The frenetic races for the Republican and Democratic Presidential nominations keep surprising and confounding even the most astute political observers. The Barack Obama locomotive that steamed out of Iowa was stopped—at least momentarily—in New Hampshire by a newly humanized Hillary Clinton. And on the Republican side, the state where John McCain bested George W. Bush in the primary of 2000 again came through for the once-written-off senator from Arizona. So what can a befuddled voter expect? To get some perspective on the playing field ahead, I caught up with Charlie Cook, the Washington political analyst. Cook is publisher of the online Cook Political Report, writes for the National Journal, provides commentary for NBC, and is respected across the political spectrum for his nonpartisan observations.
What will be the biggest issues in the election?
I think it's going to be the economy and America's place in the world. And one of the things that's sparking Obama's rise is the idea of restoring respect for America.
Who displays the best grasp of economic issues?
Mike Bloomberg. What's interesting is that if you look at polls of Democratic voters, they are very concerned about the economy. Republican voters just don't seem to be showing that much concern about where the economy is going. But once the GOP nominee emerges, the economy is going to assert itself as a very, very big issue in the general election.
Does Clinton's win revive hopes of a Bloomberg candidacy, which some said would have been dealt a serious setback by an Obama victory?
I think you will only see Mike Bloomberg get in this race if he sees two horribly disfigured major-party nominees emerge. I don't think Bloomberg would run to stop someone. I spent about an hour with him last summer talking about it, and I think it's really a political calculation, because he's already looked at the field of candidates and decided that he can do a better job than they can. My guess is he would run if he thought he had a legitimate chance of winning.
Could he win?
[Third-party candidate] Ross Perot was at 30% percent and in first place at one point in June, 1992, and an independent candidate would need to be able to get 37% to 39% of the popular vote to start winning a bunch of states by small margins and assemble the 270 electoral votes necessary. It's plausible. A very bright, very impressive person spending $1 billion, with no fund-raising expenses and no nomination fights, could win if the stars line up right in the sense of both parties' nominees emerging badly damaged. And the way these nominations are unfolding, it's kind of hard to imagine either party nominating someone in a clean, impressive victory. These things look like they could be real bloody on both sides. After Iowa but before New Hampshire, the possibility of Obama winning cleanly and impressively seemed real. Now that looks a little less likely.
What role do economic issues like credit-card debt and health-care coverage play in the apparent surge of interest by the Millennial generation?
Young people don't like the realities that they have seen as they've come of age. They have no expectation of getting Social Security. They don't like how America appears around the world, and they are just open to massive change. Obama has clearly tapped into that. He is an aspirational candidate in the sense that people are not voting for anything he's ever done but for what he represents.
How do you see the Republican race shaping up?
It's going to be a long time before things settle down and we know who the nominee is. You had Mike Huckabee win Iowa, then Mitt Romney win Wyoming, then McCain win New Hampshire. Next we go to Michigan on Jan. 15. Romney is encountering some tough competition from McCain and Huckabee in Michigan, the state where he was born and his dad served as governor. If he loses there, his candidacy will be in deep trouble. The potential for this becoming a McCain-Huckabee fight for the nomination gets very real if Romney loses Michigan and Giuliani doesn't generate some momentum between now and the Florida primary on Jan. 29. Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 could be all over the map. You've got a vacuum in the Republican Party. They desperately need a new Ronald Reagan, and they haven't found one. They've been sort of infatuated with one candidate after another but get disillusioned and pull back.
What about Thompson?
I can make a case for McCain, Romney, and Huckabee. I can even make a case for Giuliani. I can't see any case for Thompson. His candidacy has turned out to be kind of a poor idea that was badly executed.
Pundits predicted a huge youth wave in New Hampshire for Obama. What happened?
The undecided vote in New Hampshire, which broke strongly for Clinton, was disproportionately female and college-educated. That means pro-choice on the abortion issue. A late mailing the Clinton campaign sent to undecided women hit Obama for voting "present," neither yes or no, on seven abortion votes while he was in the Illinois State Senate. That attack, plus Clinton choking up on the Monday before the primary—which revealed a less brittle side of herself—could have moved undecided female voters. It's just a theory.
That moment when Hillary choked up could have gone both ways, right?
Yes. The biggest mistake Clinton has made is she doesn't come across as a real person, and women have had difficulty identifying with her.
Could it come down to McCain vs. Hillary?
That would be a heck of a race. McCain has a greater degree of likability and reaches independents better, but he turned 72 in August, and people have real concerns [about his age]. He would be the oldest newly elected President in history. But all these match-ups are interesting. Huckabee's got the social conservatives but has the most economic populist appeal—in some ways second only to John Edwards. If Romney had not made all those switches on cultural issues, I think he'd be the front-runner. That's hurt him a lot more than religion. I can still see how Romney gets this nomination. Giuliani, it's a little harder, but each of these candidates has a shot. We've never seen a situation that gets less clear rather than more clear as the process goes on.