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With the first presidential caucuses and primaries just weeks away now, the 2008 presidential race has suddenly gotten very intense, a fact that was quite evident in last week's GOP "CNN/You Tube" debate.
While the Democratic competition for a nominee has tightened somewhat (but with Sen. Clinton still leading), the Republican race has gotten more muddled. Rudy Giuliani?s lead in national polls still hasn?t shown up in either Iowa or New Hampshire. And before the debate, all the talk was suddenly about Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who new polls showed moving into second place in Iowa behind Mitt Romney.
More about Huckabee later,.but first it's necessary to place this mud-slinging debate in context. Every presidential election is preceded by a general trend that appears to favor one party or the other. Not even the most dedicated Republicans would try to claim that their party is favored to win next year.
George W. Bush?s prolonged unpopularity, and the equal disgust leveled at his war in Iraq - all reflected in the 2006 election results - have made it clear that 2008 ought to be a Democratic year. Most people want change, and most people want that war to end.
It's pretty obvious, too, that simply demonizing Hillary Clinton won't win the election. For the GOP to have any chance at all in keeping the White House, it has to nominate exactly the right person. They need the perfect candidate.
But figuring out who that is has been very difficult. Just when it looked like it was entirely between Romney and Giuliani, Mike Huckabee has entered the prime time. Several media analyses said he won the You Tube debate.
His surge in Iowa had made him someone to watch in the debate, and he lived up to expectations. He's taken McCain's place as this year's "Straight Talk Express" candidate, using humor and candor to make strides.
But for all Huckabee's appeal, he?s still an extremely conservative candidate with all the attitudes of the religious right. Those views, for the most part, are not within the mainstream of America at the moment. Not in a country that solidly leans Democratic after nearly eight years of George W. Bush.
In fact, some of the questions revealed where Republicans are now. One person waved a Bible and wanted to know whether the candidates "believed specifically" what was in it. I took "specifically" to mean literally, as in word for word.
So did the candidates, and most said some variation of "yes."Only Giuliani had the courage to say he believed the Bible but didn't consider it "literally true in every respect." Health care, the war in Iraq, the shrinking dollar and the troubled housing market?these are all important issues. Whether the Bible is "literally true" is a theological question, not a political one.
In fact, Romney - who is always reluctant to talk too much about religion - seemed to stammer on that question. He and Giuliani got into an ugly dust-up over immigration, which left both of them looking bad.
John McCain has become so hawkish on Iraq that he's beginning to look like a parody of himself. His attacks on Ron Paul - the only Republican who sees that war the way the public does - stirred emotions but didn't ring true. He only makes sense when he articulates, from direct experience, why torture shouldn't be U.S. policy.
And what about Fred Thompson? Well, who cares? He was there, and that's about it. He certainly won't be the nominee.
As I've said before, there is no Ronald Reagan in this crowd. And it's obvious from this debate, that Republicans still can't find the next best thing. They're running out of time to figure it out.
Rick Howell, a Bedford native, lives in Roanoke, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.