Selling Them Short? 2012 GOP Candidates Work to Improve Image, Connect

In some circles, the Republican 2012 field has been written off faster than last year's business expenses.

Newt Gingrich lacks discipline. Mitt Romney's health care law was too similar to President Obama's. Nobody knows who Tim Pawlenty is.

All are common swipes against the budding crop of presidential hopefuls jockeying for the chance to take on Obama next year. But election analysts say these candidates still have a solid shot at competing, if they can just work out the kinks in their campaign machine.

The race is only just starting, and as Obama proved in 2008 and Bill Clinton proved in 1992, no candidate should be discounted. Although some in the GOP establishment clamor for a heavyweight to shake up the field, other Republican strategists say the field has some serious assets already.

"Obama's numbers aren't magnificent, and if you put a viable alternative out there ... then that person will give Obama a run for his money," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.

The candidates themselves are vying to be viable, insisting Republicans don't have to wait until 2016 for a chance at the White House. With some polls showing a generic Republican candidate beating the president, the environment suggests voters are just waiting for a GOP candidate who says the right things -- and a candidate they've heard of.

Take Pawlenty. A Gallup poll released Thursday underscored his problems connecting with voters, showing just 6 percent want him as their GOP nominee.

But Brad Blakeman, a former adviser to George W. Bush, said Pawlenty has the right stuff.

The former Minnesota governor comes from a purple state -- part red state and part blue state. And though the state continues to face future deficits, Pawlenty points to his record balancing the budget while in office. The unemployment rate also fell from a high of 8.5 percent to 6.7 percent at the end of his term.

"I think he's both selectable and electable," Blakeman said, referring to the two tests candidates will face -- the primary and general election.

Blakeman, who recently had dinner with Pawlenty in Florida, said Pawlenty has impressed him the most out of the field. He claimed Pawlenty is baggage-free and just needs to build his name -- by talking about his record in office and going more aggressively after Obama on the economy.

Somebody must have gotten Pawlenty the memo. Friday morning on Fox News, the ex-governor assailed the president for not proposing a major entitlement overhaul.

"I'm sorry to interrupt your little European pub crawl," Pawlenty said, referencing the president's overseas trip. "But where's President Obama's Medicare plan? ... We've got an absent president on this issue."

Pawlenty insisted his poll numbers would improve as voters get to know him.

Beating Pawlenty in the polls are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has announced his candidacy, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is expected to announce his candidacy next week in New Hampshire.

Gingrich has had a rocky time in his opening days as an official candidate. He had to apologize after criticizing GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, and then he ran into some questions about a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany & Co.

But despite the clamor for new conservative voices, Bonjean said Gingrich shouldn't be afraid to talk about what he did in the '90s. The split government back then resulted in a balanced budget and welfare reform, and he presided over a period of prosperity. "He can take some credit for it," Bonjean said.

He said Gingrich needs to connect with public opinion, by contrasting the budget progress of the '90s against "Obama's failure on deficit spending."

The same goes for Romney. The former governor recently delivered a speech in which he addressed concerns about the similarities between his state's health care plan and the one signed by Obama last year. Bonjean said Romney should consider the matter settled and move on to aggressively talking about his record as a corporate executive creating jobs.

Other announced candidates include businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum expected to announce June 6.

Paul has a loyal base of followers who adore his libertarian-leaning worldview of small government and less foreign intervention. His challenge is breaking out of the mold of GOP gadfly and perennial candidate.

Cain, former head of Godfather's Pizza, seems determined to break into the top tier. Though his candidacy has endured some mocking, the Gallup poll this week showed him beating Pawlenty, with 8 percent support. (It also showed Paul with 10 percent and Romney leading overall.)

GOP strategist Karl Rove has questioned whether Cain has the experience to be a viable candidate. But Cain told Fox News on Thursday that the idea that candidates must have held office is the "old political paradigm."

"You don't have to have worked in politics and in government all your life to be able to solve a problem," he said. "That's what my record says."

The rap on Santorum is he's too focused on social issues, and he lost his Senate race in 2006 by a wide margin. But Santorum said Friday that his "message" will eventually improve his standing in the GOP pack. He noted that he emerged at the top during a recent straw poll in South Carolina.

Analysts say Santorum's social conservative views will help him in key primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, but that he would need a broader message to connect in a general election.

With the economy and deficits on the front burner, foreign policy continues to be the wild card - an issue that could play a much bigger role in the campaign ahead depending on the course of the Arab revolts, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the war against Al Qaeda.

The 2012 field is by no means set. Though Donald Trump, ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels say they're out, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has stirred speculation by announcing a bus tour this weekend. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is expected to announce her plans next month in Iowa, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is weighing his options. Others are prodding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.