Mitt Romney is in the best position to win the Republican nomination, Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, tells Newsmax.
While Rudy Giuliani leads in the polls, Keene says most people have not begun to focus on the election. Once they do, they will recognize how liberal Giuliani is on some social issues like abortion and gay rights, and Republicans overall will tilt against him. Then Romney’s strategy of focusing on key states like Iowa and New Hampshire could propel him to the nomination, Keene says.
“Romney’s doing it the right way, in my view,” Keene says over lunch at the Palm. “My view’s colored by history, and these other guys seem to be betting that history doesn’t matter, and I’m not sure that’s true. If you win the first contest, and they’re close enough to the second contest, you get an enormous boost. And the idea that the onrush of big primaries makes those early contests unimportant may be 180 degrees wrong.”
While he keeps a low profile, Keene is a bulwark of the conservative movement. Since 1984, he has headed the American Conservative Union, the country’s oldest and largest conservative grassroots lobbying group. The ACU, with one million members, runs the Conservative Political Action Committee's (CPAC) annual conference in Washington and publishes an annual Rating of Congress, the gold standard for ideological assessments of members of Congress.
Keene is also second vice president of the National Rifle Association, which means he will move up to president of the NRA in three and a half years.
Keene describes Fred Thompson as still idling at the starting gate but doesn’t rule him out of the running.
“Thompson could get back in it if he gets his act together,” Keene says. On the other hand, the idea of a resurgence for John McCain is totally unlikely, he says. “McCain is just coming up to a level of support he had in the past,” Keene says. “He can’t get beyond that.”
As Keene sees it, “If you assume for a moment that the propaganda from the Romney camp is accurate and the polls are right, he is in fact in a position that he could conceivably win Iowa, New Hampshire and then South Carolina. In that case, all these national polls showing him behind are completely irrelevant.”
To be sure, Romney could lose ground in one of those states.
“But when you start talking to people out there, you find that while the other candidates are sort of running a national media campaigns, Romney’s on the ground and organizing. That gives him a tremendous opportunity, particularly against Rudy.”
As a result, “Romney’s in the best position to get ahead when the contest actually starts. Giuliani has got his poll lead, but I don’t know what else he has,” Keene says.
According to the polls, more than a quarter of Republican voters say they have not made up their minds yet. Many who say they would vote for Giuliani are motivated by his “celebrity popularity,” Keene says. That is not what will motivate them when thy actually make a choice.
“People don’t focus on the election until they have to,” Keene says. “A year out, you can run a million ads, and that’s nice. But one of the reasons, for example, that the McCain-Feingold law banning advocacy ads is so bad is that the only time you want to run those ads is 60 days before an election, because that’s when people are listening. People open up to politics when they have to make a decision.”
That is also why one primary election has an impact on the next one.
“When people in Florida, for example, open up to politics in a big way, it’s because they have to make a decision,” Keene says. “And when they do that, they’re looking at a different world than the people in Iowa are looking at. And that magnifies the importance of each of these early primaries.”
Giuliani is betting that his strength on national security issues will trump his cultural problems. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in late September found that 39 percent of those who identified themselves as evangelical Christians had a “somewhat positive” impression of Giuliani. That compared with 31 percent for Romney and 26 percent for Thompson.
Yet in places like South Carolina, Giuliani is “culturally so anathema,” Keene says, and other Republican candidates are also strong on national security.
“It’s hard to see Rudy pulling it off, unless he organized as well as Romney, and I don’t see him doing that,” Keene says.
Thompson has an advantage because there is no groundswell of support for the others.
“He projects sort of calm leadership, almost in a way that Dick Cheney does,” Keene says. “That’s an advantage, but it’s not sufficient. His speaking is very spotty. He can be very good. He can also be awful.” Thompson still has a chance because “none of the above” is still a strong contender, Keene says.
Keene would be surprised if pro-life voters form a third party, as proposed recently by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and some other pro-life leaders.
“I think they’re sending a signal that they want something,” Keene says. “But the real question is not: What does Jim Dobson think? It’s what do individual evangelical voters think?”
In exit polls, 26 percent of those who voted in the 2004 presidential election identified themselves as white evangelicals. Almost 80 percent of them voted for George W. Bush.
Keene says the problem is that, all things being equal, evangelicals, along with blacks, are the least likely to vote.
“To get either group to vote, you either have to have a candidate whom they really like, or they have to feel really threatened, or you have to organize and drag them out,” Keene says. “In the case of evangelicals, they’re less likely to vote because they are even less obsessed with politics than most people are.”
If only 10 percent of evangelicals decide not to vote, it could mean a drop in support of two percent points, enough to change the election results.
The good news for Republicans is that while Hillary Clinton is ahead of the Republican candidates in the polls, she should be ahead by much more.
“Given the current state of attitudes about President Bush and the Republicans, Hillary ought to be 15 to 20 points ahead,” Keene says. “The fact that she’s just four or five points ahead and is hovering mostly below 50 percentage points in the polls means she’s in deep trouble. She can win, but it’s not going to be easy for her. And that means that the Republican nomination is worth a lot more than what the common wisdom would suggest.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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