Power Play

Obama’s Primary Wish: A Divided GOP

Obama’s Primary Wish: A Divided GOP

“The other Republicans have sucked so bad we didn’t have any choice.”

-- An “Obama ally” talking to Politico about the campaign’s decision to focus its attacks on Mitt Romney.

The Obama campaign is trying to spook Republicans about the 2012 election, swiping at GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney with a nasty new campaign memo and touting the combined $70 million raised by the President and the Democratic National Committee in July, August and September.

But the $70 million (it amazes Power Play to say) isn’t so much. If you take Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s $17 million, the presumably more than $10 million Romney raised, the millions more raised by the rest of the GOP field and the more than $23 million raised by the Republican National Committee, things don’t look so lopsided – maybe a 20 percent advantage for the incumbent president last quarter.

Most significantly, the third-quarter haul for Obama is a $16 million drop from the previous quarter’s totals. It should be going the other direction. Add in the projected decrease in union political expenditures and the presumptive advantage for Republican-leaning independent groups, and it starts to look like a wash on money.

Obama’s big advantage, though, is that he can hoard cash to engage in the brutally negative campaign his folks have long promised would destroy the credibility of whoever ends up opposing the president. While the Republicans work through the process of picking a nominee, they will burn cash, most of which does little to defeat Obama next year. Sure, the money spent by the eventual nominee helps build a brand, but most of it is just down the drain.

So why, then, is the Obama campaign so eager to elevate Romney as the inevitable nominee? Nothing helps a Republican win support like fighting with Obama, so what gives? There are those Romney-bashers on the right who say it’s because Obama secretly wants Romney to get the nod because he would be the best foil for the Democrats’ “eat the rich” campaign strategy.

But when it looked for a few weeks after Labor Day that Perry was about to swagger off with the nomination, Democrats were hitting Perry with all their might and treating him as inevitable. Moderate Republicans said this was proof that Obama preferred to face the Texan because he would be the best foil for the Democrats’ “Tea Party extremist” strategy.

The truth is that whomever the Republicans pick, David Axelrod will tell reporters that it is exactly the outcome he was hoping for. If Ronald Reagan and Mother Teresa rode out of the sky to run as the Republican ticket, Team Obama would have an attack ad for them too. (“Reagan and Bojaxhiu: they flip-flopped on being dead…”)

When you have an incumbent stuck with job approval in the low 40s, a lousy economy and little hope for much improvement on either count, what else are you going to do as a campaign strategist?

As polls increasingly show, any of the top four or five Republicans is essentially tied with Obama. While each would have their own strengths and weaknesses, they all do better against Obama the more famous they become.

For the 13 months before the 2004 election, George W. Bush’s job-approval rating hovered between 46 percent and 54 percent in the Gallup tracker except for the brief jump into the 60s after the Army yanked Saddam Hussein out of his hidey-hole. Obama starts the final year of his re-election campaign with a job approval rating skipping around the 40 percent mark in Gallup.

The good news for President Obama in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll is that he has stopped the slide in his job approval. The bad news is, it stopped at an anemic 44 percent among all adults, a number bound to be lower among likely voters.

And 74 percent of respondents said the country is going the wrong direction, the highest number we’ve seen since mid-October three years ago, which was at the height of the Panic of 2008, the very financial crisis that helped vault Obama into the White House.

The correlation between an incumbent’s job-approval rating and his Election Day percentage has been very high in modern politics, so that leaves Obama looking increasingly at only one hope of winning: destroy the Republican and then hope that a third-party figure emerges to siphon off some votes from the right. The idea would be for Obama to scratch his way to 46 percent with base politics, hope Ron Paul or another conservative runs a third-party candidacy and then reap a second term. It’s how Bill Clinton won in 1996, only meaner.

Of course, if a third-party candidate were a centrist, like the folks at Politico have been encouraging with their own fantasy primary online game, it would obliterate Obama’s hopes. Throw Michael Bloomberg or any other center-left type in the mix, and Obama would be back to writing books fulltime come January 2013.

That’s why it doesn’t really matter to the Obama campaign who the Republicans choose, as long as the process is unsatisfying to the Republican electorate. Democrats want a Bob Dole kind of outcome in which Republican passions are squelched by a pre-ordained nominee, leaving lots of time for hard feelings to harden.

Axelrod and Obama’s best-case scenario would be a successful Tea Party rebellion that either produces a weak nominee (a la Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell). But with Rep. Michele Bachmann pulling in Huntsmanesque numbers, that hope has faded. Now, the best case for them is for a nominee with mainstream appeal but a divided base.

While Republican insiders fret openly about the dangers of nominating anyone but Romney, the Democratic wish is something a little more specific: that Romney win in swift and unhappy fashion.

Right now, the Republican right is still weighing its options – kicking tires and reading window stickers. While they have pretty decisively opted against the Bachmann model, voters are checking out Herman Cain, taking another look at Newt Gingrich and keeping their options open on Perry.

The successive boom and bust cycles on the Republican right have yet to result in any boost for Romney, who has been remarkably static in his support among national Republicans even as the GOP establishment heaves harder on his behalf.

What we’re seeing is a primary within a primary between Cain, Perry and Gingrich to be the candidate of the Republican right. And conservative GOPers seem to be savoring the process as voting draws nearer and nearer.

Which brings us to the worst-case scenarios for Obama: that either Romney wins by convincing the GOP base that really is their man or that one of the contenders on the Republican right pulls together a way to win.

Romney has so far declined to reach out beyond his core group of moderate supporters and none of the more conservative candidates have been able to put together the total package (take Perry’s organization and stump speech, combine it with Gingrich’s debate skills and add in Cain’s persona and you have the ultimate Republican choice). Whether the right wins over the centrists or Romney woos the right, candidate satisfaction and unity among Republicans would be the greatest concern for the Obama Democrats.

As New Hampshire threatens a pre-Christmas primary because of Nevada’s insouciance, conservatives may have only eight weeks to re-consider their options. And since Sarah Palin and Chris Christie only made their final, final decisions in recent days, the process has only just begun in earnest for many of the tire kickers.

But that’s still enough time for Romney to woo the right more ardently or for one of the conservative finalists to start solidifying their status as the challenger. As Cain’s current surge, and Perry’s before it show, conservatives aren’t divided, they’re just a bit fickle. It’s easy to see them yet swinging in behind any of their trio of contenders or even making the choice to accept Romney, as they did for John McCain in 2008.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Focused? The protests on Wall Street are mindless. At least Tea Party, whom the media and Democrats denigrated as a sort of toothless, uneducated peasantry, they had a program, they had an idea, they had a plan -- smaller government, less taxes, less regulation.

And when you ask people on Wall Street what they want, they don't know. Their plan, eat the rich. What happens afterwards, after that meal, they have no idea. Democrats are making a big mistake in embracing a movement of this sort. In the end, they could have attached to them all the sort of weirdnesses or excesses that you could get. Violence is possible. If it happens, it will redound to Democrats. And even just sort of obnoxiousness, if they leave the site on which they are on soiled and unkempt, that's not going to look…”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.