The Republican presidential candidates may be waxing optimistically about their chances of winning the White House, but recent polls showing a muddled GOP field has some party insiders increasingly nervous.
On Tuesday, the New York Times and CBS News released a national survey that had none of the Republican presidential hopefuls receiving more than 23 percent support. The top three - Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney - all were within six percentage points of each other, with Giuliani leading at 22 percent.
The results, even Republican strategists admit, reflect a dire political situation: only weeks before the Iowa caucus, the party is extremely vulnerable, and despite nearly a year of campaigning, it remains without a true leader.
"The party is in uncharted waters right now and the GOP had never been so rudderless," Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant, told the Huffington Post. "You combine this with the financial condition of the GOP and the stench of corruption and you'd have to go back to the fall of 1974 to find the GOP as bad off as it is today."
The lack of a consensus conservative candidate has, indeed, led to a historically unpredictable GOP race. In recent weeks, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has ascended rapidly in the polls, from single digits to the lead in Iowa and a virtual tie in national surveys.
Meanwhile, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani has seen his support drop seven points in the last two months in the New York Times/CBS poll. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, once thought to be the party's savior, has fallen flat. Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, has yet to recover from early campaign mismanagement. While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has seen his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire all but disappear.
"Anybody paying attention to the field recognizes that there is a huge vacuum," Tony Fabrizio, a Republican strategist, told the Huffington Post. "No one has been able to position themselves. Back to when [former Virginia Senator] George Allen lost his Senate race to the recent Fred Thompson boomlet, it was all about the consensus conservative candidate... The fluidity in the race is still huge. And in terms of how it plays out, some of us are going to get whiplash with how fast these numbers move."
As Fabrizio and others note, the lack of a candidate around which the GOP can coalesce has the potential to create serious problems for the party. For starters, the likelihood of a bloody primary fight is now almost a certainty. As if on cue, Romney unleashed the first barrage of attack ads on Huckabee on Tuesday.
Moreover, some Republican strategists worry that having a divided electorate increases the probability of a third party run. Religious conservatives have already threatened to rebel should Giuliani grab the nomination. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is already receiving foreign policy tutorials, looms on the sidelines should the Republicans nominate someone out of the mainstream.
Both of these problems, however, underscore an even greater concern among Republican insiders; mainly, that all of their candidates have at least one fatal flaw. As Ross Douthat, a conservative blogger for The Atlantic, noted prior to the New York Times/CBS poll:
"If you look at the field, every candidate seems to have near-disqualifying weaknesses ... which helps explain why nobody seems capable of getting above 30-35 percent in any national or state-level poll.... [I]deologically-speaking, none of the Republican contenders make nearly as much sense as candidates for the nomination of the present-day GOP as Obama, Clinton and Edwards do as candidates for the nomination of the present-day Democratic Party."
In the end, political observers predict, the GOP will likely have a true frontrunner after the run of primary elections on February 5th. And Giuliani, with his national stature and financial advantages, stands to benefit more than others from the lack of a consensus candidate. But with all the unpredictability up to this point, there is really no telling now how the race will play out.
"The Republican race is clearly not well formed. None of the candidates have been able to coalesce support behind him," Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, told the Huffington Post. "In a modern presidential campaign system this is the most wide-open race we've ever seen. There are so many candidates and so many scenarios."