Published February 01, 2011
So much has been said about the problems with the field of potential Republican presidential candidates that it is worth pointing out that, like a lottery jackpot, somebody will eventually win this thing.
One could, in fairly short order, explain why all of the candidates are unelectable: Too bald, too fat, too short, supported a health-insurance mandate, pardoned criminals, too Northern, too Southern, too conservative, too liberal, had zipper trouble, did lobbying work, too controversial, too boring and on and on.
And yet, one of these flawed individuals will nonetheless prevail.
Perhaps the reason that the Republican field for 2012 has been so slow to the gate is that they’ve all read the downcast analysis of their challenges. Politicians’ egos are typically inflated enough to overcome most naysaying, but I’ve never seen an entire field declared doomed even before the race began.
Part of the problem in that unlike in the past 11 elections, there is not a clear frontrunner in the Republican race this cycle.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is better positioned than any other potential candidate, thanks to a huge war chest, an extensive national organization and high name recognition. But he has serious issues with base voters who doubt Romney’s conservatism. As President Obama and his team so often and so happily point out, Romney’s health-insurance plan in the Bay State shares much in common with Obama’s national health-care law.
Romney is the frontrunner, but only by default.
The second-place finisher in 2008 was former Arkansas governor turned FOX News host Mike Huckabee. And while runners up have a long history of grabbing GOP nominations, Huckabee hasn’t so far shown much hunger for a run. He’s publicly ambivalent on the subject and hasn’t been making moves behind the scenes to build a campaign.
Huckabee is now too big a name to be the dark horse he was in 2008, but he’s not readily donning the mantle of a frontrunner either.
Sarah Palin is another potential leader of the pack, but stock in her future is too uncertain a commodity to draw many early investors. Palin seems to go back and forth about her interest in a run. One day, she’s giving an interview to the New York Times Magazine that shows growing political sophistication in her organization. Another day, she’s letting it rip with Greta Van Susteren and asking “WTF” is up with Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Palin has been a successful political entrepreneur, creating her own space in public life. But she has not shown much willingness to submit to the constraints that come with being the presumptive nominee of her party.
Of course, who would want to be the frontrunner this year? Getting to the head of a crowded field means being in the lead, but it also reveals a bull’s-eye on your back.
As John McCain and Rudy Guiliani discovered in 2008, being the frontrunners in the Republican nomination race is no great thing.
With the big-name candidates unable or unwilling to push to the front of the line, the public eye falls to some less well-known names as potential dark horses worth early wagers for long odds.
There are the governors and former governors, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Rick Perry of Texas; two members of the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota and Jim DeMint of South Carolina; two members of the House, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota; and an array of former officeholders, rich dudes and political curios that includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum, reality host and real estate mogul Donald Trump, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, Obama’s Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Guiliani.
The last time the field was this wide open on the Republican side was 1964. Once the process got underway, the new conservative movement rallied behind Sen. Barry Goldwater and the party establishment fell in line behind New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Something similar may happen this year as the reenergized conservative movement and old line Republicans again do battle for control of the party, leading to a divided base and a November drubbing of Goldwater by incumbent Lyndon Johnson. But for each of the might-be candidates there must be the thought that they could do what successful nominees of the past have done and unite the bickering branches of their political family.
And beyond the nomination lies the even more tantalizing prospect of taking on a president weakened by his own legislative success on health care and widely perceived as too liberal. While Obama will have a billion dollars and the power of the presidency, Republicans know that their foot soldiers are ready to march and American voters are ready to hear an alternative point of view.
And that’s why, despite all of the pixels wasted on explaining why every candidate is so badly flawed, there are still a dozen or so folks out there who think they could be the one.
So while all of the doom and gloom may have discouraged presidential hopefuls from jumping in the race so soon – there were already six declared candidates by this point in 2007 – it may also have the effect of encouraging politicians who might shy away from a contest that includes potent frontrunners.
You can almost hear the discussions in governors’ mansions and in the back seats of cars en route to fundraisers, “Well, if he’s got a shot, why shouldn’t I give it a try?”
The first debates are in three months. The circumspection of February will soon give way to a stampede of ambition.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.