Here's a quick snapshot of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The closest the party has had to a frontrunner is a big-city mayor from a deep-blue state; he's a pro-choice adulterer who used to shack up with some gay guys. His chief rival is a tax-hiking governor who says our "responsibility to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions" is a "moral issue" and who denounces pro-market conservatives for their "greed." (He also thinks the world was created in less than a week, but in this party that isn't a disadvantage.) Another major candidate is trying to convince the voters that he's under fire for his Mormon beliefs, when the real reason no one trusts him is the pervasive suspicion that he has no beliefs at all. And the best man in the bunch is widely derided as a nut—not because of his frequently radical policy prescriptions, but because he opposes the most unpopular policy identified with the modern Republican Party.
And here's the weirdest thing of all: No one knows who's going to win. A party that prefers to coronate its standard-bearers at least a year before the primaries is about to head into the Iowa caucuses without a clear-cut frontrunner. The race is open, and it's open at a time when the party knows it has been doing something terribly wrong but can't agree on what mistakes it has been making. It isn't just the nomination that's available. The GOP's political vision is up for grabs.
The primary within the primary. The biggest battle in the Republican field right now isn't the fight for Iowa or New Hampshire. It's the contest to be the candidate of the party's social conservative wing. At a time when even the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani has managed to pick up the endorsement of a prominent right-wing evangelist—an aging Pat Robertson, whose declining lucidity is on sad display every day on The 700 Club—it's clear that this faction has no favorite. What it does have, despite Robertson, is a near-unanimous disdain for Giuliani. The two men who began the campaign as Rudy's biggest rivals, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have been assiduously courting the Christian right. But they have a history of statements and stances that put social conservatives on edge.
So for the so-cons, who hold enormous power until the end of the primary season, Giuliani is unthinkable, but neither Romney nor McCain is a comfortable alternative. On the other hand, they don't want to line up behind someone like Alan Keyes or Tom Tancredo, even if that means denying us the sublime joy of a Keyes-Obama rematch: To get nominated, you have to be plausibly electable. With that in mind, I predicted last spring that the party would nominate a man who embraces the social conservative agenda while exuding a personal charm that might appeal to swing voters in the general election. There was one tiny problem with my prediction -- just a typo, really. I referred to this candidate as "Fred Thompson," but apparently his name is spelled "Mike Huckabee."
That said, Huckabee's victory in the primary-within-the-primary is far from assured. If he stumbles, so-con support could still go to Thompson, to Romney, or even to a resurgent McCain. Meanwhile, Rudy himself can't take advantage of the divisions in his rivals' ranks, because he made a deliberate decision to focus his attention on the later primaries. And by the time those come around, he might be too weak to win: He has been bruised by scandals and is falling in the polls.
The economic agenda. Huckabee and Romney may be bidding for the social conservatives' support, but the interesting differences between them lie in their economic opinions. Romney is a classic K Street Republican: more pro-business than pro-market, but committed in theory if not always in practice to limiting the government's role in the economy. Huckabee's rhetoric is strikingly different, calling on the state to do more to help the disadvantaged. He favors a few free-market fads like the Fair Tax, a gimmicky proposal to replace the income and payroll taxes with a national levy on consumption, but those are anomalies. Like John Edwards on the Democratic side, he is frequently called a populist; like Edwards, he would be better described as a progressive. His pitches do not call to mind a prophet in bib overalls demanding power for the people. They suggest a speechwriter brainstorming programs that might appeal to the soccer moms.
Romney might not believe in anything, but he pays lip service to the standard Republican values. If this becomes a Giuliani-Huckabee contest, that means the Republicans will jettison either the social views that have been identified with the party for the last three decades or the economic views that have been identified with the party for the last three decades. Meanwhile, the dark horse in the race would jettison the international views that have been identified with the party for most of the last five decades.
War! Ron Paul is a libertarian congressman from Texas with a strong commitment to a non-interventionist foreign policy. He has enough money to stay in the race for as long as he'd like, and he has a devoted band of followers who aren't likely to jump to any other candidate. His opposition to the Iraq war is deeply unpopular with both the Republican establishment and the hawkish Republican base, and that makes it extremely unlikely that he'll win the nomination. But he is also the only candidate who speaks for the 30 percent of the party that wants to bring the troops home (and one of the few candidates whose free-market rhetoric reflects actual pro-market positions). That makes him an important barometer of dissent within the party, and among independent voters as well. The more he succeeds, the more he forces the other candidates to reconsider their assumptions about what the electorate will tolerate.
And people keep underestimating him, which magnifies the impact of his successes. He will probably do well in New Hampshire and in much of the west. And he might do well in less libertarian territories as well: As of Friday, he has been polling in double digits in South Carolina.
Huckabee's economic program marks a shift from the traditional Republican rhetoric, but it's the natural next step after Bush's ballooning budgets and "faith-based" welfare spending. Giuliani's social views are a cleaner break with the old Republican platform, but they aren't far from the tolerant course the country has actually taken in the three decades since Reagan was elected president. Paul's foreign policy, by contrast, would be a radical contrast with the reigning Republican assumptions of the last eight years. He is returning to themes that were briefly resurgent in the '90s but haven't been part of the standard conservative playbook since the days of Robert Taft. If he inspires more Ron Paul Republicans to run for office, he too could push the party in a different direction, if not this year then in the years to come. And if the GOP refuses to listen to what he's saying, it's not clear whether that will be worse news for the non-interventionists or for the faltering Grand Old Party.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of reason.