Politics

Decision Time Nears for GOP White House Hopefuls

The Republican race to face Obama is wide open.

Put up or shut up time is coming for Republican presidential hopefuls.

The problem is, no one seems to be willing to be the first to jump into the pool of potential challengers looking to take on President Obama in 2012.

Some are waiting to see whether the GOP’s big guns, including former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, decide to run. If she’s in, some other White House hopefuls are likely to sit out the race, especially those who come from Palin’s conservative corner.

Others, most notably Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, seem keen on teasing voters for as long as possible before deciding whether to run. Meanwhile, they can continue raking in big bucks from speeches and television appearances. The moment they talk about forming exploratory committees, though, the lucrative and highly visible TV gigs go away, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia found out.

The result: The most wide-open primary for a party since 1992, when Bill Clinton, a little-known Southern governor, was able to claim the Democratic nomination after a string of big names who would have been automatic front-runners balked at the prospect of facing the incumbent, George H.W. Bush.

Like Bush then, Obama has an edge now, by sheer dint of already residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As one former GOP presidential candidate recently noted, an incumbent president usually wins reelection or defeats himself. It’s that last part that should have some Republicans eager to jump into the fray.

Obama is not unbeatable. His health law is unpopular, many of his polling numbers are mediocre or soft, the economic recovery is slow and the unemployment rate remains high.

The right candidate, reaching both the GOP base and a sizable chunk of independents, could make a close race -- or even send Obama packing, the way voters did with Bush in 1992.

The key question is which Republican faction will dominate the primaries and caucuses next winter and spring -- unbending conservatives, who may nominate a candidate with little appeal to independents and crossover Democrats, or moderates, who may choose someone who doesn’t excite conservatives, resulting in many of them staying home next November?

From here, it still looks like Palin and Huckabee will not run. But there are plenty of other conservatives itching to get into the race, including Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The more moderate bloc includes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and, perhaps, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose primary chances may be compromised by the fact that he was Obama’s ambassador to China.

From this group, Romney has the best chance at the nomination, largely because of the name recognition he gained by running in 2008, when Sen. John McCain of Arizona locked up the GOP nod. His path is complicated by the fact that conservatives tend to dominate the big three early primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Indeed, Romney’s best chance will come if several conservatives divide the early votes of Tea Party backers and others on the right and allow him to run near the top in a divided field.

No matter how the GOP primaries play out, candidates will have to be in the race no later than June to be able to hire top staff and have enough time to raise adequate money to compete for the nomination and to run in the general election against an incumbent who will be able to amass a huge treasury.

The only ones who can wait beyond that point are Palin and Romney, because they are recognizable. But even they might be forced to show their hands sooner rather than later.

Obama is likely to take the first steps of his reelection campaign in late April. The longer Republicans wait after that, the farther they’ll have to go to catch up.

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