It’s time to offer some astute analysis of the current political scene and to handicap the races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

Faithful readers may wonder why I am wasting their time and this newspaper’s space commenting on these issues of national importance in which I have absolutely no experience whatsoever. Why am I not leaving this discussion up to the national news media?

Here’s why: Because almost every night of my life I am condemned to spend 30 minutes on an elliptical machine, and my diversion for those minutes is a television that I toggle between the major cable news networks. I watch those political pundits and I can tell you: Knowing nothing at all about the subject at hand never stops them from offering an opinion. So it shouldn’t stop me, either.

Here is goes, beginning with Republicans.

John McCain. After the win in South Carolina, the former Vietnam POW is being viewed as the front runner. And he has a chance to do well again on Tuesday, January 29, in Florida, where a substantial portion of the electorate has military connections.

But will that be enough to sustain McCain through Super Tuesday, February 5, when the economy will likely be on center stage in many states? And will age be a factor? At 71 now, McCain would be three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he was first inaugurated. I’m generally the last to worry about this issue, but I think McCain is looking a little tired.

Mike Huckabee. I’m a sucker for the small state underdog, and I paid attention to Bill Clinton early in 1992 for that very reason. But there are two things about Huckabee I don’t trust: 1.) He uses a dog fighting slogan to describe his tenacity, something that won’t play well in the north given the outrage over Michael Vick. 2.) He’s a former preacher who likes to show a human side: "If you know someone who’s going to vote for someone else in this election," he advised on one occasion, "just let the air out of their tires."

He portrays himself as a populist but he’s still a preacher, and a Huckabee presidency would be sure to wallow in pro-life and heterosexual marriage constitutional amendments. Does a majority in this country really want to meddle in other people’s lives?

Rudy Giuliani. We will count him in since he says he had intended to stay out of it until Florida. He is changing before our eyes from an anti-terror candidate to an economy builder candidate.

His pitch now includes the usual "change" jokes: "You know what the Democrats mean when they call for change? They’re trying to take the change from your pocket." Giuliani’s stage business includes pulling a single sheet of paper from his pocket and introducing his proposed new income tax form. It will include all the usual important deductions, plus one new one – for up to $15,000 in medical insurance deductions so that you can create your own new health savings account. I’m not sure even well heeled Republicans will think that’s a bargain.

Mitt Romney. Of the Republican pack I think Romney is the most presidential. Even though he has an unfortunate name (Mitt is his middle name, but it still reminds me of Mutt) and even though the media wrote him off after New Hampshire, he still has a chance, and a better one now that the economy (remember the economy, stupid?) is being recognized as the key issue in the campaign.

He can tout a record as a businessman and he can claim his compulsory health insurance plan is an effective blend of government and private solutions.

And he has the best quip of the campaign so far: "I asked my wife if in her wildest dreams she ever imagined me running for president, and she said, `Mitt, you’re never in my wildest dreams’."

John Edwards. More than the Republicans, the three remaining Democratic contenders all strike me as presidential. Edwards has a message that’s hard to argue with, and he is eminently likable, but all that is not good enough to attract many voters, despite record turnouts in Democratic primaries. That says more about the two leading opponents than about Edwards.

Barack Obama. Yes, this 46-year-old is inexperienced (only three years into his first Senate term and previously a state senator from Illinois), but he is for real as a candidate. And he will put the race issue to rest in presidential politics. Obama is African American the same way John F. Kennedy was Irish Catholic – meet them once and you walk away thinking mostly about how bright and engaging they are, and very little about race or religion.

With Obama (Columbia and Harvard Law) you also get a Princeton connection: His wife, Michelle, 44, is Princeton ’85 (and then Harvard Law, of course).

Hillary Clinton. In this intriguing election Hillary may do for gender what Barack will do for race – knock it out as a political issue. Six years ago the analysts might have wondered if a woman could stand the heat of a presidential campaign. This year Clinton sheds some tears and surges in the New Hampshire primary – quite a contrast to 1972, when Ed Muskie wept in New Hampshire. Hillary is tough enough, and now suddenly "likable enough," as Obama says.

The liberal media establishment does not want Hillary – she’s the same old, same old, especially compared to the fresh face of Obama. But I wonder how many other people yearn for the good old 1990s, and would see the advantage of having Bill Clinton back in the vicinity of the Oval Office.

So I will make a know-nothing prediction (with 98 percent of the vote still out): Romney vs. Clinton in November. Meanwhile I look forward to more time on the elliptical, and – perhaps – some astute political insights along the way.

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