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Republicans' Rough Road

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

The presidential election of 2008 is a long way off, but Republicans better start worrying about it now. The 2006 midterm election? Republicans are likely to hold onto the Senate and House. But 2008 is another story. In the midst of a Republican era, Democrats stand a good chance of taking the White House then. Even Senator Hillary Clinton of New York – or perhaps I should say especially Hillary Clinton – has realistic prospects of winning.

What's the problem for Republicans? There are at least five of them. The field of Republican candidates is weak. Democrats will have an easier time than Republicans in duplicating their strong 2004 voter registration and turnout drive in 2008. Democrats, despite their drift to the left and persistent shrillness, barely trail Republicans at all in voter appeal. Besides, they may sober up ideologically in 2008. And the media, unless John McCain is the Republican nominee, will be more pro-Democratic than ever.

Let's look at each of these reasons briefly. The strongest potential Republican candidates are Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. None of them is running and Cheney and Rice are downright adamant about it. I've asked Cheney about 2008 on three separate occasions. He gives absolutely no indication of changing his decision not to run. And he says his health isn't the reason. He just doesn't want to be a candidate and won't do it, he insists, even if President Bush asks him to.

Rice is just as negative on the idea of seeking the presidency. And aides to Jeb Bush say he has no desire to run in 2008, but might consider it in 2012. Besides, he looks worn out after so many crises (hurricanes, Terri Schiavo, the 2000 recount) during his two terms.

That leaves the Republican party with a lesser field of candidates: McCain, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Virginia Senator George Allen, and a few others. All of them have distinct handicaps. McCain's is that many Republican loathe him. Giuliani is a social liberal. Allen and Romney are inexperienced at the national level. Frist has a soft and blurred image.

The second reason for Republican anxiety about 2008 is organization. Democrats, with millions of dollars from limousine liberals such as George Soros, paid for thousands of campaign workers to sign up voters and get them to the polls. They produced a much larger Democratic turnout in 2004 than in 2000. Republicans used an army of 1.5 million volunteers to increase the Republican vote by even more. It was an enormous political feat.

But in 2008, there's a reasonably good chance Democrats will be able to produce another great field operation. All they'll need is another infusion of money from rich liberals. But Republicans will have a harder time. The 2004 volunteers showed up because of their strong personal commitment to President Bush. Will so many volunteers work so hard for McCain or Allen or Giuliani or whoever wins the Republican presidential nomination in 2008? I doubt it.

In 2004, John Kerry was a heavily flawed Democratic candidate. He was a northeastern liberal who hardly inspired trust or persuaded voters he would be a strong leader. Yet if 60,000 voters in Ohio had switched from Bush to him last year, he'd be president today. He was that close. Thus a more attractive Democratic candidate in 2008, including Hillary Clinton, has a strong residual Democrat base to build on.

And what if Democrats check their emotions at the door and clean up their political act? I think this is more likely than not. All Democrats can't be as self-destructive as Howard Dean, their party chairman. Some of them – Kerry's 2004 running mate John Edwards comes to mind – are clever. At the moment, Edwards is running to the left of Hillary in the embryonic 2008 campaign. But once nominated, he surely would make a beeline to the political center. As a Southerner, he might be able to pull it off.

Finally, there's the media, more aptly called the Republican-hating media. We've already seen what they are willing to do to protect Hillary Clinton. They trashed a perfectly respectable, though highly critical, biography of Hillary by veteran newsman Ed Klein. It got so bad that conservatives, too, began attacking his book. If this is happening in 2005, imagine what lengths the press will be willing to go to in 2008 on Hillary's, or another Democrat's, behalf.

So Republicans have a lot to worry about. George W. Bush's current troubles are small stuff compared to the party's prospects for losing the presidency in 2008.

By Fred Barnes. ©

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