The Times (London)
October 1, 2006
FOR a glimpse of the top candidates for president in 2008, the best venue last week was a fashionable bar in Washington where the favourites for the Republican and Democratic nominations gathered like show ponies for the launch of a book called The Way to Win.
First to turn up with a posse of advisers was John McCain, the Republican senator who was already turning his thoughts to his speech to the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth today. “It’s going to be about the future, the vision thing,” he joked, parodying the banal content expected of foreign guests on such occasions.
Then came Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner. She paused to express concern for the Labour party, which husband Bill, the former president, had just been addressing. “They’ve got to sort themselves out,” she said, nodding vigorously when it was suggested things had got ugly between the Brownies and Blairites.
The authors of the book, Mark Halperin, political director of television’s ABC News, and John Harris, political editor of The Washington Post, are among the most influential weather-makers in American politics. “This wasn’t your standard book launch,” said a Washington insider. “It was a demonstration of power in the political firmament.”
Even Mitt Romney, the telegenic governor of Massachusetts, who is increasingly regarded as McCain’s main Republican challenger, put in an appearance a long way from home. By this stage aides to John Edwards, one of Clinton’s principal rivals for the Democratic nomination, were frantically BlackBerrying their boss to come. Edwards made it–late but just in time to pay his respects.
Of the four presidential wannabes the spotlight was on McCain, who had just done a deal with the White House over the treatment of suspected terrorist detainees. Although he came under fire from the left for conceding too much ground–there will still be wiggle room for torture–McCain’s initial resistance to President George W Bush’s proposed legislation also cost him support among hardline conservatives.
“He didn’t throw the nomination away but his behaviour was part of a pattern of being against the partisan interests of the Republican party,” said Michael Barone, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. “It was a risk.”
Some of the anger is subsiding. “Senator McCain is fairly untouchable on all things military because of what he suffered as a prisoner of war in Vietnam,” said Kellyanne Conway, a leading Republican pollster. “The issue is not important enough as a stand-alone matter to derail his growing appeal to the party base.”
McCain’s reputation among the Republican faithful nevertheless remains in the balance. His visit to the Tory conference is regarded as a prime international showcase but it comes with pitfalls. Too much of a love-in, as suggested by McCain’s flattering comparison of the youthful David Cameron to President John F Kennedy, could backfire.
Like McCain, the Conservatives under Cameron are not regarded as dependable allies by the American right. One leading US conservative, who met a trio of Tory shadow ministers–William Hague, George Osborne and Liam Fox–on a visit to the US capital last February, said scathingly: “These are not people of conviction and they’re not displaying great leadership potential. They’re not ready for prime time.”
The timing and content of Cameron’s speech on the fifth anniversary of September 11, which distanced the Tories from a “slavish” alliance with America, caused great offence in some conservative circles.
Although McCain remains the clear favourite to win the 2008 nomination, the search is on for a Republican who can unite the anti-McCain wing of the conservative movement.
Romney, whose Massachusetts state is usually a bastion of East Coast liberalism, is considered to be the coming man. At the party he beamed at John Fund, a staunchly right-wing writer for The Wall Street Journal, who had just written about how Romney was “wowing” social conservatives.
The clean-cut governor spent last weekend at the Family Research Council summit in Washington, the spiritual home of Christian “values voters” who provided the bedrock vote for Bush in 2004. Romney is a Mormon, which was once thought to be an insuperable barrier to winning evangelical support. “Everyone I talked to said they didn’t have a problem with it,” one attendee said.
Romney also benefits from chiselled good looks, delegates noted. “Many people say he certainly looks like a president–a sort of cross between Ronald Reagan and John F Kennedy,” swooned Genevieve Wood, founder of the conservative Center for a Just Society.
The future may not lie with an American elder statesman and his young British apprentice but with two JFKs, who have yet to forge a relationship.
The Times (London)