Advice For the GOP Field

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Over the weekend, I suggested that Rudy Giuliani needed to make an early-state statement, ideally by finishing ahead of an Iowa-weakened Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, to have any chance of winning the nomination. Naturally, yesterday came news that Team Rudy is scaling down its ad buy in New Hampshire, effectively conceding first and second place to Romney and McCain. With this sterling track record of having GOP candidates follow my advice, I thought I’d offer my counsel to the rest of the field – free of charge.

Mike Huckabee: Pivot, dammit, pivot! You’ve come a long way in a short time, but consolidating the evangelical vote alone isn’t going to get you the nomination, and you’re in danger of being pigeonholed as the candidate of Christian-Right identity politics. You’ve advanced two “Huckabee for President” narratives so far: In one, you’re running for pastor-in-chief; in the other, you’re the populist candidate, the “Main Street” Republican fighting for the interests of the middle class against the Beltway elite and the “Wall Street” conservatives. The first narrative has served its purpose; now you need to pivot toward the second - less "Christian leader," more working-class underdog - and you need to put some meat on its bones. Your turn on immigration, however clumsily executed, was a decent start, but on that topic you’re just me-tooing the other guys; you need to find some issue, besides abortion and gay marriage, where you can draw contrasts with the GOP establishment that you’re taking on, and the Fair Tax isn’t it. Think health care, think family-friendly tax reform, think corporate welfare ... and if you start getting accused of “class warfare,” rather than “religious warfare,” you're probably hitting the sweet spot.

Mitt Romney: Don’t panic: You’re doing as well as can be expected, given that nobody seems to really like you. Huckabee’s surge has created an opening for you to spin a strong second place in Iowa as a victory, and you have a good cushion in New Hampshire; if you win there, you’re going to be the guy the conservative establishment rallies around to fend off the Man from Hope, and the nomination is probably yours too lose. In Iowa and beyond, you need to keep Huckabee from breaking out of his current twenty-five percent ceiling, and you aren’t doing a bad job of it: Attacking him on crime and illegal immigration is smart; so is co-opting any “Main Street” momentum he tries to generate (see above) by talking about middle-class economic anxieties yourself; so is presenting yourself as the leader of an ecumenical (as opposed to a sectarian) religious right. Arguably your biggest short-term danger at the moment is the prospect of a media-abetted McCain surge in New Hampshire, but as long as you’ve got a double-digit lead you should keep handling the Senator with kid gloves. You’ve got a chance to cruise to an easy New Hampshire win, which is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Until that NH lead starts to shrink, just stay cool; in a topsy-turvy race, you might still have the catbird seat.

John McCain: You have about fifteen points to make up in New Hampshire, and three rivals you can plausibly steal votes from – Rudy, Romney and Ron Paul. (You've already seemingly taken all of Fred Thompson's NH voters.) The Lieberman endorsement puts you in a good position to sweep up more national-security voters from a fading Rudy, and while you won’t win Paul’s anti-war voters, your stands on pork and earmarks and torture give you the hope of sweeping some wavering libertarians from his camp into yours. The key, though, is too bring Romney’s numbers down. If he gets thirty-five to forty percent of the vote, you probably can’t win the state, so at some point soon (maybe after Iowa, though that might be too late) you’ll need to hit him where he’s vulnerable and you aren’t, which means foreign-policy experience and flip-flopping. Your anti-Romney message should boil to two simple points: Mitt Romney doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. Get enough New Hampshirites to buy it, and you might win.

Fred Thompson: It’s simple: All you need to do is win back a substantial chunk of the Bubba voters you lost to Mike Huckabee and win over a chunk of the NR-reading, “Reagan conservative” voters you never managed to swipe from from Mitt Romney, add them to your current 10 percent or so, and you’re off to the races. You’ve got the right message to do it: You’re a consistent conservative up against a slew of flip-floppers and heretics, and you've got plenty of fodder to attack every single one of your rivals. But you’ve been selling this message for six months, and nobody’s buying. So my advice is simple: Learn how to actually, you know, campaign for the nomination that a lot of conservatives were ready to hand to you on a silver platter, and maybe it can still be yours. (Though I doubt it.)

Ron Paul: See my previous post.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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