Republican Cattle Call

The 2008 presidential campaign begins in Memphis.

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Going to Memphis: Gov. Mike Huckabee
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Going to Memphis: Gov. Mike Huckabee

The scene at Reagan National Airport’s Gate 2 looked familiar this morning. Veteran political reporters Dan Balz and Roger Simon huddled with Tom Rath, a key Republican figure in New Hampshire politics. A guy on his cell phone tried to organize a meeting with former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report prepared to board, followed by David Shuster of Hardball.

One young man, dozing in dreadlocks, looked out of place among the political reporters, handlers, and money raisers. After a flight attendant signaled, one of his two short-haired traveling companions tapped him on his orange slipper. He stood and his chains jangled. He shuffled down the jetway, his legs and feet manacled—probably a lobbyist.

The political class was flying to Memphis, Tenn., for the first cattle call of the 2008 presidential season. What’s that, you say, it’s barely 2006? No matter. Like Christmas shopping season, the campaign seems to start earlier each time around.

Formally known as the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the weekend meeting comes at an—um—exciting time for the GOP. The party is in a stir after the battle between the president and congressional Republicans over Bush’s Dubai port deal. Today, Dubai Ports World agreed to transfer operation of six U.S. port terminals to a U.S. entity, which will likely end the political fight. But tempers may take a while to cool. Yesterday, a House committee voted overwhelmingly to block the initial deal, ignoring the threat of a Bush veto. That seemed to anger the president, who, under fire even from country music stars, declared on a Gulf Coast trip that the GOP congress “shortchanged New Orleans.”

What will the Republican Party look like in the post-Bush era? Which one of the presidential candidates participating this weekend will find the right mix of national-security hawkishness, fiscal responsibility, and social conservatism to win the nomination? Will it be media favorite Sen. John McCain? Or Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, running on the diet platform? Or Senate Majority Leader Bill “The Doctor” Frist? Or Massachusetts Gov. Mitt “I’m a conservative, really” Romney? Or Sen. George “Coach” Allen?

As they prepare their speeches, those candidates are thinking through whether they will embrace President Bush or distance themselves from him. On the one hand, they might be tempted to break with the president to define themselves, create buzz, and embrace activists disappointed with Bush. On the other hand, they don’t want to look like quick turncoats. Plus, President Bush has very good and loyal friends whom candidates need to raise money. If you make him angry, he can hurt you. If he doesn’t, his friends will. Money is more important at this stage in a campaign than anything else. Most candidates will probably leave their toughest anti-Bush talk to the small meetings with activists most angry with the White House. In public, they’ll do the safe thing: They’ll praise Bush’s conservative Supreme Court picks but won’t pitch themselves as stewards of the Bush legacy.

As the front-runner, John McCain has the most to lose. The press and activists have high expectations, and we’ll all be watching him very carefully. While other candidates may keep their distance from Bush, McCain will probably continue to say positive things about the president. His goal is to show party activists that while he may be a maverick, he can be a good Republican when he has to be.

The other candidates aren’t looking to knock off McCain just yet. They’re hoping to woo activists and fund-raisers behind the scenes and perform well enough on stage that word will spread about their candidacy. In the coming months, everyone in the audience will dine out on their impressions of the field, telling friends, co-workers, and neighbors what they saw firsthand.

The only major GOP hopeful not in Memphis is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is well enough known that his last name is in my spell check and who also apparently makes voters feel more warm and cuddly than any other candidate. This popularity is what allows Giuliani to play the outside game. He has name recognition and star appeal, so he can skip these kinds of shows. It’s a smart move: A candidate who has never run for national office can get stung at these spotlight events. They can rarely meet the expectations set for them by the media and party faithful. When they inevitably underperform, the bad buzz makes it harder to raise money and build a campaign team.

This is what almost happened to Gov. George Bush at the 1997 Midwestern Leadership Conference. Days before he arrived, attendees were chatting about how appealing he would be as a candidate. When he took the stage, he bombed. His jokes weren’t funny, and his message was mushy. He looked like a lightweight. It didn’t cripple his political career, but that may be because he went underground for almost two years, staying away from cattle calls and national political events. Instead, he raised money in private meetings where he was more appealing.

Saturday participants will vote in a straw poll for their presidential favorite. Candidates should learn to resist straw polls. In 1999, the Iowa straw poll caused Lamar Alexander to drop out of the presidential race—which was probably a good thing for everyone—but this far from Election Day they are meaningless. They’re as reliable as Internet polls and likely to be influenced just as much by whether the participants were hung over when they heard a candidate speak as by any meaningful quality the candidate may possess.

Having said that, once the results are in, I plan to find a lot of meaning in the straw poll. Political reporters are constitutionally incapable of resisting even the most idiotic poll. I will surely argue that it is a measure of a candidate’s ability to organize voters, maneuver politically, or sell a message to the party base. Even if I have to write a sentence knocking down the validity of a straw poll, I can then frolic in the results for a couple of paragraphs. But I hope that by the time I return to Reagan National Airport, the other political junkies and I will have found something more meaningful to talk about.