Obama, GOP Hopefuls Primed for 2012

Some of us are probably still nursing hangovers from ringing in 2011 with a bit too much revelry – but inside the Beltway, and in early primary states, it’s already 2012.

President Obama had just affectionately kissed the cheek of his onetime primary rival, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when he delivered a State of the Union address designed to appeal to swing voters in hard times.

He mentioned the word “job” or “jobs” more than two dozen times, and embarked the next day on a tour of high-tech, environmentally friendly manufacturing plants in Wisconsin (ten electoral votes). His 2008 ticketmate, Vice President Joe Biden, headed to another battleground state, Indiana (eleven electoral states).

Most analysts agreed the sixty-two minute address to a joint session of Congress served as an unofficial blowing of the whistle on Mr. Obama’s re-election effort. “It did sound, in that sense, very much of a repeat of what Ronald Reagan was saying” at a similar point in his presidency, said Bob Beckel, the Democratic campaign consultant and Fox News contributor. “What Ronald Reagan said in 1983 was, ‘Look, I know things are bad, but give my program a chance to work. Stay the course.’ And what Barack Obama said, I think, last night was, ‘We've stayed the course, it's working, now let's move on.’ And I think that's a good position to be in.”

Beckel ran a focus group on the Obama speech and also scoured data from similar groups convened across the country and found that the president succeeded at appealing to the independent voters who typically decide modern elections – and who had deserted him, and his party, in 2010. “When you get 80, 90 percent approval from basically undecided voters,” Beckel said, “that'll tell you that it was a slam dunk.”

“This is one of those instances where president went out and said, ‘Let's not make mistakes,’” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a former campaign aide to Mitt Romney in 2008. He summed up the president’s internal political calculus for the speech as: “How do I master the unobjectionable? How do I find that core capacity for where the electorate is on a lot of things, whether related to the economy, national security, issues like innovation, competitiveness and education?”

The list of Republicans eager to take Mr. Obama’s job – or at least to be seen as viable in such an endeavor – is lengthy, and divisible into numerous distinct categories. They include those who are familiar on the national stage, such as Romney, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich; and there are those who would have to strive first to establish name recognition outside the Beltway and their home states, such as Gov. Mitch Daniels, R-Ind., and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La. A fair number of them, as liberal pundits like to point out, currently work, or have worked, for Fox News: Palin, Gingrich, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton.

The overall list of potential G.O.P. contenders also includes Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., and current U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former governor of Utah. Asked recently about Huntsman’s expressions of interest in a White House bid, President Obama last Wednesday responded with a quip that showed how keenly attuned he is to the fact that 2012 is already upon us: “I'm sure the fact that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”

Perhaps most unique in her approach to the hard work of building a national profile has been Rep. Michelle Bachman, R-Minn., who founded the Tea Party Caucus in Congress and delivered, on its behalf, an online response to the Obama address Tuesday night – separate and apart from the formal G.O.P. response delivered by her fellow House Republican, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Republican observers generally downplayed the dueling Ryan and Bachmann responses as evidence of a split in the Republican Party. They cited the similarity in the substance of the two lawmakers’ messages.

“Usually there are only one or two people who get to give formal responses but there are hundreds of opinions out there about what the president said,” said Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-Va., one of the first prominent politicians to win office with Tea Party backing. “I don't look at it like a schism. I think it is a healthy voice of conservative fiscal responsibility within the Republican Party. It's a voice that needs to be heard.”

But Democratic analysts disagreed. “It speaks to something that is happening right now, which is the Republican party is dealing with several diverse audiences and trying to speak to them all,” said Erik Smith, a former aide to House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.

“A lot of the Tea Party type voters are distrustful of authority, whether it's Democratic or Republican. And I think that Paul Ryan, no matter his [fiscally hawkish] qualifications, if he's the official responder, there may be some fundamental distrust there. And that's why you see a need for another response.”