Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Too Late For Another Presidential Contender?

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has resigned, presumably to enter the Republican contest for the 2012 presidential nomination. There is much which is appealing about former Utah Governor Huntsman, a very talented Republican appointed by President Obama to one of the most important U.S. diplomatic posts in the world.

He was an ideal choice for Beijing because he served several years as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, and is fluent in both Mandarin and Taiwanese.. He was an outstanding and popular Utah governor, and is considered a GOP moderate on some issues (although he is anti-abortion and favors gun rights).

I have been saying we are almost past the point when a new serious GOP candidate might successfully enter the field. But since no major Republican has announced their candidacy yet, it is obviously not too late. The GOP field is quite large already. There are more than a dozen “serious” candidates, although as I have been pointing out, credentials, an impressive appearance and name recognition does not necessarily make a finalist.

So far, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels seem most likely to make the “finals” IF they run. But nothing is written in stone yet. Mr. Huntsman, ironically, might split the Mormon vote with Mr. Romney, and Mormons are a serious factor in several western states. But his greatest obstacle would be the perception he is a “moderate.” I suspect that Ambassador Huntsman is rather conservative by most national standards, yet that may be not enough in a political year when ardent conservatism seems most prized by GOP voters nationwide (and not a few independent voters).

I am reminded of the case of former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania who, from 1996 through 2008 was a very serious candidate for vice president (by Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain), and was considered to have the necessary gravitas to be a serious presidential candidate as well — except for one matter, he was a Catholic who was moderately pro-choice on abortion. This made him unacceptable to his own party. A six-term congressman from Erie, PA, Ridge also represented a working class district, and was not considered conservative enough by many of his colleagues. This did not prevent him from distinguishing himself as the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security (his threat level color code notwithstanding), and now only half a decade later, his performance in that office looks rather good in comparison with some of his successors. No matter, Tom Ridge passed on a “sure thing” U.S. senate race in Pennsylvania in 2010, and is now pursuing the rest of his life, more or less out of politics. Mr. Huntsman may find the Tom Ridge example instructive.

We are now entering the more combative period of the early presidential contest. Potential candidates are roving Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina which have the earliest primaries/caucuses, and where any successful candidate must find some traction. Already The Wall Street Journal has taken former Speaker Newt Gingrich to task for supporting ethanol in Iowa. While I happen to agree with The Journal’s general view on ethanol, it is also obvious that its editors have not visited Iowa (or Minnesota or Indiana or Illinois) recently. I certainly hope The Journal does not now come out against presidential candidates who kiss babies.

Mr. Huckabee is saying he won’t make his decision about running until late this year. This may be a serious tactical mistake. Mrs. Palin is the most charismatic person in her party, but her overall popularity has declined as a result of her appeal to her base. She is formidable, but perhaps not as a presidential candidate in 2012. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is an almost equally provocative national figure now, and also not to be dismissed out of hand, but not likely to appeal beyond a narrow band of the electorate if she runs.

Lest I be accused of favoritism to my (former) home state governor, I would be remiss in not observing that his unannounced presidential candidacy is going rather well in its early stages. But former Governor Tim Pawlenty must do well in neighboring Iowa to advance to the finals. John McCain skipped Iowa last time, and won the nomination, but 2012 frontrunner Mitt Romney’s alleged temptation also to skip the first caucus state this time might not be a good idea. Mr. Gingrich need not win Iowa or New Hampshire, but he must do better than expected in both, and then win South Carolina. His task is to demonstrate unexpected strength from the moment he announces, and then show that his so-called “baggage” was a political myth. Mr. Daniels is showing some surprising strength already in polls in a few states, but he must overcome an image of being a “reluctant” candidate. He and Mr. Pawlenty are the “sleepers” in this contest.

If more American voters were fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Mr. Huntsman might pull “an Obama” in 2012. But if it turns out that he is also fluent in Spanish, then all bets are off.

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