I covered the GOP debate or panel discussion or whatever it was in Simi Valley last night, including the Giuliani endorsement of McCain, which took place in the Spin room at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. I live-blogged it for the Register's Horserace'08 blog, so if you want to see the impressions I had while it was going on, you can go here. (You'll have to scroll down a bit, though I would note that the entries above the debate blogging, hardly any by me, are worth reading.) But after a day I do have a few overall impressions.
Let's face it, McCain has become the frontrunner, though Romney could still take it, especially if he's willing to dip further into his childrens' inheritance (he told our editorial board on a phone interview this morning that he's authorized a "seven figure" ad buy in the Feb. 5 states, but wouldn't be more specific than that). Huckabee has proved to have little appeal beyond evangelical Christians. I'm pleased as punch that Ron Paul is one of the Final Four, and I hope and believe he will stay in it through the convention, because he's saying important things that I believe will resonate and have the potential to change the country for the better beyond this election, but so far the lightning he would need hasn't struck.
Dave Boaz at Cato has written extensively about political science studies that estimate that anywhere from about 8 to 20 percent of American voters could be described as roughly libertarian if you use a fairly inclusionary definition. He also notes that under the Bush administration many of those libertarian-inclined voters have moved toward the Democrats, and even argues that libertarian-inclined voters, especially those frustrated about the war but also about civil liberties and Bush's big-government, big-spending approach, played a key role in the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.
That means that quite a few such voters (some of whom don't self-identify as libertarians), are fed up with the Republican Party, so even though independents have been able to vote in some GOP primaries, like New Hampshire, Ron Paul has to appeal to residual libertarian sentiment among those willing to vote as Republicans. I can't cite the exact poll, but something like 70-plus percent of self-identified Republicans still support Bush and his policies, which is why all the candidates except Dr. Paul, while not invoking Bush as a model (to put it mildly; they don't mention his name), have been reluctant to criticize him directly.
What Ron Paul has accomplished in intensity of support and fundraising, is remarkable and gives me great hope for the future of this country. But if the percentage of the electorate likely to respond to his views is 20 percent in all parties, the odds don't favor him winning many GOP primaries. I'm not yet willing to say it's impossible, but the odds are long, especially when the dominant media of almost every stripe treat him as marginal or ignore him (that's improving, but consider how few questions he or Huckabee got now that the pundits are focusing on two frontrunners; I didn't think it was fair, but I can see the rationale).
I thought Romney would have to do something dramatic to overcome McCain's perceived status as frontrunner. I think he tried, and did well in dealing with the obvious McCain misrepresentation on a timetable for troop withdrawal -- sad to say, he's almost as bellicose as McCain. But I don't think he did enough. It's possible to overstate the importance of the debates since they're not all that widely watched, but those who pay some attention can get impressions, even from inadequate news stories. I thought I saw McCain visibly control himself to make sure his famous temper didn't spill over on national television, but he did control himself and landed a few blows of his own. I'm afraid he's looking inevitable -- though it's worth remembering that Hillary was seen as even more inevitable not so long ago.