, though those would presumably fall into place for him if he upsets Romney in his own backyard, New Hampshire.
FRED THOMPSON: Someone described him to me as a clumsy circus bear who can't stay on his feet. A soporific campaigner who can't generate any momentum. I don't see how he can win if he doesn't pull off some sort of magic act in Iowa or New Hampshire.
RON PAUL: He may surprise with a better-than-expected showing in the Granite State, and the passion of his followers could keep him in the race longer than he deserves. He's not a legitimate contender for the Republican nomination, but he could still emerge as a third-party, independent candidate (or even a fourth, if Bloomberg and his moderate brigade stage a rebellion of their own).
DUNCAN HUNTER, ALAN KEYES: Yeah, sure.
So where does this leave us? Did you really read this far? Is this the longest blog entry ever posted? Here, forthwith, are my bold and fearless predictions:
Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee win the Iowa caucuses....Hillary Clinton and John McCain win the New Hampshire primaries....and HILLARY CLINTON and JOHN MCCAIN win the presidential nominations.
Yes, McCain. Am I really typing his name? I still can't believe it, but the Republican race is so fraught with uncertainty that no one else makes sense to me right now. I will hedge my bets by saying that I did have Romney out in front all year, and that I picked Huckabee to emerge a couple months back...but when Rudy wins the nomination, I'll have no excuse and be unmasked as a fraudulent pundit.
I am not ready yet to predict who will win in November; we need to wait and see if there's a third, or fourth, party candidate (and if the Greens nominate Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader).
Now get out there and vote. Tune to KCBS for complete coverage of Iowa and New Hampshire, with much more frequent blogging in this space for the next month.