Whereas the veteran national figure Newt Gingrich has had a close-to-disastrous formal beginning to his race for president, neophyte national politician Tim Pawlenty has come out of the gate with an intriguing (and so far positively received) counter-intuitive approach in his first few days as an official candidate.
There are certain strategic orthodoxies, usually not violated, about running for your party’s nomination for president in primary and caucus states, to wit, do not offend local special interests and upset local party base voters expectations.
Claiming he will be the candidate who “tells the truth,” former Governor Pawlenty has told Iowa Republicans he will phase out ethanol subsidies; and Florida Republicans that he will reform Social Security by extending the mandatory eligibility age as well as cut off cost of living allowances to rich retirees. This is not what Iowa farmers and Florida senior citizens usually hear from candidates who seek their votes. Pawlenty is betting that economic conditions are bad enough that most voters know that certain entitlements, including some of their own, will have to go. Of course, at the same time, Pawlenty is telling these same voters that he will not raise taxes and will cut public spending. That is what conservative voters do want to hear in 2011, and Mr. Pawlenty cites his record in Minnesota as evidence he will do this from the White House office.
As a constant contrarian, I have long held the opinion that a politician who can compellingly tell voters what they don’t want to hear, and yet win their allegiance could do much better than expected.
On the other hand, we are quite a distance from the first voting in the nomination contest. For that reason, Mr. Pawlenty has far to go to overcome Mitt Romney’s initial lead and considerable political resources. Speaking of Mr. Romney, he too has had mostly smooth sailing so far. This tells us that he did learn from his 2008 experience when he failed to do well in Iowa and South Carolina. Instead of avoiding these two states, Mr. Romney’s campaign decided to contest them, even before Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Daniels withdrew. Mr. Romney’s strategy needs to be, and apparently is, to win as many delegates as early as possible, thus preventing anyone from overtaking him. This is a lesson Hillary Clinton ignored, including conceding the caucus states to Mr. Obama, and when she after woke up after Mr. Obama had won a large number of delegates, it was too late to recover. With all the money he needs to spend on organization and advertising, Mr. Romeny can maximize his chances from the beginning, provided also that he learns strategically from his mistakes and shortcomings in 2008. From his first foray into South Carolina, it would seem he may well do so.
Aiding (unintentionally) Mr. Romney’s strategy is the candidacy of Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann who was born in Iowa. With Mr. Huckabee out of the race, she is making a major effort to woo the numerous evangelical and Tea Party GOP voters in Iowa. If she outpolls Mr. Pawlenty in their neighboring state, it will be difficult for him to create the momentum he would need to overtake any early Romney lead, if that develops.
Mr. Gingrich may have been paying too much attention to his political enemies and to his own party’s political elites when they constantly spoke of his “baggage” of divorces and controversies from his days as speaker of the House. I would suggest that neither his alleged “baggage” (nor Mr Romney’s Mormon faith, for that matter) is the impediment the “experts” and the media say it is. Mr. Gingrich, regardless if he agrees with that or not, nevertheless acts as if he does by making so much of his recent emphasis on his new marriage and faith. These are positive matters, but making them so visible makes the former speaker look defensive. Before he goes much further, Mr. Gingrich might find it useful to sit down and reassess how his campaign organization and what he says publicly might better advance his ideas and his true political strengths. Almost everyone agrees he is the best idea man in the GOP. But it’s another matter to persuade voters that he is the best person to execute and administer those ideas. Mr. Gingrich has. over recent years, assembled an excellent staff for his many organizations. He has been doing the same for his campaign staff so far. But, as far as I know, few successful candidates for president are their own campaign managers. (Tuesday night’s upset election of a Democrat in a traditional New York state congressional special election is a demonstration that Mr. Gingrich’s reservations about Medicare reform may have more merit than originally judged. Nevertheless, his mistake was not his political intuition about the risk of Medicare reform, but the way he spoke about his fellow Republicans who were advancing it.)
Former Governor and Ambassador Jon Huntsman is apparently soon to enter the race. He is a blank slate, and at this point, it is difficult to assess his chances. But the field of candidates, as I have been pointing out recently, is unexpectedly small, and thus there are some genuine opportunities for a late entrant. Former Governor Jeb Bush and current Governor Chris Christie have enough stature right now to realign singlehandedly the nomination contest if they got in, but the word from both is that they will not. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a great mayor, and remains an enormously articulate figure, but his 2008 campaign was a political disaster, and there is no reason to think 2012 might not be the same for him. Texas Governor Rick Perry so far refuses publicly to indicate any interest, although he would be the only southerner in the race. Of all the minor announced candidates, businessman Herman Cain has so far aroused the most interest, but it is difficult to see how might advance to the first tier.
Thus we return to Mr. Pawlenty as the candidate so far with the most potential to upend political expectations for the GOP nomination. In each cycle, there are those who bring innovations to the race (as he has now done). Some succeed, such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and some do not, such as Howard Dean, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes, so innovation alone is not sufficient to win the right to preside in the Oval Office for four or eight years, Yet, as I have pointed out before, a heavy dose of luck combined with innovation and skill, often makes the difference.
A great deal is going to happen before those first votes will be cast early next year.