NEW YORK -- With no end in sight, the Republican presidential nomination fight may end up mirroring the epic 2008 battle between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton that stretched into June. But length may be the only true parallel.
While little of substance separated Obama and Clinton, the Mitt Romney-Rick Santorum slugfest has exposed a huge divide between the GOP's mainstream and its more conservative factions. And that probably won't be easily erased no matter who prevails.
Republicans are serving up the Obama-Clinton comparison in hopes of quelling concerns about the negativity of this year's nominating race and the persistent unwillingness of many GOP voters to get behind Romney, the field's nominal front-runner. The fear is that the drawn-out primary may end up severely damaging Romney, putting him at a disadvantage in a general election match-up against Obama.
"Clinton and Obama went after each other until June in 2008, and it certainly didn't affect the president's chances going forward when he won that November," Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said in an interview recently.
That could be wishful thinking for Republicans coming to grips with a party united in its wish to oust Obama but bitterly divided between its establishment wing and a hard-right coalition of tea party activists and religious conservatives dissatisfied with Romney.
The 2008 Democratic nominating showdown showcased two of the party's biggest stars and most prodigious fundraisers as they competed across all 50 states. It was also historic, with the most serious black candidate ever to compete for the presidency pitted against the top female contender.
The race had its share of nasty moments, like a debate where Clinton called Obama's Chicago political patron Tony Rezko a "slumlord" and another where Obama coolly dismissed Clinton as "likable enough." There were also accusations of sexism and race baiting, but those were traded among supporters of each candidate and not the contenders themselves.
Obama and Clinton argued over electability and experience but largely steered clear of the kind of personal attacks that have become a staple of this year's Republican race.
Romney's opponents have spent the past year depicting the former Massachusetts governor as a ruthless corporate raider from his days at the Bain Capital private equity firm. In turn, Romney and his allies have cast Santorum as a Washington influence peddler who wasted tax dollars on pork barrel projects during his days in Congress.
Romney and backers running a super PAC to benefit him have also targeted Newt Gingrich – for a time Romney's most serious conservative challenger – with an ad calling the former House speaker ethically tainted. "More baggage than the airlines," is how one widely aired ad run by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future characterized Gingrich.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who was Clinton's chief strategist in the final months of her campaign, said the former New York senator made sure there was no strategy that would undermine Obama's viability in a general election.
"Both Democratic and independent voters looked at Obama and Clinton and said to themselves, `These are two really good candidates.' In a very hard-fought contest, both candidates managed to elevate themselves," Garin said. "The Republican contest this year is the complete opposite – a complete demolition derby, with a level of negativity that is exponentially greater than anything that happened on the Democratic side in 2008."
Romney, the establishment favorite, has presented himself as a successful businessman who knows how to fix the still-fragile economy. But he's been unable to steer past Santorum, whose values-laden message has delighted social conservatives and whose denunciation of Romney's support for an individual health care mandate as Massachusetts governor has resonated with tea partyers.
In 2008, Clinton and Obama agreed on nearly every major issue – though parting ways over the war in Iraq, which galvanized Democratic voters in the early part of the campaign before being overshadowed by economic concerns. Clinton, as a senator from New York, voted in 2002 to authorize the U.S. invasion. Obama, an Illinois state senator at the time, strongly opposed the intervention.
The GOP primary calendar, backloaded so many big states won't vote until late in the contest, has made it all but impossible for any candidate to assemble enough delegates to sew up the nomination anytime soon.
The long Democratic contest four years ago generated heavy voter turnout in most states. Turnout in the Republican race this year has been down in many places compared to 2008, despite Republicans' intense desire to defeat Obama. Voter participation did pick up in Michigan and Arizona's primaries this week compared to 2008, but turnout in other states so far has been lower or about the same as it was that year.
The Obama and Clinton campaigns were both flooded with campaign contributions in 2008 – Obama brought in $237 million in the first half of the year when he was battling Clinton directly, while Clinton drew $117 million during the same period. None of the Republicans this time is remotely on track to raise comparable cash, forcing them to rely more heavily on their super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited donations as long as they don't coordinate directly with the candidates.
Obama and Clinton remained popular during their drawn-out contest, while this year's race has taken its toll on Romney's favorability. A Qunnipiac University poll released last week found 43 percent of voters viewed him unfavorably, up from 31 percent in November.
Still, some Republicans insist that the long primary will toughen the party's eventual standard bearer, much as the prolonged faceoff with Clinton was credited with preparing Obama for his general election battle with Republican Sen. John McCain.
"It's a healthy thing we're having a competitive primary race," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "A contested primary is a good thing; it'll make our nominee stronger for it."
EDITOR'S NOTE – Fouhy covered the 2008 Democratic presidential race and is covering the 2012 White House race.