In this commentary I talked about the ramifications of Gov. Tom Vilsack's withdrawal from the presidential race. I posited that Gov. Bill Richardson stood to gain the most because he was left as the lone remaining candidate with gubernatorial experience.
However, David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register disagrees with me:
Why didn't [Vilsack] take off? The answer may be that in 2008, voters are not looking for the skills in domestic policy a governor brings to a presidential campaign. It's the first election since 9/11 in which the country must select a new president, and Americans seem to be be looking for a president with experience in national security or on a broader world stage - not a state capitol.
That's contrary to the conventional wisdom that says governors do well in presidential races because they have executive experience and decisive images while senators do poorly because they merely talk for a living and are weighted down by their voting records in Congress.
I can understand Yepsen's point, but I don't think national security credentials will be at the forefront of voters' minds in 2008. I think they will be looking for experience and competence. Period. If national security were the single most important issue to voters, then General Wesley Clark would be a shoo-in.
My belief is similar to something I heard from Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball a few months ago. While I can't state it nearly as eloquent as he did, I'll summarize it as follows:
After a long tenure with a single president, regardless of his popularity or ideology, voters tend to look for someone who is the opposite of that president to succeed him. Let me explain:
After the youthful and idealistic JFK, voters opted for the serious, get-down-to-business Nixon. After the scandal-ridden Nixon years, voters wanted the innocent, unassuming Carter. After the Carter years that were plagued by bad news, Americans looked to the optimistic Reagan. Bush 41's election in 1988 was an exception in that it gave the GOP 12 years of uninterrupted control over the White House. However, after the staleness of the Bush administration and his perceived lack of empathy for the average Joe, voters were looking for the freshness and vigor of Bill Clinton who could "feel your pain." And after Clinton's dalliances with women and forays into scandal, voters wanted George W. Bush, the clean guy who would not cheat on his wife. Now after Iraq and Katrina, I think voters will be looking for someone who is at the very least, intellectually curious. "Experience" and "competence" in 2008 will be what "family values" and "restoring honor and dignity to the White House" were in 2000.
For the Democrats, this is why I question Edwards' and Obama's chances. This is also why I do not think Hillary has locked down the Democratic nomination yet. If anything, a second-tier candidate (e.g., Biden, Dodd, Richardson) or Al Gore himself are more likely to become the nominee because they are closer to what George W. Bush is not--analytical.
On the Republican side, voters are flirting heavily with Giuliani right now. However, when voters start examining his record, they may find that his lack of experience above the municipal level will disqualify him from the presidency. Giuliani has received rave reviews for his handling of 9-11, but so did Bush, and look at what has happened to Bush since then. Aside from 9-11, both Bush and Giuliani have received mediocre to lukewarm reviews of their performance at best.
Before Romney's attempts to reposition himself as a conservative, he and Giuliani both occupied pretty much the same ideological space. Unfortunately for Romney, however, he will likely become doomed by a term coined by the Republican he wishes to succeed: a flip-flopper. Ironically, Romney is probably the most formidable general election candidate on the GOP side because of his health care initiative (how do Democrats run against that?), raw political skills (take that, John Edwards), executive experience (Bill Richardson doesn't have a monopoly on this anymore!), and potential crossover appeal (governor of a blue state).
(Huckabee, Tancredo, Brownback, Hunter, Gilmore, and Paul have done nothing to distinguish themselves at this point and seem to be positioning themselves as vice presidential picks. They are largely irrelevant at present.)
This leaves McCain as the elder statesman who could wrap up the nomination by acting presidential instead of cocky or smooth. And if conservatives don't trust him, there is always Newt Gingrich waiting in the wings who could easily pick up the conservative mantle. Gingrich actually outpolls Romney in some cases.
(Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is an interesting story. He is basically a John McCain who is opposed to the Iraq War. Because he's flirting with the prospect of forming a Unity ticket in '08, I'm not really sure how to classify him, nor can I assess his chances.)
Anyway, 2008 could very well end up being billed as a clash between Clinton's ally and nemesis (Gore and Gingrich) or the shootout in the Wild West (Richardson and McCain). One thing these four candidates all share is EXPERIENCE. The battle of the unproven upstarts (Obama vs. Romney or Edwards vs. Giuliani) seems much less plausible to me, despite how well these candidates are polling now.