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Politics

Republican Battle Is Helping Obama

The GOP has a chance to topple the incumbent, but presidential candidates might squander it.

Here’s a recipe for a one-term presidency: Low job approval ratings and an anemic economy, with a stubbornly high unemployment rate to boot.

Incumbents in this pickle tend to be sent packing — Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Still, don’t add President Obama to the endangered list just yet. He is weak and vulnerable, looking more like Carter than a strong incumbent poised to roll to another term and burnish his legacy. But he’s getting some help from an unusual source — the opposing party.

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Instead of going for the knockout punch, Republicans are waging war with themselves. It’s part of a battle for the hearts and minds of their party that always simmers but boils over every 50 years or so. It happened in 1912, with William Howard Taft vs. Teddy Roosevelt. It happened again in 1964, with Barry Goldwater vs. Nelson Rockefeller. And it’s happening now, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota vs. former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Obama stands to benefit from the friction. The eventual GOP nominee will be broke and bloodied if he or she is forced into a lengthy primary fight. Meanwhile, Obama would be able to stockpile campaign cash and hone his message for the general election.

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The benefit would be even more pronounced if his foe is Bachmann or Perry, who are both very conservative, rather than Romney, who is more moderate by comparison.

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Here’s the cold, hard reality: The GOP can’t win the presidency without help from independent voters, because Democrats have a huge advantage in the number of registered voters nationally. Any hard pitch to tea partyers and others on the right is a hard sell to the middle. But that’s just the kind of primary campaign Perry or Bachmann will need to conduct if one of them is going to emerge quickly as the consensus candidate of Republican conservatives.

So don’t be surprised if Romney wins the nomination. He’s not a sure bet, but he does have a lot of money in the bank and he’s the only moderate with a chance to be Obama’s challenger. The longer Bachmann and Perry wrestle, the better off he’ll be. Romney also stands to gain from losing the nomination in 2008. The GOP has a long history of rewarding candidates who ran in previous campaigns.

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It’ll be a long, tough race next winter and spring, with three different winners in the first three contests. Bachmann will win in Iowa, Romney will take New Hampshire and Perry will finish first in South Carolina. After that, as Bachmann and Perry continue to split the conservative vote, Romney will gain steam.

Conservatives don’t hate Romney. He’s just not their first choice, or even their second. But if he wins the nomination, look for him to shore up his standing with the right when he picks a running mate. A Republican probably can’t get to the White House without carrying Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Obama won all three states in 2008 and will campaign hard there next year. Romney could help his chances by choosing Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a darling of the tea party, as his ticket mate.

But even if Republicans squander the opportunity to oust Obama, the party has a solid shot to control Congress. Democrats will gain some seats in the House, but not enough to win back the gavel. Presidential coattails just aren’t long enough, even in blowout elections. And this one is likely to be very close.

In the Senate, Democrats will have to defend twice as many seats as Republicans. The GOP can take over by picking up just three or four, depending on who wins the White House. The odds of that look good right now.

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