We who pay attention to presidential politics find ourselves living in interesting times. The conventional wisdom already has been proven wrong on multiple counts:
As it turns out, this was not the year when you had to declare early or be out of the campaign. Fred Thompson is a frontrunner, and he hasn’t declared yet, although most people expect an announcement in July.
Mike Bloomberg is the newest wildcard, and so far the only thing he’s declared is that he’s not a Republican anymore, which, of course, excuses him from running against any of them in primaries and caucuses and sets him up for the independent run that his advisers reportedly have been dreaming about for years.
As it turns out, John McCain is not inevitable. Democrats used to fear him, and Republicans were trying to get on the train before it left the station. Loyal Bushies signed on, some of them reluctantly, for the purely pragmatic reason of being with a winner. Reaching out to the right was all he needed to do in order to cement his hold on the lead.
Except none of it is working. McCain's overtures to the base that cost him the nomination in 2000, in his view, anyway, have cost him the support of the people who almost gave him the nomination in 2000.
He has been done in not by his disloyalty to President Bush (the supposed flirting with Kerry in 2000, the much-hated compromises with Democrats on judges and campaign funds), but by his loyalty to a man he probably doesn’t like on the two key issues most other candidates are running away from, the Iraq war and immigration.
In a game in which everything is about expectations, McCain hasn’t met them, leaving his beleaguered staff desperately trying to convince reporters that the obituary pieces are premature. And to think only months ago this was the campaign to join. Just think how much more popular he’d be if he’d followed Fred Thompson’s plan.
As it turns out, Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a woman problem, or at least not the kind that plagued her in her first New York Senate race. Whatever poll you look at, the pattern is the same. Hillary is holding on to her lead in the Democratic race, largely on the strength of her backing from women. There is a “women’s vote,” at least at this point, and it’s going to Hillary.
Moreover, my own sense from spending a great deal of time talking to Democratic women across the country is that where Hillary has problems with liberal women, it isn’t because she stayed with her husband but because she initially supported the war in Iraq and is not seen as doing enough to stop it.
As it turns out, Rudy Giuliani may have trouble running on his record as mayor of New York, which is all he has to run on. We all knew from the outset that there would be dissident elements in his New York base: firefighters who would not applaud his handling of 9/11, arguing that the city was not prepared, that the emergency preparedness offices were in a much too vulnerable location and that the mayor prematurely ended the search for their lost brothers.
But what few predicted was that his record would be examined side-by-side with that of his successor, Mike Bloomberg, and found wanting on nearly every count. That Bloomberg could govern the supposedly ungovernable city without pitting groups against each other, and the histrionics and ill-will that characterized the Giuliani administration bring Rudy back to earth.
Giuliani, in fact, had a terrible week, not only because Bloomberg emerged as the new media darling but because of a series of missteps, from his late arrival to an Iowa event (earning him the label of “rude” from David Yepsen, the most important political reporter in the state), to the indictment of his South Carolina chairman on charges of dealing cocaine, to the controversy over why he declined to serve on the Iraq Study Group and seems to studiously avoid the topic.
What everyone said would be Giuliani’s biggest problems — his stances on abortion and gay rights — have been handled by him and his campaign far better than the Iraq issue and the informal rules of Iowa politics.
What all this proves is that the motto that rules in Hollywood — “no one knows anything” — applies in presidential politics as well, particularly in the weird world of nomination politics, where national polls are largely meaningless and what Elizabeth Drew in her new book on Richard Nixon calls “improbable candidates” can and do get nominated, and elected.
The only thing you can be sure of is that the people who are most certain of what’s going to happen are almost always certainly wrong. And the prospect of a contest between three New Yorkers may leave folks everywhere donning Boston Red Sox caps, if only to protest those damn Yankees.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.