The Republican contest for the presidential nomination is well underway, and following a few surprises of who is running and who is not, the full field is in sight, if not formally complete. Three potentially major candidates could yet enter; in fact former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman is now in. Texas Governor Rick Perry is probably going to enter, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin just might enter. These latter three have noticeable bases in the GOP. Mr, Huntsman will be the most moderate candidate in the field, and yes, there are moderates remaining in the party, but he has little chance to win this cycle. Mr. Perry is a formidable figure, but he is a regional candidate. He would have impact because his region makes up an important base in the GOP, and there is no true southern candidate in the field. Mrs. Palin has a huge political personality, but many in her base have already gone to her friend Mrs. Michele Bachmann, and it’s late for her entry.
The three major contestants, as of now, are Mitt Romney, Mrs. Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty. Mr. Romney leads in most of the polls, leads in fundraising, has the highest name recognition, and his frontrunner status seems only to grow by the week.
Yet Mr. Romney is not the favorite of the conservative or Tea Party bases of the Republican Party. He has liabilities, most notably his association with Romneycare, his medical insurance plan from his years as governor of Massachusetts. President Obama’s Obamacare federal plan is enormously unpopular and unworkable, and in fact helped precipitate the Democrats’ stunning defeat in the 2010 elections. Mr. Romney’s opponents have tried to make Romneycare to be the same as Obamacare, and thus discrediting him. President Obama even disingenuously stated that Romneycare inspired his plan. Mr. Romney seemed slow in refuting these arguments against him, but when he did, he made the points that his plan was a state plan with many differences from the federal plan, and contained features insisted on by the Massachusetts legislature.
Mr. Romney is also a Mormon, a Christian group allegedly unpopular with some other conservative Christian groups.
Conservative talk show hosts have not truly warmed to him, nor have many conservative leaders and ideological spokespersons. In some ways, his candidacy is similar to John McCain’s in 2008 when McCain was not the favorite of the conservative base of his party.
Some suggest that there is a “runner-up syndrome” in the Republican Party in which the person who came in second in the previous cycle wins the nomination the next time out. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and McCain himself support this notion, and there seems to be some validity to it.
But I would suggest that there is also something else propelling Mr. Romney forward. This is the growing awareness that, whether he is an individual Republican’s first choice or not, Mitt Romney is the most likely person in the field to appeal to the American political center in 2012. This is critical because it is becoming clearer every day that President Obama is highly vulnerable for re-election, and that barring nominating a radical nominee unacceptable to the political center and independent voters, the GOP nominee will likely be the next president. It should be added that, in addition to a controversial nominee, a basic policy mistake could lead to a Republican defeat. Newt Gingrich has pointed out that such a mistake would be the poor presentation of medicare reform (this giving Mr. Obama an emotional issue with which to attack his
Having gone through the 2008 presidential nominating campaign in 2008, and coming in second, Mr. Romney is more unlikely to make such a mistake, or to make a serious verbal blunder as his father did in 1968.
In 1964, Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, and in 1972, Democrats nominated George McGovern. Each of these men were wildly popular with the ideological bases of their party, but had little appeal to the political center, and lost in landslides. Similarly, in 1984, Democrats nominated Walter Mondale who right away asserted that he would raise taxes, pleasing the old New Deal liberal base, but turning off younger independent voters. Mondale lost 49 of 50 states.
Many in the conservative media, as well as leaders of conservative groups, remain skeptical or opposed to Mr. Romney, but the polls are suggesting, for whatever they are worth at this point, that Mr. Romney’s appeal at the independent grass roots is growing. Mr. Romney’s political conduct of late indicates he has already figured much of this out.
All of this could change, of course, with some dramatic new developments, or a huge political gaffe, but we are only six months away from the first voting. I am not yet predicting a Romney triumph in Tampa. I also caution those who are writing Tim Pawlenty off in this contest. In spite of some mistakes, and lack of resources, he has shown himself to be the most imaginative of the GOP candidates so far, and will have opportunities to recover (unless Mrs. Bachmann demolishes him in Iowa and New Hampshire).
Another clue to Mr. Romneys’ growing strength is, and will be, the focus on him and attacks on him by President Obama and the national Democratic Party. I think Mr. Romney is the Republican the Democrats fear most as their opponent in 2012, and I suggest that will become more and more evident in the months to come.