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The Friday Line: Return of the Presidential Rankings

It's back! After a hiatus in the run-up to the 2006 midterm election, the regular Friday Line on potential 2008 presidential candidates returns this week ... with a special new twist.

In previous presidential lines, we've chosen not to rank the candidates by their likelihood of winning their party's nomination -- choosing instead to just list the five with the best chance at the nomination. No more. Starting today we rank the five candidates in each party best positioned to become their party's standard bearer.

A note of caution about reading too much into these picks. One year ago two Virginians -- Sen. George Allen (R) and former Gov. Mark Warner (D) -- were seen as top-tier challengers for their respective party nods. Today, Allen is out of the Senate and Warner has removed himself from consideration.

To the Line!

DEMOCRATS

1. Hillary Rodham Clinton: No surprise here. Clinton won a second term on Tuesday with 66 percent of the vote. And, as of mid-October, she had raised nearly $50 million for her reelection race and retained $14 million. From a process perspective, Clinton looks close to unbeatable in the Democratic primaries. She will be the best-funded candidate, allowing her to build top-tier campaign teams in each of the four early states -- a luxury her opponents aren't likely to enjoy. From a policy perspective, she may be vulnerable. Clinton's stance on the war in Iraq is out of step with many in the Democratic base, and she is clearly vulnerable to a challenge from someone who has been opposed to the war from the start. Despite that seeming vulnerability, no one is better positioned at the moment to win the nomination.

2. Barack Obama: Obama's place in the race is as the rising star in the Democratic Party ... who also happens to have been against the war from its inception. During a recent appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" Obama confirmed our long-held suspicions that he was at least considering a run for national office. We hear that a final decision will likely come down to family considerations -- he has two small children and no one seems to know what his wife thinks of a presidential bid. Obama's strengths are obvious -- huge buzz both inside and outside the Beltway and the perception that he could raise $50 million or more to compete with Clinton. His weaknesses? Lack of organization in any early primary or caucus state and a relative lack of experience on the national stage.

3. John Edwards: We thought long and hard about whether the former North Carolina senator should fill the No. 2 or 3 spot on the Line. Edwards had -- arguably -- the best last year of any of the serious contenders. He carefully re-cast himself as a strong voice against the war in Iraq, courted organized labor assiduously, and showed that he retains considerable good will from voters, especially in the key early state of Iowa. The one lingering question for Edwards is whether he can raise the tens of millions he needs to compete against Clinton and possibly Obama. During his 2004 race Edwards leaned heavily on trial lawyers to fund his campaign, and some people affiliated with other potential campaigns insist he will not receive that sort of unanimous support should he run in 2008. Edwards also largely shut down fundraising for his leadership political action committee, choosing to give his donors a break before the 2008 push. Will it work?

4. Evan Bayh: One of the unsung winners of Tuesday's election was the senator from Indiana. Bayh spent from his political capital in the Hoosier State to help elect Democrats in the 2nd, 8th and 9th congressional districts. It paid off. All three seats went for Democrats -- providing Bayh with a nice talking point in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond about the success of his brand of moderate politics. But can a centrist message appeal to the liberal activists who dominate the early presidential voting states? It's a tough road for Bayh, but he is as well-organized as any candidate in the field and has put together an extremely impressive -- and experienced -- staff from top to bottom.

5. Bill Richardson: As longtime Fix readers know, we have long been skeptical of Richardson's chances of winning his party's nomination. That said, he has perhaps the most impressive resume of anyone on this list -- two-term governor, member of Congress, ambassador and cabinet secretary. He is also a Latino American, the quickest growing voting bloc in the country. That said, Richardson is not the most disciplined of politicians, a trait that could work to his detriment over the long haul of a presidential effort. Before you write off Richardson, however, ask yourself what other potential 2008 candidate could have pulled off this ad?

REPUBLICANS

1. John McCain: No one -- and we repeat no one -- had a better year politically than McCain. Publicly, he campaigned constantly for endangered GOP lawmakers as the lone national figure in the party who was welcome in any district in the country. Privately, his presidential staff-in-waiting courted establishment figures and elected officials within the party -- seeking to answer questions about whether McCain could heal rifts from his challenge to George W. Bush in 2000. Over the past two months, McCain has methodically released names of supporters in key early states, seeking to build a sense of momentum and progress. We hear a few more big shoes will drop in the next few weeks that will show the depth of McCain's inroads into the party establishment.

2. Mitt Romney: The Massachusetts governor had a nice year of his own, unfortunately capped off by broad Republican losses in gubernatorial races, including in his home state. While McCain has released the names of his '08 supporters in drips and drabs, Romney has gone for shock and awe with his announcements -- massive lists in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan filled with impressive and influential names. Romney is the best raw candidate in the Republican field and he is the equal of Obama and Edwards when it comes to charisma. He still must answer doubts among conservatives about his time in Massachusetts and seeming flip-flops on some social questions. And then there is the Mormon question to which we have no answer just yet.

3. Rudy Giuliani: If Giuliani really is planning to run for president, he is taking a decidedly unorthodox approach to it. Giuliani has no staff in early states and doesn't appear to be doing too much courting of key money men and activists across the country. It's possible he is doing all of this under the veil of secrecy, but we doubt it. Then again, Giuliani did spend the final few months of the 2006 campaign traveling across the country for GOP candidates -- the actions of a man interested in national office. In short, we don't know what to make of Giuliani. If he runs, he must find a way to moderate or explain his liberal positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage -- typically non-starters for a GOP candidate in a race for the Republican presidential nomination.

4. Mike Huckabee: The past year looks like a wasted opportunity for the outgoing Arkansas governor. Sure, Huckabee made numerous trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But the attention he has paid those states hasn't resulted in a core group of strategists in each state to advocate for him. Huckabee's profile -- fat to thin, Baptist minister, southern governor -- is extremely appealing and should make him a top-tier contender. The question is whether he and his campaign team are ready for prime time? We're withholding our opinion for now, but Huckabee needs to begin to show tangible results of all of his spadework sometime soon.

5. Newt Gingrich: Gingrich -- smartly -- spent the past year casting himself as a change agent within the party he helped lead to power in 1994. Since resigning from the House following the 1998 elections, Gingrich has recouped his image somewhat, and even his detractors admit he is one of the best "idea men" in the party. Gingrich, like Giuliani, seems more enamored with being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate than actually running, but for the moment he belongs on this list.

What are you thinking? Sound off in the comments section below.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 10, 2006; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , The Line  
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