The instant that President Bush's approval rating hit rock bottom and then stayed there month after month, the more starry eyed gloated that the Democrats had the White House in the bag. That seemed plausible at the time. Bush was out, and his foreign and domestic policy bumbles would continue to draw rage and disgust, the most politically bankable GOP presidential contender was a man four years in the grave, Ronald Reagan, and the Democrats had three appealing, energetic, and well-financed contenders in Hillary, Obama and John Edwards, and they had a Democratic Party that hungered to take back the White House and would solidly unite behind whichever one emerged from the pack.
Then some funny things happened on the Democrat's march to inevitability. The first thing is that the Democrat's forgot the math, the electoral math that is. The number that counts is 270. That's the electoral count necessary for the GOP to keep the White House. In the South and the stretch of states from the heartland to the West there are 150 to 200 electoral votes. The recent endorsement by two Red State moderate Democratic senators of Obama means little. These states and their electoral votes are not in play for the Democrats. In fact, they haven't been for decades. Though Bill Clinton managed to pry four Southern states from the GOP orbit, he did it because the independent insurgent candidate Ross Perot took thousands of votes from the GOP in 1992, and in his election and reelection bids he sold himself as a Republican lite candidate and president that would eviscerate welfare, affirmative action, cut government spending, boost the military, and ramp up police power. The Republicans loathed him for that because he stole their best lines and recited them back to the public better than the GOP. Obama, Clinton and Edwards will never be mistaken for Bill in the Red States.
The second thing is that the Christian evangelicals are still vocal, very big in numbers and politically dangerous to any Democrat. They provided the vote muscle for Bush in 2000 and especially 2004. Bush was able to adroitly stoke their fury over gay marriage, abortion and their passion for family rights into an evangelical stampede to the polls in Ohio and Florida. They tipped the vote and the electoral scales to Bush in both states.
Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson never had traction with evangelicals, or they carried to much baggage to have a prayer of sparking a Bush-like impassioned dash to the polls. But former Christian broadcaster and Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee can fire that passion. He did just that in Iowa, and there is evidence that he stirred a significant number of them in the Michigan primary. They finally have a candidate that speaks their language, champions their issues and promises to be their point man in the march to the White House.
The third funny thing is John McCain. Once thought dead in the political water, McCain's numbers are even with HilOba. He can't stir the juices among the Christian evangelicals as Huckabee Yet, unlike Giuliani and Romney he doesn't totally alienate them. He can do something that Huckabee will have trouble doing. He can garner a significant number of independents. This is no small matter. Independents are an absolute must-win vote in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Missouri. McCain's willingness to buck the GOP traditionalists on gun control, tougher campaign reform, and especially immigration reform, will help him make the case that he is an independent reformer and that his presidency will be a departure from the Bush years.
His touting of immigration reform when all other GOP candidates shrilly railed against it will get him a hearing among some Latino immigration reform activists. The Latino vote makes up a large and growing percentage of the vote in the equally crucial must-win states of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada. These states are very much in play for the Democrats and the GOP in 2008.
The fourth funny thing is the Democrat's seeming penchant for shooting themselves in the foot. HilOba have almost totally stopped pummeling Bush and his policy shambles, and have squandered time and heat sniping and jawing at each other on the pettiest of non-issues. This has done two things. It has further divided and hardened the Democrats into two warring Obama and Clinton camps that seem at this point virtually irreconcilable. And it has made an Obama pitch to Hillary backers if he's the nominee for unity and a Hillary pitch to Obama backers if she's the nominee in the battle against the GOP presidential nominee hard to swallow for their fervent boosters. Either one will get the overwhelming majority of youth, black and Latino voters, but the question is will enough of them show up on Election Day in big enough numbers to trump the GOP.
McCain or Huckabee, especially if they join forces, can punch the right buttons. And that makes the thought of four more years for the GOP which at one time seemed a pipe dream suddenly a horrid nightmare for the Democrats.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February, 2008).