Call it what you want -- the opening bell in the 2008 Presidential race, the first cattle call for candidates, an opportunity for delegates to kick the tires on the new Republican models -- but there's a chance the next president of the United States will be here in Memphis, Tennessee, this weekend at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC). While this event can't make or break a candidacy, it can give Republican faithful an early look at how viable a candidate might be. It's all about buzz.
The early money is on Sen. John McCain. He has the edge on experience -- running a national campaign in 2000. And he's gone some distance in the past six years toward building bridges with the conservative wing of the party. But according to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, he is still more popular among moderates than conservatives, leaving the door open for someone else to pass him on the right.
Who might that be? Rudy Giuliani for one. According to our poll, he has less appeal with moderates than McCain, but beats him with conservatives (despite some positions that would seem to give social conservatives cause for concern). Giuliani also has tremendous national security and management credentials, the sort of person America equates with crisis management. Giuliani was invited this weekend, but is skipping the event.
And then there is Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. A dark horse at this point, Huckabee has the kind of personality that could catch fire. A former minister who is hugely popular with social conservatives, Huckabee recently lost more than 100 pounds and ran a marathon in an effort to beat diabetes. He was born in a little town called Hope. And we all know that Hope has a pretty good record of producing presidents.
Any way you look at it, the field is wide open. It's the first time since 1952 that there's no sitting president or vice-president seeking the nomination. The eventual list of candidates could top 10 or 11. In addition to McCain and Huckabee, also in attendance this weekend are Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (a home-state favorite), Virginia Sen. George Allen, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Each will have 15 minutes to address the delegates. Fifteen minutes they hope will lead to fame.
We'll get our first idea of how delegates are feeling about the field with the results of a straw poll on Saturday night. Sure, a straw poll at this time could be considered meaningless, but let's not forget who won the SRLC's ballot in 1998 -- George W. Bush. However, some Republicans say the fix is in on Saturday's straw poll. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott claims Frist has stacked the deck by busing in delegates from Nashville. There's no love lost between Lott and Frist, and Lott is throwing his support behind McCain. But to trash the senator in his home state is an indication of just how interesting the coming campaign could be.
It's still early, but who do you think is the GOP's best bet in 2008?