The EFM Feature

After a great debate performance by all the leading Republicans and Mike Huckabee’s second-place finish at the Values Voter straw poll, Byron York and others are now saying that there’s a “five-man race.”
False. It’s a two-man race. It could be a three-man race if Thompson is able to build a better organization and get more funding, but right now it’s still a two-man show–with Rudy and Governor Romney battling for the lead.
I think the pundits are making the classic pundit mistake of thinking that the “buzz” generated by any given event or even a short series of events (such as a good straw poll performance followed by a good debate performance) matters at all to the larger public (or that the larger public is even aware of the buzz in the conservative intelligentsia). Pundits–often despite their best efforts–live in a bubble. They talk mostly to each other, and it is only natural to mistake the opinion of “everyone they know” for some kind of popular movement.
We are long past the stage where pundits really matter. (It’s not that I don’t think pundits matter at all in the process, it’s just that I think their period of maximum influence is much earlier in the process.) Now we’re in the phase of sustained mass media coverage, sustained paid media, and candidate organization.
Candidates can be undone by the big gaffe, by a series of bad performances, or just poor execution, but day-to-day fluctuations in “buzz” are basically meaningless–unless the good or bad buzz is sustained over a long period of time.
So who has the capacity to do well under the sustained media glare, sustain a paid media presence, and execute the ground game? Right now, that’s just Rudy and Romney. Fred Thompson is a threat, but he’s starting from scratch, and right now the sustained mass media story is one of disappointment, and he’s not doing that well in the early state polls. But Fred is arguably the only other “three-leg” Republican amongst the major candidates, so the potential is undeniably there.
Mike Huckabee has no organization, no money, and no ability to do well under the mass media glare. He’s just not a “three-leg” Republican. He’s too much of a big spender and too much into social engineering. John McCain is deeply appreciated for his heroism, but he has no money, his organization is fragmenting, and his days of adoring media coverage are long gone.
Rudy is (like Huckabee) a “two leg” Republican (Rudy’s fiscally strong and weak on cultural issues, whereas Huckabee is strong on cultural issues and weak on fiscal issues; they are both strong on national security), but he has three great advantages: First, he has a huge reservoir of good will that carries over from 9/11. He formed a bond with Americans on that day and the days that followed that simply cannot be underestimated. Second, he is a very, very good communicator–especially in a debate format. Third, he has all the right enemies. The New York Left just hates the Mayor, and it’s hard to paint a guy as a liberal when the Left starts foaming at the mouth at the very mention of his name.
The Governor can beat Rudy through better execution and by a message that is strikingly similar to the one he’s used while dealing with McCain, i.e. “We appreciate what you’ve done and respect you for it, but you’re just wrong on the issues.”
At the same time that he does this, the Governor can introduce his own–very compelling–biography to the voters. I happen to think that the Governor is waiting a bit before he fully launches his story into the public square. Voters’ attentions spans are notoriously short, and it strikes me that 30 days from now would be an ideal time to “flood the zone” with his unmatched record of success not just in government but also in private business.

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