Monday, March 20, 2006

The Political Environment Isn’t George Allen’s Friend

By Stuart Rothenberg

The brief stay by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) as my frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination is over. It was much, much shorter than I expected.

But Allen, a first-term Senator who served as governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, didn’t lose that status because of his third-place showing in the Southern Republican Leadership Council’s straw poll last weekend, or because of his performance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

The straw vote was an irrelevant event that didn’t measure grass-roots appeal, elite opinion or anything else worth measuring. As a tool for evaluating candidate strength, or even for ranking the field, its results are useless. Fun, maybe, for some, but useless.

And while Allen’s performance on Tim Russert’s Sunday morning program was maddeningly mediocre — he was seriously outshined by Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden (D) — one TV appearance usually doesn’t destroy a presidential bid. Former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) disappointing performance on “Meet the Press” a year and a half before the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn’t cost him his party’s presidential nomination.

Allen also didn’t lose his frontrunner status in my book because he failed to recruit a particular fundraiser, or because he didn’t sign up a certain operative from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Nashua, N.H.

Remember the “Shrum” primary, named after the “contest” to sign up Democratic consultant Bob Shrum? The hype surrounding that development in 2004 simply wasn’t warranted, and it won’t be warranted again in 2007, when some journalists fawn over a supposedly unmatched political consultant or operative.

No, the Virginia Senator’s White House prospects have been steadily eroding since my first column on this topic one year ago. The reason: President Bush’s reputation has nosedived.

Allen is perfectly positioned as heir to the Ronald Reagan-George W. Bush legacy. The only problem is that the legacy doesn’t look nearly as valuable now as it did as recently as a year ago — even within the GOP.

The national political environment has changed, and even Republicans who like and admire Bush increasingly believe that the party needs to nominate someone with a clear identity as a strong, competent leader, a reformer and a fiscal conservative.

Allen’s greatest strengths as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination are his upbeat, affable personality, his relentless optimism and his unabashed conservatism — qualities that stood Reagan in good stead during his political career.

Like the current occupant of the White House, Allen tends to be straightforward about what he thinks. You get the sense that he’s talking from his gut — that what you see in George Allen the man and George Allen the politician is what you get.

The Virginia Senator often refers back to the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and major events in American history to define himself and his philosophy, or to make his points. (He regularly invokes the name of Thomas Jefferson when he defines his own views, as he did last weekend on “Meet the Press.”) Those are images that are sure to be met with favor among GOP primary and caucus attendees, and among grass-roots Republicans in general.

If Bush’s numbers today were as strong as they were a year or two ago, these factors would help Allen in his quest for the GOP nomination. But they aren’t even close.

A March 10-12 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found Bush’s job rating at 36 percent, a noticeable drop from a year earlier, when it stood at 52 percent. Among Republicans only, the president’s job approval now stands at 75 percent — high, but down from the 91 percent he had in a March 7-10, 2005, CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey.

A mid-March 2005 ABC News/Washington Post poll found the same trend. The president’s job approval was at 50 percent, well above his 41 percent in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey.

Polls also have shown that over the past couple of years, fewer Americans see the president as a “strong leader” or as “honest and trustworthy.”

Voters often look for a different type of person to fill the White House than the man who served immediately prior. They turned to John F. Kennedy after Dwight Eisenhower. They opted for Bill Clinton after George H.W. Bush. They opted for George W. Bush after Clinton.

If Republican voters decide that eight years of George W. Bush is enough, they may well look for a different kind of person to carry their party’s banner in 2008. And that’s why Allen is no longer the man to beat for the GOP presidential nomination.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 16, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.