It’s true that national polls this early in a race don’t tell us much about who’s going to win. But the polls testing the Republican presidential candidates do say something pretty amazing about the state of the GOP. Rudy Giuliani, while still usually coming in first (but now, occasionally, second) in the national polls, has nevertheless seen his support erode slowly but steadily from its peak about a month after he announced his candidacy. Fred Thompson, meanwhile, now ranks second (or, more often lately, first) in national polls in a race which he hasn’t even officially entered. John McCain, as we all know, has slipped badly, to third or fourth place, while Mitt Romney has been rising, though he’s still not in range of Giuliani or Thompson.
What’s amazing about all this? First, that Fred Thompson, a candidate about whom even most Republican voters know very little, is now basically tied with Giuliani as the GOP frontrunner. The amount of blind hope now resting on Thompson is staggering, and it only ramps up the pressure on him not to disappoint when he finally gets in the race. He’ll have none of the margin for error that most candidates are allowed when they launch their campaigns early in the season because of the low intensity of the coverage. Great expectations can be a candidate’s worst enemy. At least some of the Republicans out there expecting Thompson to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan are bound to be disappointed.
Giuliani, meanwhile, has to be worried about the trend-lines nationally. He’s still in a strong position, but every week he seems to lose a point or two of his support. Success for Rudy depends on conservatives valuing his leadership credentials more than they fear his positions on social issues. If his numbers continue to erode, the sheen of his status as the hero of 9/11 will fade and his opponents will feel more free to go after his weaknesses.
The possibility that Thompson will underwhelm and Giuliani won’t hold up under conservative attack explains why Romney has such a realistic shot at the nomination. It also explains why McCain isn’t giving up, despite the near flat-line state of his campaign. More now than ever, the GOP nomination is completely up for grabs. Perhaps the very animated Newt Gingrich was talking about just this subject on his cell phone when I walked past him today on F Street.