Monday, March 7, 2011

Can Pawlenty Pull It Off? (And Other Speculations)

In this curious moment of the 2012 presidential contest, when not a single major Republican candidate has yet announced his or her definite intention to run, there is nontheless a lot of campaign activity going on. Deprived of declared candidates, but thinking there is pressure for them write extensively about something which does not exist, i.e., a formal race for the GOP nomination, many in the media are turning out reams of gossipy analysis, speculation, and pseudo-news which, I don’t want to shock those colleagues, few if anyone is really interested in knowing about.

At the same time, more than a dozen potential candidates, including the half dozen or so who might eventually become finalists, are busily writing books, giving speeches, hiring consultants and campaign workers, and raising money, all of which IS worth reporting about, and even speculating about.

I have been saying for several weeks that the large initial field (10-14 well-known GOP hopefuls) will become a much smaller number after the Iowa Straw Poll in August. That list of finalists will probably include Mitt Romney, New Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty (and perhaps one more person). Mr, Huckabee may yet decide not to run, as might Mr. Daniels. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Sarah Palin will be a candidate in 2012. While I am a big fan of Haley Barbour, and think he is one of the superlative political minds in his party (as well as a superb governor), I think his recent inappropriate statements about the KKK in his state dispositively prevent him from being a top tier candidate from here on. Sorry, Haley.

Although many pundits and GOP campaign experts think Mitt Romney, the early provisional front-runner, can’t actually win the race (because of “Romney-care” and his Mormonism), I think his recent speeches and appearances indicate he remains quite formidable. He has not yet solved his “cold fish” reputation problem, but he has the will, organization, cash and previous experience to outlast his rivals in a possible bitter battle.

Similarly, many pundits and GOP experts write off the chances that Newt Gingrich might actually win the nomination. The media recently made something-out-of- nothing in Mr. Gingrich’s preparation to announce his exploratory committee, and created an unnecessary nightmare for the Gingrich staff who. like the staff of all candidates this year, must walk an over-regulated fine line for candidate announcements. Mr. Gingrich, easily the most knowledgeable and well-prepared GOP candidate for president, must find a way, however, to overcome all the media hype he can’t win. Having known the former speaker for 26 years, I doubt he will allow conventional wisdom to prevent him from running a formidable and possibly surprising run. We shall see.

Mitch Daniels is the biggest question mark of the campaign so far. Undeniably a first-rate and effective governor, and a man with a excellent resume and broad experience, he has been reported to be a dull speaker and unexciting figure. But his appearance at CPAC this year, of all places, was notable and favorable. Some of the most respected leaders in his party have already virtually endorsed him. He is, by all accounts, a man of uncommon ability. He could, as the twists and turns of the campaign yet to unfold take place, be the one to take the prize.

And then there is Tim Pawlenty.

I have known and covered his political career in Minnesota since 1990. He was, even in 1990, an obvious political “comer.” He was elected to the state legislature, and eventually became state house majority leader. He won a surprise GOP endorsement for governor, and then won the governorship twice with less than a majority of votes cast. His first term was not extraordinary. But then, during his second term, he seemed to find his cause and identity at a time when those causes and identities were the ones the state and nation came to need and want. From a truly reliable source, I have been told that a recent speech he gave to a conference in Georgia was an absolute barnburner. Many, many things stand in his way, but as I have been saying, “It’s a long, long way to Tampa.”

I don’t know if Mike Huckabee will run. He easily has the most charm of the whole field, and a very good resume, including his time as governor of Arkansas. He seems to me a regional candidate, something not disproven by his efforts after his upset win in Iowa in 2008, but subsequent years of his own national show on television may have taken him past that. His poll numbers to date have been consistently quite high. And yet…….

The debates between all of the above who decide to run, as I recently suggested, will sort much of this out. So will events, including the domestic economy and the always explosive international environment. But may I suggest: Watch for which of the above candidates, or any last-minute sensation who might appear, gets the right “breaks” at critical early moments. In every case in the recent past, these are best indicators. Just ask Carter (1976), Reagan (1980), H.W. Bush (1988), Clinton (1992), G.W. Bush (2000) and Obama (2008).

I have been writing about presidential politics for ten cycles now. Some cycles offered few surprises. But if I have learned anything about these early parts of a presidential campaign like this one, it is that anything can happen.

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