LOS ANGELES – Get ready for the Subway Series.
Hillary v. Rudy? It is, of course, what the 2000 New York Senate race was supposed to be. Rudy was the reason that Bob Torricelli, the New Jersey senator who was then the chief of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and the New York Democrats, recruited the First Lady to take on America’s Mayor. Their line was that only Hillary could beat Rudy. Now Rudy is putting out the word that only he can beat Hillary. It’s symmetry or irony, depending on your perspective.
Is the presidential campaign over before a vote has been cast? Of course not. The press, for one, wouldn’t allow it. Watch out for a spate of stories that Hillary isn’t inevitable, that Romney is making his move, that Rudy is more flawed than you knew, and that Obama is poised for a comeback.
But the race now has a structure, and the system is ultimately stacked in favor of the frontrunner, especially the so-called establishment frontrunner. If you don’t believe that, try naming me the last establishment frontrunner who lost his party’s nomination, even if he took a hit in Iowa or New Hampshire (Hint: it wasn’t Reagan in 1980, Mondale in 1984, George Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush or Al Gore in 2000; just for starters....)
So the next round of stories will be about Obama making his stand in Iowa, which is intended to keep hope alive, since he’s 30-plus points behind in national polls, and no longer winning the money primary; and Romney taking on Guiliani, and gathering strength in Iowa and New Hampshire. Could Obama "surprise" Hillary in Iowa? Sure. Could Romney win New Hampshire? He should, being the former resident governor in New Hampshire’s largest media market, which is Boston.
But this is no longer a system in which the "challenger" who wins Iowa and/or New Hampshire has weeks to sit at the top of the heap, to be the focus of a press love-in, have his face on the cover of the weeklies, put out the buckets for money-- in other words, to gather up the "Big Mo," as the first George Bush called it (and it didn’t even work for him when he did, in 1980), and translate it into victories in other states.
Now, you have days, hours really, not weeks, until Iowa and New Hampshire are forgotten in the steam roll of states that follow. Winning Iowa is not what it once was; and truth be told, since Jimmy Carter did it in 1976 (sort of, actually uncommitted won, but the press, following the lead of the legendary Johnny Apple of the New York Times, gave it to Carter, which is what counts), it hasn’t been all that much anyway. Party rules and state scheming have combined to make things more difficult for insurgents of the Jimmy Carter variety, a testament to the Democrats’ hostility towards their one winner of that decade.
What’s worse, if you’re the non-frontrunner who is trying to stay in the game by announcing that you’re going to win there, a loss becomes a disaster. Already, the press is asking if Obama is finished if he loses Iowa. If Romney can’t win New Hampshire, where can he win? The frontrunner doesn’t die if he loses one of the early contests (as both Bushes did, and Clinton, and Mondale and Reagan) provided he or she has a firewall down the road, but the challenger can be dead if he doesn’t (think Bill Bradley and John Edwards, to take two recent examples).
By some calculations, Obama, by upping the stakes in Iowa, is creating a lose-lose situation, which is a testament to Hillary’s strength right now.
As for the Republican side, in any other year, it would be easy to argue that Rudy Giuliani is precisely the sort of candidate who shouldn’t be able to win a Republican primary, who, even more so than Hillary, is far better positioned for a general election than for the ideologically-skewed contests of primary and caucus politics.
But this isn’t any other year.
For one thing, the Republican race is full of flawed candidates; conservative hopes of finding a savior in Fred Thompson have been quickly dashed by the reality of seeing the candidate in action-- proof, if more were needed, that running for president is much harder than it looks.
On paper, Romney is better positioned on social issues than Rudy, but he’s also a recent convert to the cause, having won election as a Massachusetts Republican (which is to say, a Democrat anywhere else), a Mormon (which engenders more bias, at least of the open variety, than race or sex do), and a former governor with no claim to national security experience, which was just fine in the 80’s and 90’s, but not-so-fine in this insecure post-9/11 period.
War and peace. Toughness and terror. In these times, worrying about social issues may be a luxury Republicans can’t afford, just as, on the Democratic side, the desire for what is new and hopeful and different may be outweighed by the comfort of one who is tried and tested, as a Clinton presidency is.
You can certainly understand why it makes Peggy Noonan tired, the steady parade of Bushes and Clintons, but security may be what Americans are looking for in familiar faces more than the change offered by new ones.
That’s good news for the New York senator and the former New York mayor, and for the New York- centered media, but it may leave the rest of the country wondering how those Damn Yankees managed to get a lock on the Series.
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.