Accolades due GOP campaigns

Republican activist Larry Gordon of Sioux City, Iowa, was quoted recently in the New York Times pondering out loud what many Republicans are probably thinking about their “favorite” GOP presidential candidates. Said Gordon: “If nobody better comes along, I’m going to vote for him [Mitt Romney], but I’m hoping somebody better comes along.”

Well, Larry, there’s a good chance that nobody better is coming along. Even Fred Thompson may not enter the fray. So where will that leave us if no other Republicans step forward? Can we feel good about our chances of winning against what looks for certain to be a strong Democratic winner, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? The simple answer is yes. The GOP candidates are actually looking pretty good. The leading ones are putting together credible campaign efforts and they’ll get better as time passes. It’s still early.

The accolades due GOP candidates and campaigns cover most of the categories that really matter when pursuing the presidency.

The first and most important factor to consider is experience. Legendary consultant Lee Atwater often argued in his prime years that your success in presidential campaigning is influenced most by “how many times you’ve run around the track.” To Atwater, experience was the critical element in winning campaigns. He wanted to surround his candidates and campaigns with as many experienced operatives and volunteers as possible.

In this realm, the McCain campaign is clearly carrying the day. From top to bottom, and in the most states that really matter, the McCain team is more tried and tested. No one else comes close. This has shown up, unfortunately, in an operating deficit. While many critique the campaign’s spending, the top-drawer people inside that operation can fix problems, including its budget. And when the battle comes to a close finish, I’m putting my money on the experienced strategic insight of McCain’s brain trust.

McCain also leads in a second essential category, that of expectations management. At the very outset of the race, many pundits felt the race was McCain’s to lose. Expectations were soaring — dangerously so. But when the McCain juggernaut failed to materialize early on, other candidates took advantage of the opportunity and launched credible challenges. Ironically, this took some pressure off McCain. It reduced expectations for an easy victory and placed him in position to comfortably “come from behind,” as he did in his last presidential bid, only this time from a strong enough starting point to ultimately prevail. So McCain’s slow start was strategically beneficial.

Other candidates are category leaders, too. Romney obviously heads the fundraising category. His team’s mobilization of fundraisers has created financial shock and awe. Romney is also excelling in a category I refer to as “the most important thing.” Every candidate has one unique and central question or issue that he or she must address in order to be successful. For Rudy Giuliani, as an example, the most important task is dealing with the abortion issue, something Rudy’s mangling.

McCain has done only a so-so job of reassuring conservatives, his prime directive. Meanwhile, Romney has done an exceptionally fine job of managing concerns about his Mormon faith, the most crucial threat to his candidacy.

The front-running Giuliani campaign is losing the staffing wars, failing to handle its key issues and doing little to solidify his lead in the polls. But he wins the “cash on hand” award for having the slowest burn rate of the major candidates. He’ll need the loot later.

Even an also-ran like Mike Huckabee is to be commended for keeping his dignity in the back-of-the-bus seat he occupies. That’s harder to do than it looks and makes him a possibility for the running-mate spot on the ticket.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.