The 2012 GOP field just got smaller. The disappointment among Republican voters looking for a candidate to stir them and the reluctance of so many real political stars to get in the race remains the most telling aspect of the strangest year yet in national Republican politics.
In the history of modern Republican presidential politics this year will go down as the year best described by that silly 1960's song “Please, General Custer, I don’t want to go.” And this they don't want to go to Iowa.
None of the big names wants to get into the race. None of the big money has picked a candidate and given them momentum. And the split between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives has the lackluster entries currently in the race fearful that they won’t be able to unite the party.
Iowa’s Republican Governor, Terry Branstad, gave testimony to the painfully slow start to the big GOP race this week when he publicly pleaded for possible candidates to please come visit his state where the caucuses will mark the start of actual vote counting in less than nine months.
“This is a state where you can effectively launch a campaign and it is not too late,” the governor said. He later added: “I want to welcome all current and potential 2012 presidential candidates to campaign here." The lack of presidential candidates in the state has the governor and other Republicans worried that Iowa’s traditional moment as the focus of national politics is in jeopardy. New Hampshire, the site of the first state primary, is hoping to capitalize on Iowa’s lackluster caucus but at the moment they look to be in line for more of Iowa’s disappointment with reluctant candidates standing around while relatively unknown candidates stir apathy.
According to an Associated Press-Gfk poll from last week, 45% of Republican primary voters are dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates. That number is up from 33% just two months ago. Since then, the biggest news has been that two relatively big names have dropped out. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and the one and only Donald Trump announced that they will not run, preferring to remain with their television shows -- Huckabee on Fox News and Trump with NBC’s "The Apprentice."
Huckabee’s departure creates the biggest opening in the field. He won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 with an impressive 34% of the vote and was a favorite of the evangelical conservative caucus-goers. The Baptist minister’s supporters in Iowa are shopping for a socially conservative candidate to carry their banner. Rightwing firebrands like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum are in the race but have not shown evidence of benefiting from Gov. Huckabee’s decision to bow out.
That creates a big opportunity for Rep. Michele Bachmann. The congresswoman, who heads the Tea Party caucus in the House, this week organized 128 thousand phone calls to Iowa Republicans and she continues to surprise with her ability as a fundraiser. She claims to have made 20,000 new friends on Facebook since Gov. Huckabee took a bye.
However, in what can be interpreted as a warning to Rep. Bachmann and other social conservatives, Gov. Branstad has advised culture-wars-conservatives to focus on “cleaning up the economy,” rather than pandering to the social conservative voting bloc.
The current national frontrunner for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has a history of trouble with Iowa Republicans. In 2008, Mitt Romney finished second with only 25%, despite spending a lot of time and millions of dollars of his own personal fortune. Romney could not close the deal with Iowa’s Republicans then and he did not yet have the millstone of the Romney health care plan around his neck – the model for the health care plan that the far right detests, President Obama’s health care reform program.
In a scathing editorial, the Wall Street Journal recently pilloried Romney: “More immediately for his Republican candidacy, the debate over ObamaCare and the larger entitlement state may be the central question of the 2012 election. On that question, Mr. Romney is compromised and not credible.”
Another well-known Republican who is less and less comfortable in Iowa is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He managed to put himself at odds with the conservative base of the party when he blasted Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals for Medicare as “rightwing social engineering.”
Conservative commentators in Iowa but also on national talk radio shows, on The Journal’s editorial page and all over conservative sites on the Internet have since been scathing in charging that Gingrich’s comment weakened his candidacy as well as the entire Party’s effort to build a case against President Obama.
Still waiting in the wings are former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, current Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former U.S. envoy to China Jon Huntsman. Any or all of them could radically change the race with their entrance.
Most conservatives would still like to see New Jersey Governor Chris Christie throw his hat in the ring. Gov. Branstad has praised him as a “rock star” and earlier this month prominent Iowa GOP donors flew to Trenton to persuade Christie to run. Any of the other candidates will be a disappointing second choice.
Meanwhile, the Party establishment is increasingly embracing the possibility of a run by Gov. Daniels. But his earlier statement of distaste for highlighting social conservatism is not likely to play well in Iowa. His recent attacks on Planned Parenthood seem an expedient – some may say cheap -- political attempt to paper over that problem. But the Indiana governor knows his earlier statements and his personal story will make Iowa a tough run for him.
No one wants to say it out loud but at the moment the polls indicate that whoever wins the GOP nomination will probably go on to lose to President Obama in the general election. The best minds in the party say an election that is a referendum on the president is the best chance for a Republican upset. Those top GOP thinkers are looking for a steady, reasonable candidate to stand there while the focus turns to the less than overwhelming approval of President Obama.
The problem with that strategy is finding a steady, reliable candidate who is trusted by the Republican establishment but also fiery enough to win the support of social conservatives and Tea Party activists. That person has yet to make an appearance in Iowa or other place.
The disappointment among Republican voters looking for a candidate to stir them and the reluctance of so many real stars – notably Gov. Christie, Rep. Ryan, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – remains the most telling aspect of the strangest year yet in national Republican politics.
Somewhere, Obama advisers David Plouffe and David Axelrod are smiling and singing a smug, mocking version of that song “Please Mr. Custer, I Don’t Want to Go.”
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."