Presidential races

Local politicos weigh in

In the wake of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, local political activists, Republican and Democratic alike, are no more sure about how the presidential races will turn out than they were a month ago.

Nor are they less sure, necessarily. Back then, Doris Smith was convinced former Sen. John Edwards would win the Democratic nomination, and she hasn’t changed her mind about that, even though he came in third in Iowa and, when we talked with her on Monday (Jan. 7), was projected (correctly, as it turned out) to do no better in New Hampshire.

“I really believe, when it comes to the Democratic Convention in Denver, John Edwards will be our candidate,” she said.

Don’t discount her. The Oroville resident has been a Democrat “since I was 12 years old,” she said recently. She turned 91 on Christmas day and is still active in the party as chairwoman of the Butte County Democratic Central Committee, a post she’s held for 12 years.

On the other hand, she knows Democrats are unpredictable, so she hedged her bet slightly: “It may be too early to be absolutely sure,” she said. In fact, she added, even “Super Duper Tuesday” on Feb. 5, when 22 states, including California and New York, hold primaries or caucuses, may not generate a clear winner on the Democratic side.

Like everyone else interviewed for this story, including Republicans, Smith is impressed by Sen. Barack Obama’s performance, and especially the way he’s galvanized young voters. But on Monday she didn’t believe he had a lock on the nomination—and Sen. Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory in New Hampshire the next day suggested she was right.

Jim Ledgerwood agrees. “I think it’s wide open in both parties,” the Chico businessman and veteran Republican activist said. He’s particularly impressed by Sen. John McCain. “He was dead on arrival at one time, but now he’s back,” Ledgerwood said, quickly noting however that McCain beat George W. Bush in New Hampshire in 2000 but “Bush beat him down the line.”

He reminds that “politics can turn overnight,” adding: “If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani was the guy to beat.”

The biggest difference between the Democrats and the Republicans we talked with is that the former are happy with their candidates, while the latter think the pickings are slim.

As Jim Gregg, a longtime Democratic activist and retired university professor, put it, “I could vote for any of them on the national ticket.” And Mike Hawkins, who works as an organizer for the Democratic Party in Butte County, said, “I’m a Hillary supporter, but I’ll back whoever the nominee is"—and not out of duty, but because they’re all good candidates.

The Republicans’ problem, he said, is that none of their leading candidates appeals to all three of the party’s core groups: anti-tax conservatives, foreign-policy hawks and social conservatives.

Cliff Wagner, chief of staff for District 3 Assemblyman Rick Keene, agrees. “It’s going to be a difficult primary” on Feb. 5, he said. At this point, he expects Giuliani to emerge, saying the former mayor “is a strong personality, is at a minimum a capable administrator … and in these tough times is someone who can stand on the world stage and represent this country.”

On the other hand, Wagner acknowledges, family-values conservatives scorn Giuliani, with his messy divorces and estranged kids. “When your children are supporting your opponents, that’s cause for concern,” he noted.

“The Republican lineup disappoints me and the Democratic lineup scares me,” Wagner said—quickly noting, however, that “the only one running on the Democratic side who’s not really status quo is Barack Obama. He’s bringing a fresh perspective to the race.”

His counterpart in District 2, David Reade, chief of staff for Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, thinks former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is going to emerge as the Republicans’ consensus candidate. “The only candidate who can compete with him financially is Rudy Giuliani,” Reade pointed out, “and I think Rudy’s strategy [of not competing in early contests] is wrong.”

Even though Romney came in second in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Reade explained, he’s the only candidate who did well in both states.

Jack Lee, a Republican who’s running to replace LaMalfa, thinks former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won in Iowa, is the one candidate on that side who represents the kind of idealism Obama has come to embody for the Democrats. But he thinks that if Huckabee “stumbles even once,” Romney could emerge as the “great compromise candidate. … This is based more on Romney’s presidential persona and money than any major accomplishments or leadership.”

All of our respondents agreed that this is an exceptionally interesting political year and, given the state of the country and the world, an exceptionally important one, as well, and that California’s primary has become hugely important for the candidates.