We are 16 months from the 2012 presidential election. Most people are not paying much attention now, but there is a field of 27 actual, soon-to-be, and potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. President Obama, of course, will face either no opposition or meaningless opposition for his nomination by the Democratic Party for a second term.
Since the election is not until Nov. 6, 2012, it is not on the radar screen for most people. The presidential election is not going to be a focal point for most Americans until after the two parties have their nominating conventions next summer. In fact, many people are likely to be annoyed with the existence of a presidential campaign in July. The reality is, however, that this campaign, as is the case with all modern presidential campaigns, began as soon as President Obama took his hand off The Bible at his inauguration. At this point, the only people paying careful attention to the presidential campaign are certified political junkies.
So, for those junkies we offer this overview of the crowded Republican field. Every campaign has to have a front runner of some sort, and the clear front runner now for the Republican presidential nomination is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. However, being the front runner at this point in the campaign is nearly meaningless. In July 2007, Rudy Giuliani was the front runner in polls of Republican voters and nearly everyone assumed that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee for president.
Giuliani was the more typical early front runner in 2007. At this stage of presidential campaigns, front runner status is largely determined by name recognition. Although John McCain had considerable name recognition, Giuliani had become known as "America's Mayor," in the wake of his widely admired performance as Mayor of New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Beyond the aftermath of 9/11, Giuliani could make a strong case for having turned New York around economically and in other ways during his stint as mayor. Giuliani, however, ran a surprisingly inept campaign which crumbled early on.
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Senator Clinton was considered a shoo-in at this point in 2007 for the Democratic nomination. Her problem was quite different from that of Giuliani. Her campaign was not inept and it did not collapse. It simply ran into a superior campaign mounted by Obama. Surely few outside of the Obama campaign team thought that Obama could overtake the presumed Clinton juggernaut, but he did.
The man - right now
The Giuliani-Clinton presidential contest that never was should serve as a stark reminder of the precarious position of early front runners in political campaigns.
Romney's front runner status comes largely as a consequence of his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination. His name and accomplishments became reasonably well known through that campaign. He stayed visible following the 2008 presidential race. He campaigned for Republicans (including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley) during the 2010 off-year elections.
Romney has much going for him. It is often said that he looks like a President. Beyond that, however, he has the most impressive resume in the field of Republican contenders and would-be contenders. He has been a highly successful businessman, with much of his work involving turning around businesses that were failing or on the brink of failing. Romney took over the leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when it was mired in debt and scandal. Under Romney's leadership the Olympics would turn a profit for Utah. In November of 2002, Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts, a predominately liberal Democratic state.
By most accounts, he was a highly successful governor. As with the Winter Olympics, he was able to create a remarkable turnaround for the state, eliminating a three billion dollar budget deficit without borrowing or raising taxes.
There is another part of Romney's governorship that seldom gets told. Jeffrey Sedgwick, a retired political science professor at the University of Massachusetts--Amherst, notes that there had been Republican governors before Romney (William Weld comes to mind), but that Romney was different. Unlike his Republican predecessors, Romney worked actively to build the party in Massachusetts by finding and recruiting viable Republican candidates to run for the state legislature.
Romney put together a strong organization in his 2008 campaign, and he raised a lot of money. Also, as he demonstrated in 2008, he has the personal financial resources to see him through a long campaign and he is willing to use them.
So, with this record, what is there for a Republican not to love about Romney? Well, quite a bit as it turns out. Perhaps his largest albatross for many Republicans is Romneycare, the health care program that Romney promoted and ushered through the Massachusetts state legislature.
President Obama's health care program is, for most Republicans, the number one source of hostility to the President. On more than one occasion, President Obama has said that his program was modeled after the Romney program in Massachusetts. While that claim is problematic, it is certainly not the kind of endorsement that Romney wants in upcoming Republican primaries. A largely forgotten part of the story of Romneycare in Massachusetts is that Romney's administration worked with staffers from the conservative Heritage Foundation on the program that was ultimately created. To his credit, Romney still sticks by his Massachusetts program, but has made it clear that such programs should be state options and rejects the idea of a "one size fits all" national program.
Romney can fully anticipate that his opponents within the party nominating process will try to tie Romneycare to Obamacare. The argument will be: How can Romney be an effective opponent of Obamacare if he was the primary creator of essentially the same program in Massachusetts? We have already seen the first effort at this in the June 13 New Hampshire debate, and it is worth noting that former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty whiffed badly with his swing at Romney on this issue.
Romney is also seen by many social conservatives as being soft on social issues, and has been accused of being a flip-flopper on many of these issues. These were not issues in his failed Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy or when he ran for Governor. Like Ronald Reagan, Romney has taken on a stronger pro-life persona relatively late in his political career. Some social conservatives, while willing to forgive Reagan on this matter, seem less forgiving of Romney.
The third problem that Romney faces is religion. Many people, particularly evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Christians, are hostile to or at least dubious about Mormons. The odd thing about this hostility is that, to the extent that Romney's Mormonism would have an influence on his policy stances, such influence would likely take him down the same road that it would take an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian. In the 2008 campaign, Romney spent a great deal of time and money in South Carolina and Iowa. He was emphasizing social conservatism a great deal in that campaign and he had a tenuous relationship with evangelical Christians in particular. They seemed willing to support him, but they were still lukewarm. When Mike Huckabee entered the race, Romney saw his support from evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in South Carolina and Iowa almost completely disappear.
Two elephants in the room
Major polls typically show Romney ahead of the field. The NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll, taken just before the June 13 debate in New Hampshire, shows Romney with a 30 percent lead over the second choice, Sarah Palin (14 percent). While that is a healthy lead, it still leaves 70 percent of those polled choosing someone other than Romney. We could say that Republican voters are taking a good look at Romney, but the deal is far from being sealed.
There are 12 declared candidates in the Republican field. But Romney has to be quite concerned about two non-candidates, two big elephants in the room: Palin and Huckabee. Huckabee has already declared that he is not a candidate, and he is making a nice bit of money working with Fox News. But he proved to be a surprisingly strong candidate in 2008, and he still has his following. There are many who would like Huckabee in the race. There is nothing irreversible about stating that one is not a candidate. Romney certainly has memories of how Huckabee destroyed his 2008 campaign.
Palin has also given little indication that she will be a candidate. Even more than Huckabee, she has become a money-making machine since leaving the governorship of Alaska. Palin is a favorite with many conservative Republicans and is certainly a Tea Party favorite. Palin, however, has certain liabilities. She has never effectively recovered from the charge that she is not particularly knowledgeable on major issues. Her rhetoric seldom goes beyond promoting what she calls "good conservative American values." Partly as a consequence of that presumed deficiency, her negatives are high.
Palin ranks with Newt Gingrich for having the highest negatives within the party among Republican candidates. Her negatives are even higher in the general electorate, which raises serious electability issues. Nevertheless, should either or both of these potentially strong candidates choose to actively enter the race it would completely alter the landscape of the Republican field. Both Huckabee and Palin would likely have a more fervent base of support than would Romney.
The Other Candidates
At this point there are six other announced Republican presidential candidates who have a high degree of visibility.
Of these six, the strongest appears to be Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. In some ways, Bachmann can be seen as an effective stand-in for Palin should Palin choose not to enter the race. And strong polling by Bachmann might keep Palin from entering the race should she give it some serious thought. Bachmann had an effective debate performance in New Hampshire. Most polls put her second to Romney in evaluating how the candidates did. One drawback for Bachmann is that a seat in the House of Representatives has not been an effective position for running for President since James Garfield in 1880.
Gingrich is certainly well known; he has long been respected in the party and grudgingly admired outside the party as an "idea man." He is usually effective at communicating his ideas. He is bright, articulate, and quick on his feet. However, Gingrich has a great deal of messy personal baggage that is difficult for many conservatives to handle. And, while he was extraordinarily successful in creating a Republican majority in the House in the 1994 elections for the first time in 42 years, he was far less effective as Speaker of the House. He was consistently outmaneuvered by President Clinton.
Gingrich's campaign is already imploding. Many Republicans were angry at Gingrich for his swipe at Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan and his dismissal of it as "right-wing social engineering." In June his campaign manager and 15 other key members of his campaign team resigned. He was uncharacteristically lackluster in his New Hampshire debate performance. Gingrich was already facing an uphill struggle before these events occurred. It is difficult to see him recovering from this collection of setbacks.
Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is a bright and articulate man. He had an excellent record as governor. But Pawlenty comes across as something of a colorless candidate. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and charisma is often overrated. It tells us nothing about what kind of a president he would be. However, he has failed in the early stages of the campaign to break from the pack. But he has a year to do that, and if he can get through the early primaries and caucuses with respectable numbers as other candidates are dropping out, his strengths might be able to emerge in a smaller field of candidates.
Former two-term Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is a favorite of social conservatives and the religious right. He, too, is a bright and articulate man. Santorum has three major problems. First, like Pawlenty, he is something of a colorless candidate. Second, this campaign is more likely to be driven by economic issues than the social issues with which Santorum is most identified. Third, in his last campaign, he was defeated for a third Senate term by a fairly hefty margin. Losing a re-election bid is generally not the basis for seeking a presidential nomination, although James K. Polk was elected president in 1844 following a lost re-election bid as governor of Tennessee.
Ron Paul, the 75-year-old M.D., Texas Congressman, and father of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, is back taking another crack at a presidential run. He was the Libertarian candidate for President in 1988, and a candidate in the 2008 Republican field. He has a small, but highly vocal following. He is a favorite with Libertarians and some Tea Party Republicans. It is difficult to see any set of circumstances in which Paul would win the nomination.
The last of our six highly visible Republican candidates is businessman and talk show host, Herman Cain, the only African-American in the field. Cain, too, is a very bright and articulate man. He has a good sense of humor and is quick-witted. Many Republicans love his ability to come up with the quick and snappy one-liner. He is better on domestic policy than foreign policy, as was indicated by his embarrassing handling of a question on Israel in the Greenville debate on May 5. Whatever his virtues, it is difficult to see a talk show host who founded a pizza company and who has never held political office gaining the Republican nomination for president, let alone being elected president. But Cain's virtues are considerable and this explains why, in the early stages of the campaign, he has polled fairly high. He presently polls around 10 percent. Pawlenty and Santorum would love to have that number.
There are two other candidates who are not yet declared, but they would instantly vault into the highly visible category and would probably be in the upper reaches of that category should they choose to run. Giuliani is evidently thinking seriously about another run. Giuliani polled second to Romney in the June 7 Fox poll, and he polled third, behind Romney and Palin, in the June 7 CNN poll. Texas Governor Rick Perry is giving every indication that he is likely to be a candidate, too. He could prove to be a viable candidate, but he has never operated on the national stage and remains a largely unknown figure to the rest of the nation.
The Wish List
The June 7 NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll indicates that only 45 percent of Republicans are satisfied with the field of Republican candidates so far. This compares to a 73 percent satisfaction rate in 2007. Surely some Romney supporters simply see him as the best candidate in a weak field. Many Republicans are looking for a knight in shining armor to sweep their party into the White House. They do not see that knight in the current field. There is a wish list of at least three so-called "dream" candidates for many Republican voters. The No. 1 candidate on this wish list is New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Many Republicans love his feistiness and his willingness to take on tough issues, issues that Republicans often talk about but seem to do nothing about once they have power. Christie has stated over and over that he is not running for president and will not be a candidate, but many within the party still dream. If enough Republicans came to Christie at some point in the campaign and made the case that he would be the only Republican who could defeat Obama, he might be enticed to run. Of course, Christie has been governor for less than two years, which raises the question of whether that is a sufficient length of time to judge a candidate's presidential potential.
In a similar vein, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is popular for taking on entrenched liberal interests in his state. Much of what many Republicans admire about Christie can be seen in Walker. However, the enthusiasm for Walker has not endured to the extent that the enthusiasm for Christie has.
Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is greatly admired for his work in producing a Republican alternative budget, a budget which begins to look at and deal with the long-term problems associated with Social Security and Medicare. The "Ryan budget" has been something of a rallying point for Republicans. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that Ryan is not going to be a presidential candidate in 2012.
One measure of Republican discontent with the existing field is the brief flirtation a couple of months ago between Donald Trump and many Republicans.
The trouble with dream candidates is that once the reality of a campaign begins to unfold, the dream candidate often seems less attractive in the sunlight of that reality. We need think only of former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson in 2008. Many within the Republican Party saw Thompson as a more viable candidate than the existing field. He entered the race only to prove quite quickly to be a very disappointing candidate and he generated little support.
If the poor Jimmy Carter-esque economic numbers continue to stay where they are through the 2012 campaign, the situation will be ripe for a Republican return to the White House. At a time when Republicans should be boldly confident about their chances in 2012, they remain discontented with their current crop of candidates. They continue to look for that surefire man or woman who can get the job done. Unbeknownst to many of these Republicans, that man or woman may already be in the field.