Finally, Some Clarity in GOP White House Field

Many questions remain, but some big dropouts help frame the 2012 Republican presidential primary battle.

At long last, the Republican presidential field is starting to take shape, setting the stage for a nine- or 10-month campaign that will result in the crowning of a GOP nominee next spring.

Mitt Romney’s official but hardly unexpected entry into the race Thursday makes the former Massachusetts governor the front-runner for the right to take on President Obama in November 2012. But his path to the nomination is not clear, and at this point the odds of winning the party’s nod are only slightly in his favor.

Another former governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, seems at this early stage to be best poised to surge if Romney falters in the months ahead. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah may fill that role, too, but he is untested on the campaign trail and may fade fast if he starts with a series of middle-of-the-pack finishes.

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Romney has the most impressive organization among Republicans still in or considering entering the race, including dominant fund-raising talent. Most of these advisers were with him in 2008, when he built strong name recognition and something of a following while losing the GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Romney is likely to raise $40 million to $50 million in the early months of his campaign, a huge haul that will leave others behind at the outset.

Romney will be faulted for pushing a state health care bill that was used as a model for the federal law that most Republicans spit at, never mind that he is critical of Obama’s version. Instead of health care, look for Romney to focus on jobs, economic development, fiscal discipline and his own business credentials. The sluggish economy and weak job market will provide a perfect opening for Romney to position himself as the anti-Obama who can fix what ails the country.

But first, Romney faces a huge challenge: Can he stir the hearts and minds of his own party’s conservative base?

Pawlenty is in the same boat. His focus on what he calls “truth telling” about federal spending, tax cuts, entitlements and bailouts will find a receptive audience in some states with early primaries and caucuses. He needs a strong showing in an unofficial straw poll in Iowa this August and a top-tier finish in the caucuses there early next year to boost fund-raising and keep him in sight of Romney. He, too, will have his work cut out to appeal to conservatives, especially the GOP’s Tea Party wing.

Of the three former governors, Huntsman will have the hardest time winning over the right. He has more foreign policy experience than other GOP hopefuls, but it comes at a cost many Republicans will find hard to swallow -- he was Obama’s ambassador to China. He also has some other baggage, having supported in the past same-sex civil unions and Obama’s economic stimulus package, which many GOPers view as inappropriate government meddling.

All three benefited from the decisions of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to stay out of the 2012 race. Both had notable support among conservatives, which would have driven one or more of the former state executives out of the race in the early going.

Now the conservative vote is likely to be divided. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas all have credentials that can help them in the primaries, but they aren’t positioned to win many votes from moderates and independents in the fall.

A candidate that appeals only to the GOP base can’t win in the general election, no matter how boiling mad the Tea Party becomes.

Sarah Palin? Her much-publicized bus trip to Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire notwithstanding, we still don’t expect her to run. And she wouldn’t win her party’s nomination if she did. Like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the former Alaska governor will choose the certainty of a big-bucks television contract over the uncertainty of the campaign trail.

While the GOP drama plays out over the next nine months or so, Obama won’t have to worry about any Democrats taking him on.

But he will have to worry about the economy, and he will be vulnerable on that front in the general election, no matter which Republican is the last standing at the end of the primary season.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter