By Patrick B. McGuigan
The Iowa Caucus for Republicans and Democrats will take place on February 1, a Monday. Just eight days later, New Hampshire will vote, and thereafter a slew of mostly southern states.
Among those, on March 1, Oklahomans in both parties will have their say in what will likely still be a competitive national race for the presidential nominations of both parties.
For Republicans, as the kickoff of National Convention delegate selection nears, Donald Trump remains ahead nationwide after the most recent Republican debate. Ted Cruz of Texas is making a strong challenge and Marco Rubio of Florida is more or less consistently in third.
This past week, Republican National Committeeman Holland Redfield of Virginia, speaking at the winter meeting of the RNC, lamented “the tenor of the discussion amongst these candidates reducing our label,” and “the disrespect in many cases for ethnic minorities in the United States, but also religious factions in the United States. We have to draw the line.
Because sooner or later, somebody has to pick up the pieces.”
He said, “You’ve got a situation here, that when someone is listening to this, either a conservative or a Democrat, or a Republican, or an independent, there are things that are said on that stage and in the media, that if your child was doing that, you’d put that child over your knee and spank them. You know it, and I know it.”
While there is room for debate, Redfield’s comments were widely interpreted as a critique of one candidate in particular: Trump.
Redfield did nothing to counter that interpretation, and indeed provided a video of his speech to Politico.com, which reported it as an attack on Trump.
For all the feelings there will be an eventual conservative backlash against the billionaire businessman – based primarily on his actual record of long-term support for liberal causes — Trump might have had his best debate performance thus far in last week’s joust among the top hopefuls.
Clashing in that debate over Sen. Cruz’s comments about “New York values,” Trump delivered a soaring defense of residents in the Empire State, pointing back to the 9-11 attacks and widespread admiration for the response of the citizenry in 2001 and thereafter.
Cruz seems to be weathering the storm and stress concerning his eligibility to become U.S. president, but Trump’s defense of his home state made him seem more sympathetic to many than at any other moment so far in the campaign.
One deeply conservative writer, Nate Jackson of The Patriot Post, says the race is now a three-man contest (“at most”). He credits Cruz for the campaign’s most consistent messaging, including on immigration.
Jackson contends Rubio is “weak and untrustworthy” on immigration.
By this, Jackson means Rubio’s attempt to deal with immigration policy shows too much sympathy to immigrants.
I part company from Jackson and many on the Right when it comes to immigration policy. Polling data continues to indicate voters (including Republicans) are willing to support reform of a system that divides families, marginalizes a key demographic group and threatens to destroy the GOP’s chances to fashion a long-term national majority.
If anything, Marco Rubio may be tacking too much toward Cruz- and Trump-style harshness of rhetoric, undermining his authenticity as an alternative to the styles of both men.
Still, this is a campaign, not beanbag. Rubio might yet prevail as the candidate best able to restore Reagan-style inclusive conservatism to the top of the ticket.
Sen. Rubio might have had the best moment of the recent debate when he reflected on gun owners’ rights under the Second Amendment. He said it “is not an option. It is not a suggestion. It is a constitutional right of every American to be able to protect themselves and their families. I am convinced that if this president could confiscate every gun in America, he would. I am convinced that this president, if he could get rid of the Second Amendment, he would. I am convinced because I see how he works with his attorney general, not to defend the Second Amendment, but to figure out ways to undermine it. I have seen him appoint people to our courts not to defend the Second Amendment, but to figure out ways to undermine it.
“Here’s my second problem. None of these instances that the president points to as the reason why he’s doing these things would have been preventive. You know why? Because criminals don’t buy their guns from a gun show. They don’t buy their guns from a collector. And they don’t buy their guns from a gun store. They steal them. They get them on the black market. And let me tell you, ISIS and terrorists do not get their guns from a gun show. … If there’s an act of violence in America, his immediate answer before he even knows the facts is gun control.”
Edgy rhetoric, to be sure, but a powerful play to the Republican base and to constitutionalists, drawing on the text of the Second Amendment.
His words might even persuade some outside of the conservative “choir.” Nicholas Kristoff, writing in The New York Times, said this weekend, “[L]iberals often inadvertently antagonize gun owners and empower the National Rifle Association by coming across as supercilious, condescending and spectacularly uninformed about the guns they propose to regulate.”
While all the other Republicans still in the race bring seriousness of purpose to their endeavors in this challenging year, Rubio remains the strongest remaining alternative to Trump and Cruz – unless something dramatic transforms the situation again. (Some polls have John Kasich surging in New Hampshire.)
When the campaign gets to Oklahoma, Rubio will no doubt deploy the deepest bench among Republican elected officials.
Bottom line, for the first time since 1976 (when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination), the outcome will likely remain uncertain on the morning after the New Hampshire primary.
As for the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton is reasonably certain of a strong showing in Oklahoma’s voting on March 1. She has overwhelming backing among past and present Democratic elected officials.
Nationally, however, Clinton has dropped (in the RealClearPolitics” averaging of all surveys) from two-thirds support among Democrats in August to just over 50 percent now.
Further, while she leads Trump in national “head-to-head” matchups, she trails in a handful. Both Cruz and Rubio are ahead of her in several surveys.
In the “RealClearPolitics” averaging, U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders has surged among Democrats, from 15 percent support in August.
The most recent blended data (Jan. 18) had Clinton leading among Democratic voters nationwide, 51.2 percent to 38 percent. Clinton had nearly two-third support among Democrats in summer 2015.
As for the first real test of delegate strength, some analysts have actually put Sanders ahead in Iowa, but a Bloomberg poll gave Clinton a small lead there last week.
What’s amazing is that in some measurements of public opinion, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s single digit base in Iowa falls within the margin of error of the gap between the two front-runners in the caucus state.
What if O’Mally, as follow-up to Sunday’s debate, decided to back one of the other two before Iowa Caucus day, or even before voters go the polls in New Hampshire on Tuesday, February 9?
Sen. Sanders has steadily moved up from 15 percent in the summer to around 40 percent now.
There is not a lot of difference between Sanders and Clinton on issues, although she has staked out a few areas in economic policy to distinguish herself from the Vermont senator. And, she has tried to make it seem as if Sanders too sensitive to the Second Amendment.
While issues are always important, and the former Secretary of State ought to have a stronger advantage at this point, but in fact Hillary Clinton is weaker today, in surveys, than she was at this point in the 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, then a U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Whether this is a legacy from the email controversies so widely covered, spillover from her husband’s non-political issues, her manner and style or other factors, Sanders has steadily gained on the front-runner.
Bottom line: While Hillary will win Oklahoma over the Yankee socialist (not a smear, but a description), she faces strong headwinds nationally – both within her party and among the electorate as a whole.