Nation & World

Thompson, Huckabee, Gingrich play waiting game

4 min read

While a handful of presidential front-runners dominate the headlines and airwaves, less prominent hopefuls for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination are playing a waiting game, staying alive and watching for an opportunity like an early primary victory or a stumble by a front-running candidate.

That was the consensus expressed by strategists for three potential GOP presidential nominees: former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Though the 2008 presidential election is more than a year and a half away, the race for the GOP and Democratic nominations has heated up far faster than previous elections, with frontrunners already eclipsing records for fundraising at this point in the race.

But for candidates with less name recognition and less money in the bank, it’s far too early to panic. And it’s also far too early to concede the nomination to the front-runners, the panelists at the John F. Kennedy School of Government said Tuesday (April 10).

The Thompson, Huckabee, and Gingrich strategists said that though other potential Republican nominees may get the headlines, past elections are rife with examples of candidates who led early, only to stumble and fade as the election drew near.

One doesn’t have to look further than the 2004 race, when Democratic hopeful Howard Dean led the polls until a surge by eventual nominee John Kerry reshaped the presidential field.

“The road to the White House is long and winding and it’s littered with the carcasses of the ‘next president of the United States,’” said Huckabee Campaign Manager Chip Saltsman. “This thing’s going to flip several times.”

The event was the third in a series of panel discussions with top campaign strategists for 2008 presidential hopefuls, sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

The event featured Saltsman, Steve Grubbs, a consultant to Thompson’s campaign, Tony Jewell, chief strategist and spokesman for Thompson, Rick Tyler, communications director for Gingrich Communications and Gingrich’s spokesperson, and Joe Gaylord, senior strategist and adviser for Gingrich. Rich Galen, who writes a political column, “Mullings,” and serves as a senior adviser to the Manning, Selvage and Lee public relations firm, was also on the panel.

The event was moderated by Mark Halperin, ABC News political analyst and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics and the Shorenstein Center, and by Mark McKinnon, a lecturer in public policy at the Shorenstein Center and former media adviser to President George W. Bush.

Though the presidential race has gotten off to a fast start, Gaylord said that most Americans are still not paying attention. That lack of focus on the daily ins and outs of the race provides opportunities for other candidates and potential candidates such as Gingrich, who has not declared that he’s running. Gingrich, Gaylord said, has the luxury of high name recognition and so can wait to see how the early primary season shakes out. If there’s a “vacuum” in the Republican primary race in October, Gaylord said, Gingrich has “never been shy about filling vacuums.”

Panelists said that though their candidates may trail at this point, no clear front-runner has emerged in the Republican field, leaving open the chance that their candidates can gain momentum and catch the race’s leading candidates.

A wild card in the 2008 race is the changing nature of the Internet. While campaigns have had Web pages for years, the rise of blogging and YouTube as communications tools outside the mainstream media has presented problems for campaigns in how they use and respond to postings that can come any time on any subject.

Jewell said campaigns have typically had a chance to address a negative story in the mainstream press because reporters call looking for a response. A blogger, Jewell said, is not going to call, leaving the campaign wondering how seriously to take an attack and whether to push back or ignore it.

“Blogs are like playing whack-a-mole, you never know where and when it’s coming from,” Jewell said.

Most panelists agreed that the Iowa caucuses in January 2008 will be a critical test for primary candidates, and, with several states moving their primaries to Feb. 5, that date may be a make-or-break day for any presidential hopeful.

When asked about key issues that will define the race, panelists cited foreign policy and the war in Iraq, immigration, and health care — as well as a candidate’s vision of the future.

“Any … candidate [who becomes the nominee] had better be talking about the future, because we will lose a referendum on the past,” Gaylord said.