Fluid presidential primary season keeps political watchers guessing

Gerry Tuoti

With Iowa and New Hampshire behind them, the 2008 presidential hopefuls are charging on to a handful of other states before the Feb. 5 “Super Tuesday” primaries.

The Republicans will compete in the Michigan primary today, while the Democrats are looking ahead to Nevada’s contest Saturday.

One question has a number of political pundits stumped: Which candidate has the best shot?

In the opinion of Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic nominee for president, the races this year are wide open in both parties.

“There are no front-runners,” he said. “The national media is obsessed with front-runners. I wish we could just report the campaign.”

Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos agrees that no one has a clear lead.

“That makes it an exciting time for candidates and pollsters,” he said.

In the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama’s win in the Democratic contest sent him into the New Hampshire primary on a wave of momentum, but former first lady

Hillary Clinton - who could become America’s first female president - scored a surprise win in the Granite State, narrowly beating the Illinois senator.

Dukakis called the early success of Obama, who is seeking to become the nation’s first black president, the biggest surprise of the campaign so far.

Michael Kryzanek, a professor of political science at Bridgewater State College, also listed that as a significant event.

“Obviously, the surprise [in New Hampshire] was with Hillary doing so well after losing in Iowa,” Kryzanek said. “But, the real story appears to be Barack Obama’s ability to capture the imagination of voters. This is something that hasn’t been seen in many years.”

State Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, D-Taunton, spent several days in Iowa and New Hampshire campaigning for Clinton.

“Certainly, Hillary Clinton winning the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire was quite a significant, historic evening,” Pacheco said. “The energy in the room was just fantastic. It was really amazing.”

The Taunton state senator said ability to participate was the main difference between the two early contests.

“In Iowa, hundreds of people I spoke to on the phone were in their 70s or 80s, and there were working women, working families,” Pacheco said.

Many of these people, he explained, couldn’t make it out to the 7 p.m. Iowa caucuses and didn’t have the option of voting by absentee ballot. A number of people working second and third shift jobs were also unable to attend the caucuses, some of which lasted nearly three hours.

“In New Hampshire, people could vote by absentee ballot,” Pacheco said. “They could vote at different times of the day.”

Dukakis, who now teaches political science at Northeastern University and UCLA, bemoaned the lack of “serious precinct-based grassroots organizing” among the Democratic candidates.

“Speaking as a Democrat, we need to do this in order to win in November,” said Dukakis, who has not yet decided which candidate to back.

This type of campaigning, he said, helped propel him to the 1988 nomination.

“Obama did this in Iowa, but he didn’t in New Hampshire,” Dukakis said.

“Busing a bunch of college kids up from Boston is not grassroots campaigning.”

While Clinton and Obama’s early victories have put them at the top of the Democratic pack, the Republican field is much more crowded, Kryzanek said.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had an overwhelming win in the Iowa Republican caucuses, but didn’t do as well in New Hampshire, where his evangelical Christian message didn’t resonate as strongly.

New Hampshire went to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who also captured the state’s 2000 primary.

Huckabee’s tax platform, which favors a national sales tax in place of the federal income tax, also failed to gain significant traction in New Hampshire, which has no state sales tax.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who poured millions of dollars into campaign efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire, finished a disappointing second in both contests.

Romney won the lightly contested Wyoming caucuses and hopes to do well in today’s Republican primary in Michigan, the state where he was born and raised.

Dukakis said Romney’s campaign is “on life support.”

The Great Lakes State is vitally important to the Massachusetts Republican, Kryzanek explained.

“He has to win Michigan,” Kryzanek said. “If he loses there, he can’t go on TV again saying he got another silver medal. He’s in trouble, and he knows he’s in trouble.”

McCain’s “straight talk” was very effective in New Hampshire, contributing to Romney’s loss, Paleologos said.

Some other republican candidates have criticized McCain’s immigration position, which would allow many illegal immigrants to earn legal status.

Romney, in turn, has been blasted for sharply shifting his position to the right on social issues such as abortion and same-sex civil unions, now opposing both.

Although he said Romney’s run isn’t necessarily done, Paleologos said the New Hampshire loss dealt a serious blow to the former governor.

“With the kind of money he spent, it was horrible for him to suffer a backyard defeat,” Paleologos said.

“There’s a high level of expectation for him [in Michigan],” Paleologos said. “It’s going to be a rocky road, and he may have to shake up his campaign staff.”

“He really needs to retool his message and organization,” he added.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has adopted a very unorthodox campaign strategy, choosing to divert his attention away from the early states in an effort to capture the larger delegate-rich states. He has spent much of his time campaigning in Florida, which votes on Jan. 29, a week before Super Tuesday.

“He clearly has said publicly that he’s putting his resources in the larger states,” Kryzanek said. “But he dropped off the radar screen. He probably realizes he made a strategic mistake.”

Giuliani has taken some heat from more conservative Republicans for his pro-abortion stance.

“The lesson is: If you want to be president, you enter all the primaries and caucuses,” he said.

Among the Democrats, Dukakis expects a very close race between Clinton and Obama. If John Edwards, who finished second in Iowa and third in New Hampshire, doesn’t win the South Carolina primary, his campaign may be in trouble.

Edwards, who was born in South Carolina and represented North Carolina in the Senate, won the Palmetto State’s primary four years ago.

If Edwards drops out of the race, it will be interesting to see whether this helps Obama or Clinton.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Dukakis said. “That’s actually a case where some polling data might be useful to see who Edwards’ supporters have as a second choice.”

Edwards, John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, defended Obama when Clinton criticized him during last Saturday’s debate in New Hampshire.

The former North Carolina senator, who is running on a populist message, has said he’s in it for the long haul, but will likely scale back his campaign to a bare bones operation if he doesn’t get a win soon, Kryzanek said.

“He may be sending signals on who he finds less objectionable in the coming weeks,” Kryzanek said. “It’s still not clear.”

Obama, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, has billed himself as the candidate who can best bring change to Washington. Clinton, calling Obama an agent of “false hope,” has said she has the right blend of experience and change.

There are few significant differences between Clinton, Edwards and Obama on the major policy issues. While all favor a withdrawal from Iraq, only Obama opposed the war from the beginning.

In South Carolina, where blacks make up approximately 50 percent of registered Democrats, Obama is expected to get a boost. According to some polls, many black voters initially favored Hillary Clinton because they thought she had a better chance of winning the nomination.

But Obama’s strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire ‹ two overwhelmingly white states ‹ have led many pundits to predict black voters will shift their support to the Illinois Senator.

The Jan. 26 South Carolina Democratic primary follows the Jan. 19 Republican primary. Jan. 19 is also the date of the Nevada Democratic caucuses.

When asked if he expects a front-runner to emerge before the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries, Dukakis replied, “There may not be one after Super Tuesday.”

He recalled his own experiences during the 1988 Democratic primaries.

“I came in third ‹ but a close third ‹ in Iowa,” Dukakis said.

He then won New Hampshire and South Dakota. On Super Tuesday, Dukakis won the critical states of Texas, Florida, California and Maryland ‹ capturing the country’s “corners” to get the national presence he wanted.

But the momentum didn’t last.

“I got creamed in Illinois and Michigan,” Dukakis recalled.

Dukakis said he didn’t emerge as the front-runner until winning the New York primary.

Kryzanek explained that he expects the picture to be much clearer by Super Tuesday, when voters in Massachusetts and more than 20 other states cast their ballots.

“Feb. 5 probably still becomes the most important date,” Kryzanek said.

“We’ll probably know who it is on both sides by then.”

Taunton Daily Gazette