Were it not for the debates in the 2004 presidential election, President Bush may well have been re-elected by a popular vote margin similar to that his father enjoyed when first elected to the White House as Ronald Reagan’s successor in 1988. Coming out of the GOP convention, he constantly led in the polls, often by considerable margins. Those on the left were already discounting John Kerry’s chances — and faulting his campaign.
But, the first debate that fall changed everything. Taller than his opponent, Kerry with “his chiseled face” looked presidential. The president almost seemed to be swallowed up by his podium. Not only that. He seemed to have taken that debate, the one that had the largest audience, for granted.
Largely based on his presence, John Kerry reversed his slide in the polls and, in some, pulled even with the president.
Recalling that experience, I wonder at the number of pundits, notably Dick Morris, who see Hillary Clinton’s victory as inevitable* in next fall’s presidential election. The first ballot hasn’t been cast — and the former First Lady hasn’t even won her party’s nomination, yet some are already speculating on the composition of a second Clinton Administration.
Given her public persona — in contrast to that of her husband — it’s hard to imagine how a campaign, featuring debates (as have all presidential contest for the past thirty years) could improve her image. As I have written before (referencing Peggy Noonan), she often comes across as “an angry divorcée* addressing the PTA.” Angry divorcées aren’t very presidential.
Yes, having already begun to reassemble her husband’s top-notch political team, she can be expected to run a good campaign. Yet, even with these excellent strategists and operatives, Bill Clinton couldn’t muster a majority of the popular vote against the two worst GOP presidential campaigns since 1964. And he ran as the challenger when the economy was sour — and the incumbent when the economy was strong. Plus, he had what his wife lacks, charisma and a compelling public presence.
One thing which will help the eventual Republican nominee (presuming its one of the three leading candidates) next fall against his Democratic rival will be what Paul Mirengoff of Powerline yesterday called “The Stature Gap.” Simply put, the three leading GOP candidates have stronger records — and greater presence — than their Democratic counterparts.
Now, when measured head to head, Republicans run even with Democrats — which should be a troubling sign to Democrats given that polls shows that Americans would favor a Democratic Chief Executive to a Republican one (in that abstract, that is, when no names are mentioned). When the American people see the eventual GOP nominee next to his Democratic counterpart, they may well reconsider their preference for a Democrat.
As Paul noted, the three leading Republicans have all made substantial contributions in their respective fields. With presidential debates have transformed the landscape of U.S. presidential elections, it’s absurd to speculate about the outcome of the 2008 election without considering how these encounters could effect its outcome. (Not only that, much could happen in the next year which could change public perceptions of the political parties.)
Each of the three leading Republican candidates has a compelling personal story and a demonstrated ability to lead. Each comes across well on television and in other public fora. Those qualities should serve them well in the 2008 election and could possibly provide the winning edge against a less accomplished Democratic nominee, particularly if that nominee is Mrs. Clinton, whose harsh presence and flat voice, could turn off moderate voters who would otherwise be favorably disposed to a Democratic candidate.
*Over at Wizbang, Lorie Byrd reports on those pundits “who think a Hillary presidency is inevitable.”