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Chaos Theory

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008 12:38 PM

I just got back from Michigan and South Carolina, so I'm prepared to share my insights on how the Republican race is going.

It seems that John McCain's New Hampshire bounce dissipated in Michigan. Except Michigan didn't really count because Mitt Romney lived there, oh, 35 years ago. Romney's Michigan bounce convinced him to skip South Carolina. Fred Thompson should do well in South Carolina, a state tailor-made for him, except he isn't. Mike Huckabee never got much of an Iowa bump but is competitive in South Carolina, where there are plenty of evangelicals, but also plenty of veterans who might gravitate toward McCain. And Rudy Giuliani is sunning himself in Florida.

Therefore, if you take the Republican winner tomorrow in South Carolina, add 3 points for past victories, subtract 2 points if the person also loses the Nevada caucuses, which seem mainly to be taking place near casino tables, you will have clear, incontrovertible evidence that whoever wins Florida will have enough momentum going into Super Tuesday that the nomination battle should be settled by . . . June. Or not.

I can make a case for why every one of these guys can't win. It's a little harder to divine who will be the last man standing.

But with a race this exciting, why don't reporters just sit back and enjoy it? Instead, there's this undercurrent of angst: The race is insane. Three contests, three winners. It's a deep, dark mystery. This has never happened before in recorded history. How can this not be over by Feb. 5 so we can all go on vacation? The party is in crisis, maybe even in therapy. How can there not be a front-runner???

And I think Salon's Walter Shapiro put his experienced finger on it: "There is the irresistible human temptation to impose rationality on chaos."

That's it! Journalists are ticked off because the Republican race is defying our attempts to wrap it into a nice, neat narrative. This is what we do for a living. And if we can't say what's going on, who needs us? You could get just as good a take from your Uncle Harry.

As the Carpetbagger noted, look at these takes, beginning with Adam Nagourney's post-Michigan analysis in the NYT:

"The convincing victory by Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary on Tuesday means three very different states -- with dissimilar electorates driven by distinctive sets of priorities -- have embraced three separate candidates in search of someone who can lead the party into a tough election and beyond President Bush."

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder sees bad news for the GOP:

"Four primaries and three winners have exposed, according to the dominant media, a Republican party that is listless, demoralized and casting about for unity.

"There aren't many Republicans who would disagree . . .

"Momentum seems to skip the next state up and seems to benefit the person who exceeded expectations, rather than the winner. This is a common enough trend. Though Mike Huckabee got no bounce in New Hampshire or Michigan, he's shot up in South Carolina and Florida. McCain received some energy after his fourth place finish in Iowa. As each state takes it turn in the spotlight, voters seem to become more resistant to the previous contests and more independent . . .

"Republicans don't seem receptive to a national message; they seem to prefer candidates who run like governors, who inspire feelings of solidarity, who cater (or pander) to their anxieties."

Politico editors Jim VandeHei and John Harris are also in the GOP-in-trouble camp:

"Ten months before Election Day, Republicans are facing a threat that spells serious trouble for GOP candidates from the top of the ticket down to the most obscure races. The problem is the funk of the foot soldiers.

"So far, the story of the 2008 campaign on the Republican side is what's not happening.

"Ambitious Republican politicians at the state and local levels are not deciding that this is the year to make a bid for higher office. Republican contributors are not opening their wallets and writing campaign checks.

"Most striking of all, Republican voters are not heading to the polls to vote in the GOP primaries in anything like participation rates of early years."

National Review's John O'Sullivan has a completely contradictory take:

"There is one clear winner, though: the GOP itself. Contrary to all expectations, the Republican race is exciting. No candidate has proved to be a complete dud. All have shone for their moment in the sun. And so far all have fought tough but fair in a series of good-humored debates. I suspect the voters are beginning to like them. The bitter internecine crack-up that every political columnist has predicted has occurred all right -- not in conservatism where they've been looking for it but in the Democratic party which was supposed to be coasting to triumph."

Okay, we all know how accurate polls are, so for what it's worth, MSNBC/McClatchy essentially has a tie in South Carolina: McCain 27, Huckabee 25. (For the Democratic primary the following week, Obama leads Hillary, 40-31.)

The aforementioned Walter Shapiro tries to work through his vertigo:

"If you find these calculations dizzying, try multiplying them by the other four plausible GOP nominees: Mitt Romney (the Daddy Warbucks candidate who just won Tuesday's Michigan primary), John McCain (whose comeback tour peaked, at least temporarily, in New Hampshire), Rudy Giuliani (once considered the most electable Republican) and Fred Thompson (the former senator turned TV star whose potential has far outstripped his performance). Republican loyalists, of course, have to solve these same equations in reverse.

"Never has there been a presidential season that has made such a mockery of the elusive concept of electability. At this point voters in both parties seem totally baffled about who would be their strongest candidate in the general election."

Time's Michael Scherer boils it down for those of us with MTV attention spans:

" Mitt Romney: He would not be a contender without being much richer than everyone else.

" Rudy Giuliani: He would not be a contender without having led New York in the weeks after September 11, 2001, a fact that still defines him six years later.

" John McCain: He would not be a contender without having forgiven George W. Bush after the 2000 election and stood by him in 2004.

" Mike Huckabee: He would not be a contender without having spent more than a decade learning how to move a crowd to salvation in Jesus Christ.

" Fred Thompson: He would not be a contender without having played one in the movies."

One school of thought, embraced by Josh Marshall, is that McCain my be golden with independents but is in trouble with the party's base:

"The key is that going forward there are a lot fewer states with open primaries, at least on the Republican side. So if McCain is going to remain in contention for the nomination he'll have to start winning those primaries among Republican voters. And so far he's shown very little ability to do that. In New Hampshire Romney actually edged out McCain by 1% among registered Republicans. In Michigan he whipped him by 14% among registered Republicans."

But some bloggers seem so certain about what's going to happen. The Weekly Standard's Richelieu:

"SC will narrow the field; pity the poor candidate who finishes third there and winds up in the political electric chair. If McCain drops to third, he'll be labeled president of New Hampshire, but little else. If Romney finishes third, his impressive Michigan win will be tossed off as a home-state fluke and he'll be labeled a northeasterner who cannot sell in the South. If Huckabee finishes third in a state tailor made for him, any chance he has of actually winning the nomination will [be] over."

I'm not sure that "electric chair" is the most humane analogy.

At Power Line, John Hinderaker is bullish on Mitt:

"The pervasive commentary over the last week to the effect that Michigan was do-or-die for Romney was, I think, nonsense. Even if Romney had lost narrowly to McCain in Michigan, which is not a winner-take-all state, he still would have been the overall leader in delegate count and would have received more votes from Republicans than anyone else so far.

"The next event, in South Carolina, will most likely be won by neither Romney nor McCain. The fact is that the Republican race is wide open and could well result in a open convention. The media should stop trying to pressure candidates to drop out every time they don't win a primary, and Republicans should value a candidate like Romney who is willing and able to compete not just here and there, but effectively across the country."

I've been waiting decades for an open convention. Something tells me I'll continue to wait.

The view is very different at the Nation, where John Nichols says Romney's money can't buy him good polls:

"There is no way to avoid the fact that Michigan Republican voters, in backing Mitt Romney, resurrected the candidacy of a contender who loses -- badly -- to all the leading Democratic contenders in head-to-head polls.

"While McCain actually beats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in most polls, and loses only narrowly to John Edwards, Romney finishes far behind all three Democrats in match-ups that anticipate fall pairings.

"Remarkably, Romney runs no better than evangelical Republican Mike Huckabee against the Democrats.

"A ... USA Today/Gallup poll had Huckabee losing by 6 points to Clinton and by 10 points to Obama. USA Today/Gallup surveys have had Romney trailing Clinton by 6 points or more and Obama by at least 12 points.

"McCain, in contrast, beats Clinton by 3 points and bests Obama by 5. McCain loses only to Edwards -- in a 52-44 finish. Notably, Edwards beats Romney 59-37."

Sounds like an argument for McCain, a point of which his campaign is hardly unaware.

And don't underestimate the Rush factor:

"Limbaugh, who makes a point of saying he does not officially endorse in the primaries, has nonetheless praised Romney effusively, repeated Romney's policy talking points, defended him against attacks from fellow conservatives, and after Romney's win in Michigan this week, declared him the front-runner.

"Just as tellingly, Limbaugh has been crusading against Huckabee and McCain, whom he does not consider real conservatives or suitable heirs to the Reagan legacy."

Things are getting combative out there. I don't know which I saw more often on TV yesterday, Bubba or Mitt scolding reporters in separate incidents.

"Hillary Rodham Clinton may be the spouse running for office, but it is more Bill Clinton who appears to be feeling the heat," says the New York Times.

"After weeks of complaining publicly about Barack Obama's record, the news media's coverage of the Democratic presidential race, or both, Mr. Clinton on Wednesday ripped into a television reporter who had asked him about a Nevada lawsuit concerning participation in the state's caucuses this Saturday. Mr. Clinton believed the question had seemed sympathetic to Mr. Obama's stakes in the suit, Clinton campaign officials said . . .

"'When you ask me that question, your position is that you think that the culinary workers' vote should be easier' than those of other Nevada workers, Mr. Clinton told the reporter, Mark Matthews of KGO-TV in Oakland. 'If you want to take that position, get on the television and take it. Don't be accusatory with me.' "

The Boston Globe has the other story:

"Mitt Romney had an unusually testy face-off with a reporter yesterday over the role of lobbyists in his presidential campaign.

"When Romney repeated, 'I don't have lobbyists running my campaign,' Glen Johnson of the Associated Press challenged him, saying: 'That is not true. Ron Kaufman is a lobbyist.'

"Romney responded: 'Did you hear what I said? Did you hear what I said, Glen? I said I don't have lobbyists running my campaign, and he's not running my campaign.'

"Johnson didn't relent, saying after some more back-and-forth, 'So Ron's just there, window dressing; he's a potted plant.'

"Romney shot back: 'Glen, I appreciate that you think that's funny, but Ron Kaufman is not even in on the senior strategy meetings of our campaign.' "

The otherwise sleepy MSNBC debate on Tuesday had an important moment, says the New Republic's Noam Scheiber:

"I've said that Hillary's response to Obama's concession about being sloppy was probably her best moment of Tuesday's debate. The Clinton campaign apparently agrees, since she now brings it up at almost every opportunity.

"I stand by my original take. But the more I hear Hillary riff on this, the less I think it works outside the immediate context of Obama's remarks. She's basically making the rounds trumpeting the fact that 'I intend to run the government, I intend to manage the economy,' which just sounds small-bore and tedious without Obama's line setting her up."

The lefty blogosphere is none too happy with Barack for saying the following: " I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not."

Headline on Olbermann: "Channeling the Gipper." And Edwards has already declared that Reagan isn't his role model.

Says Open Left's Matt Stoller: "There are many reason progressives should admire Ronald Reagan, politically speaking. He realigned the country around his vision, he brought into power a new movement that created conservative change, and he was an extremely skilled politician. But that is not why Obama admires Reagan. Obama admires Reagan because he agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable.

"Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement . . .

"It is extremely disturbing to hear, not that Obama admires Reagan, but why he does so. Reagan was not a sunny optimist pushing dynamic entrepreneurship, but a savvy politician using a civil rights backlash to catapult conservatives to power."

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun has this from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial pastor at Obama's Chicago church:

"Some argue that blacks should vote for Clinton 'because her husband was good to us,' he continued. 'That's not true,' he thundered. 'He did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky.' " I'm sure the Hillary camp appreciates the analogy.

And speaking of Hillary and, uh, that period, Chris Matthews has apologized for attributing her political success to her sexual humiliation.

Mike Huckabee seems to be saying a series of things that could spell big trouble in a general election. Americablog's John Aravosis is up in arms over the latest one:

"Any surprise that the man who comes from a religion that thinks Catholics worship Satan (and that Catholics aren't even Christians), now says that gay relationships are like men having sex with animals.

" QUESTIONER: Is it your goal to bring the Constitution into strict conformity with the Bible? Some people would consider that a kind of dangerous undertaking, particularly given the variety of biblical interpretations.

"HUCKABEE: Well, I don't think that's a radical view to say we're going to affirm marriage. I think the radical view is to say that we're going to change the definition of marriage so that it can mean two men, two women, a man and three women, a man and a child, a man and animal. Again, once we change the definition, the door is open to change it again. I think the radical position is to make a change in what's been historic."

There goes the gay vote.

And because it's my solemn duty to keep you informed about the entire media landscape, Frank Luntz has done a sex poll for Playboy. Fifty-seven percent of Americans would definitely say no to a one-night stand in the Oval Office with a president they found sexually and physically attractive. But 23 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats would definitely or probably say yes.

The Oval Office? They should hold out for the Lincoln Bedroom.

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