Straw Poll Is First Test for GOP White House Hopefuls
The political world has had March 9-12 circled on its calendar for months. The Southern Republican Leadership Conference meeting in Memphis will feature all of the major candidates likely to seek the 2008 GOP nomination. Better yet, there will be a straw poll of the more than 1,800 attendees -- the first real test of strength for the presidential field.
I'll be on my way down there later today (along with nearly ever other member of the national media) and will be posting Friday and Saturday on the speeches. The straw poll results won't be announced until after 9 p.m. ET Saturday night, but a number of the candidates' camps are already engaged in expectations-setting. Here's The Fix's take on what to watch for this weekend:
* Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist: Sure, Frist's home in Nashville is actually farther from Memphis than Mississippi's Gov. Haley Barbour's hometown of Yazoo City or Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's abode in Little Rock, but Frist still needs a win in the SRLC straw poll to generate some much-needed buzz around his candidacy. Recognizing the necessity of victory, Frist has actively worked to register his supporters for the conference, a strategy that to our knowledge no other active candidate has employed. (Barbour was rumored to be quietly registering Mississippi Republicans in hopes of an upset but has since removed himself from the 2008 field.) Frist's secret weapon? Chip Saltsman, former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and now a senior advisor to Frist's Volunteer PAC.
* Arizona Sen. John McCain: McCain's rise to frontrunner status over the past six months or so isn't likely to be derailed by a poor showing in the straw poll. Few observers expect McCain to win because of Frist's geographic edge, but should he wind up on top it would provide further momentum the Arizona senator's effort to be the establishment candidate in the 2008 field. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott told Mark Preston of CNN earlier this week that he would dedicate a portion of his Saturday SRLC speech to "my friend John McCain" and would also shepherd him to a Mississippi delegation gathering on Friday night. A Lott endorsement is sure to give McCain's prospects in the straw poll a boost, as will his placement as the final speaker of the evening on Friday. The McCain's advisers, however, were quick to point out that they have made no effort to organize support for their candidate at the SRLC gathering.
* Virginia Sen. George Allen: The buzz around Allen has been more muted of late thanks to the emergence of two somewhat serious Democratic challengers seeking to unseat him this November. That challenge at home will likely limit Allen's national schedule in the coming months, so his SRLC speech could be crucial in how he is viewed among the Republican rank and file. Should Allen wind up in the straw poll's top three -- a real possibility -- he would likely regain some momentum, reasserting his appeal in his natural southern home base. Allen aides pointed out that he is not running any sort of campaign for the straw poll. (For further reading, see The Fix's Insider Interview with Allen.)
* Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: Romney has already met with some success in trying to sell his status as a Massachusetts Mormon to voters in the South -- he is surprisingly well thought of and organized in South Carolina. Romney's camp seems to be downplaying the importance of the SRLC event -- he will be in Memphis to speak on Friday but won't stick around for the straw poll results. Instead, he'll fly to Iowa later that day to be in Iowa on Saturday for that state's county conventions. Neither Romney's top political adviser -- Trent Wisecup -- nor his communications director -- Julie Teer -- will be making the trip to Memphis.
* Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: Huckabee is the biggest wildcard in the straw poll field. He has served as governor of neighboring Arkansas for the last decade, and no candidate (not even McCain) has gotten better press than Huckabee over the past year. Saturday night could show whether Huckabee is more than just a fad. Should he challenge the big boys or even wind up ahead of some of them, he could begin to lay claim to the open slot for a movement conservative in the field.
* Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback: Brownback is Huckabee's main competition -- both in Memphis and the race more generally -- for the support of the conservative wing of the GOP. The Kansas senator has been the most outspoken of any potential candidate on the Republican side about his interest in the race but appears to be focused heavily on the Iowa straw poll in early 2007 to make his mark on the field.
Note: The SRLC straw poll is being sponsored by The Hotline, the must-read publication for political insiders.
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