When it has come to the serious business of selecting presidential nominees, the Republican Party has been far more orderly, organized and predictable than the Democrats. In the last 35 years, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have all won the Democratic presidential nomination even after each, one year before the election, was the choice in the Gallup Poll of 5 percent or less of his party's voters.
By contrast, in the 14 presidential elections before this one, the GOP candidate who was leading in the Gallup Poll conducted closest to one year before the party's nominating convention went on to be nominated.
But on the eve of the 2008 nominating season, the Republicans are looking and acting a lot more like the Democrats. Take the front-runner-one-year-before-the-convention rule: Earlier this year, that was of course former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC news poll continues to fade like a $40 paint job. Voters' personal feelings toward Giuliani have gone from 58 percent positive and just 14 percent negative in March to 37 percent positive and 37 percent negative today, with twice as many voters now saying they have "very negative" feelings toward the New Yorker as have "very positive" feelings.
Giuliani is not mounting all-out challenges in the first contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, but insists instead that he will prevail at the end of the month in Florida. To this, Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who does the Journal-NBC News poll along with Republican Bill McInturff, cracks: "Rudy can repeat Florida, Florida, Florida, but by the time he gets there, he will be like Santiago, the fisherman in the 'Old Man and the Sea.' Only the skeletal remains of his 'marlin' will be found."
Who is the hottest property today in the Republican field? That would be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who in the Wall Street Journal-NBC News July poll was the favorite of a smashing 1 percent of Republican voters. Today, Huckabee has jumped to 17 percent, where building on his now-pre-eminent position in Iowa's first-in-the nation caucuses on Jan. 3, he is now challenging for the national lead.
GOP voters have historically been strongly influenced by the endorsements of party leaders and major office-holders, which has almost always meant the favored candidate had the biggest campaign chest. But not Mike Huckabee.
As the candidate who has charged that national Republicans are too solicitous of Wall Street and Easy Street at the expense of middle America's Main Streets, he is not on the dance-card of Washington's K Street or his party's big-money folks. He has raised and spent less than any serious competitor in either party.
Huckabee in 2008, very much like the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was in 1964, constitutes nothing less than a fearsome threat to the established order and to all its comfortable private-public relationships.
In fact, 2008 looks more like 1964 than any other campaign year in modern Republican history. Today, while Huckabee is the heavy favorite to win Iowa, both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain are quite strong in the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.
In 1964, then-U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge was in Saigon when a write-in campaign in New Hampshire backing him soundly defeated two full-time candidates, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater. By late May and early June, the race came down to two state primaries: Oregon, which Rockefeller won, and California, the showdown contest between Rockefeller and Goldwater.
Rockefeller led in the California polls until the Saturday before the Tuesday election, when his wife, the former Happy Murphy, who had left her own husband and six children to marry Rockefeller (who had divorced Mary, his own wife of 30 years), gave birth to Nelson Rockefeller Jr. That blessed event apparently reminded enough voters of all the pain inflicted upon the lives of so many by the Rockefeller divorces to tip California and the nomination to Barry Goldwater.
Stay tuned. For Republicans, 2008 could be just as exciting as 1964.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.