Sniffing out the ’12 Republican competition

    Have you ever been to a dog park and watched the leashless canines circle and sniff each other – sizing each other up, as it were, out of wariness and curiosity – without quite making any firm commitment to engage? Welcome to the 2012 Republican presidential contest, currently in its nascent stage.

    I took a look at the ’12 GOP plot arc in a Sunday newspaper column. What’s particularly noteworthy is that nobody has officially stepped forward. This is unusual; early announcements, often within weeks of a midterm election, have become traditional. This time, by contrast, all the Republican aspirants (there are as many as a dozen) have been holding back, probably for three reasons:They’re warily circling Sarah Palin, the only meta-celebrity in the prospective field, in the hopes of determining whether she will jump in; none of them wants to be first, and thereby attract the heaviest media scrutiny; and some surely suspect that the current political mood, which seems so bullish for Republicans, may only prove to be temporary.Indeed, one of the top ’12 prospects, Mike Huckabee, told Bill Maher on HBO the other night that he subscribes to reason number three: “We’re a long, long way from deciding who’s going to be the nominee for the Republicans – much less how this election turns out. I think people will make a big mistake if they just make the assumption that Barack Obama is a one-term president. Because look how much the landscape has changed in a year. And in another year, it can change just as dramatically. We’re in a time when politics is like a pendulum, constantly moving back from one end of the spectrum to the other.”We’re a long, long way…he got that right. The prospects are carefully taking each other’s measure in part because there is no clear front-runner, no widely acknowledged top dog (this alone is unusual for a Republican race). And there is no clear front-runner because all the prospects have political weaknesses that could imperil their nomination bids. I didn’t cover this ground in my Sunday newspaper column, so here are a few examples:Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister and therefore popular among religious conservatives in starting-gate Iowa, is anathema to many fiscally conservative Republicans (and special interest groups like Club for Growth) because he raised taxes a number of times as governor of Arkansas.Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, championed a health care law that’s similar to Obama’s enacted reforms – which could be a sufficient turnoff to GOP primary voters. And a lot of Christan conservatives remain wary of his Mormon faith.Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi and a power broker among fellow governors, spent years in Washington as a corporate lobbyist and as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Tea-party grassroots voters are instinctively turned off to Washington establishment insiders. (On the other hand, the voters of Indiana have just elected, as their new senator, Dan Coats – a Washington establishment insider lobbyist. So perhaps anything is possible.)South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the tall, dark, and handsome dark horse, voted for TARP in 2008 (strike one) and he’s currently helping Senate Republican leaders in their efforts to tamp down tea-party demands for a total ban on earmarks (strike two).Newt Gingrich still has some cred with the conservative base, but the GOP’s purported big brain says a lot of incendiary stuff that could prompt many Republicans to believe he is unelectable. (Among moderates and swing voters, his negatives have long been high.) The same electibility issues dog Sarah Palin – worse, actually, because there isn’t a soul in America who would consider her to be the GOP’s big brain.Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, and Mike Pence share the handicap of low name recognition. Yes, it’s true that, in our 24/7 media-saturated environment, a person can become universally famous overnight – but Republicans have typically nominated people who got themselves known during previous bids, people who demonstrated that they could withstand the rigors of a marathon. (First-timer George W. Bush was an exception.)But somebody has to win the nomination. Maybe the ticket will be something that seems unimaginable today – how about former New York Gov. George Pataki (he’d be a rare presidential nominee from the Northeast), partnering with a veep nominee like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who has some tea-party cred, and who might help narrow the GOP’s woeful Latino-voter deficit)?Just a wild guess. At this stage, all guesses are created equal.

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