The 2008 races are taking on a familiar shape. Each party has an establishment candidate and an outsider contending for front-runner status. Right now, the outsiders have the heat.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is the establishment Democrat. In the January ABC News/Washington Post poll, Clinton held a 24-point lead over the outsider, Barack Obama (41 percent to 17 percent). In last week's ABC/Post poll, Clinton was still ahead, but her lead was down to 12 points (36 percent to 24 percent). Obama is gaining ground.
Obama has been making big gains among African-American Democrats. In January, Clinton had triple the support that Obama enjoyed among black Democrats (60 percent to 20 percent). Now Obama is leading, 44 percent to 33 percent. It's not that black Democrats are souring on Clinton; her popularity with blacks remains undiminished. But the news that an African-American candidate has a good chance of winning the Democratic nomination is creating excitement in the black community.
In the 2000 Republican race, John McCain was the outsider; now he's the establishment candidate. In the January ABC/Post poll, outsider Rudy Giuliani led McCain fairly narrowly, 34 percent to 27 percent. In the latest poll, Giuliani is way ahead (44 percent to 21 percent).
Giuliani was warmly received by conservative activists meeting in Washington last week. He told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, "You really represent a new generation of the Reagan revolution. I consider myself very, very fortunate to be part of that." What about those problematic social issues? "Ronald Reagan used to say, 'My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy,' " Giuliani said. "What he meant by that is that we don't always see eye-to-eye on everything."
Giuliani came in second in a straw poll of CPAC participants, getting 17 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney's 21 percent. But 34 percent of conservative activists were willing to endorse Giuliani as their first or second choice. No other contender scored that high.
Giuliani is defined by the security issue: tough, decisive—the 9/11 candidate. He's also defined by social issues: abortion rights, gay rights—the New York City candidate. If social issues trump security, Giuliani's got trouble with conservatives. As David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, puts it, "The overriding issue has to be security, because that's what Giuliani's going to run on. If he can make that work, then he's credible. If [conservatives] say, 'Yes, but,' then he's got a problem."
On the other hand, security might trump social issues. CPAC participant Michelle Mead observed, "Everyone I've talked to has said, 'You know, I don't agree with Giuliani on such-and-such, but ...' I think it's the 'but' that's going to carry him."
McCain turned down an invitation to speak to CPAC. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said, "McCain is in the difficult position of being the only serious candidate for the Republican nomination who's not here at a convention that Reagan went to every single year." McCain ended up in fifth place in the CPAC straw poll, behind Romney, Giuliani, Sam Brownback, and Newt Gingrich.
McCain may be trying to have it both ways—mending fences with conservatives while not getting too close to them. After all, President Bush and the Iraq war are unpopular right now. In fact, conservative activists are voicing a lot of criticism of Bush and the war. "There's a split in the conservative movement, as there is in the American public, as to what should be our proper position vis-a-vis the Iraq war," Keene said.
Moreover, McCain has a history of picking fights with conservatives. Giuliani does not. "McCain has had a lot of run-ins with the Right in recent years," Keene said. "Giuliani just hasn't been a part of it."
In last week's ABC/Post poll, Republicans called Giuliani the "most inspiring" candidate. Democrats said the same thing about Obama. They're the rock stars of this race. Republicans gave McCain the edge on experience. Democrats did the same with Clinton. They're the establishment candidates. Which is it better to be? Establishment candidates usually win the nomination, but only after a tough fight.