The Republican 2012 Field, In Order

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The Republican 2012 Field, In Order

It is 22 weeks until the Iowa caucuses – maybe as little as 17 weeks if claim jumpers in Florida and Arizona move up their primaries.

That’s a relative eternity in political time. Remember, at this point in the 2008 cycle, all of the smart money was on Hillary Clinton being the next president. One-term Senator Barack Obama was running what was mostly dismissed as a vanity campaign aimed at increasing his national name identification.

But, four or five months is how long it takes to set up a national campaign for president. The fear about John McCain’s August 2007 campaign collapse wasn’t that the voters had already made up their minds, but that he wouldn’t have enough time to build a campaign that could endure through a months-long nomination fight. He nearly didn’t.

Most Americans won’t really start paying attention to the presidential election until next Labor Day, but for millions of political junkies, die-hard Republicans and devoted supporters of the president, today is the first official day of the 2012 campaign. The politicians never stop campaigning, but now it’s for keeps.

Accordingly, Power Play offers the Republican 2012 field, in order.

Rick Perry

The Texas governor has won enough elections to know the perils that come with frontrunner status. That doesn’t make his task any easier, though.

Right now, Perry is taking heavy flak from both sides.

On Perry’s left, Mitt Romney is trying to burnish his Tea Party bona fides. He is doing his best to remind the members of the Republican right that Perry is exactly the kind of career politician that they claim to despise. That’s coupled with an aggressive whisper campaign aimed at undecideds in the Republican establishment about Perry’s electability: too twangy, too dumb, too Christian… too Texan.

On his right, Michele Bachmann is preparing for what may be a kamikaze attack, starting with Wednesday’s MSNBC debate. Certainly the debate hosts and Romney will give her a clear flight path to try to destroy Perry’s credibility with the right. Expect to hear about Perry having been a Democrat until he was 39 and being something of a moderate on immigration.

If Perry is going to win the nomination, he has to use his attackers against each other. The arguments brewing in Bachmann’s camp are things that actually make an argument for Perry’s general-election viability. Being a former Democrat who can talk to Hispanic voters is a good thing when it comes to beating Barack Obama.

To make that argument work, Perry will need to seem cool under fire and look and sound presidential when Bachmann and Romney hit their licks. The tough part will be doing so in a way that doesn’t diminish his greatest advantage: being the only candidate who has managed to thrill the GOP base.

After his successful launch less than one month ago, Perry has been polishing up his presentation and raising money. Today begins a make-or-break three-week stretch for the Texan. Starting with Sen. Jim DeMint’s South Carolina candidate forum today and running through the Florida GOP’s straw poll on Sept. 24, Perry has to prove that he’s for real.

Mitt Romney

The last place anybody expected to see Mitt Romney on Labor Day is at Sen. Jim DeMint’s South Carolina conservative cattle call.

Romney’s strategy called for skipping South Carolina altogether and avoiding the dangers of the Tea Party movement, but the rapid rise of Rick Perry has Romney in Columbia, S.C. today making his case to one of the most conservative members of Congress and has many supporters.

Perry’s ascendancy has accelerated Romney’s move to the right, a journey that he began in 2007. And while his critics call him a flip flopper, Romney’s movement has basically been in one direction. The Republican Party has become more conservative since then, and so has Romney.

What’s tricky now for Romney is finding a way to block Perry without appearing to pander.

Romney so far has resisted any impulse to change his message – other than to play up the fact that he spent only four years in public office before launching what has now been a four-year quest for the presidency. Romney’s message remains a withering assault on President Obama’s record on the economy coupled with a tout for his own business credentials.

If Michele Bachmann obliges Romney and eviscerates Perry or Perry cracks up on his own, Romney can stay on message and actually be helped by his current difficulties. If Perry stumbles Romney will be better off for having broadened out his electoral map. Without Perry, Romney would be the last man standing and could move to secure victory swiftly and abandon his current strategy to win the nomination in a battle of attrition.

The other bit of encouraging news for Romney has been the return of Sarah Palin. She’s on the trail in Iowa and New Hampshire speaking out against good old boys in the GOP and crony capitalism, a pretty direct warning to Perry. If Perry found himself under attack simultaneously by Bachmann and Palin, Romney would be back at cruising altitude pretty quickly.

Palin could be a powerful ally for Perry or a deadly opponent. Romney has to hope it’s the latter. If she doesn’t join the race, Romney may be left with little choice than to move farther to the right and to attack Perry more directly, which would be a serious problem for a candidate who is at his best above the fray.

Michele Bachmann

The high-water mark for the congresswoman’s campaign came on the evening of August 13. She won the Iowa GOP’s straw poll at Ames and delivered a deathblow to the presidential aspirations of fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty.

Bachmann’s time as a top-tier candidate was brief, though. On the next day, Rick Perry’s entry had changed the race for good. Bachmann’s best argument for viability is that she might unite fiscal and social conservatives against the more moderate Mitt Romney. In a party that was dissatisfied with its frontrunner, it was a pretty good argument to make. But Perry offers the same argument and does so with a decade as governor of the second largest state in the union and more polish.

Now, Bachmann finds herself in the second tier of the race with fellow House member Ron Paul. And while Paul has a strong organization and devoted longtime supporters, Bachmann is far less secure in her place.

While Bachmann will be obliging Romney if she launches an all-out assault on Perry’s conservative credentials, she may not have any alternative if she means to remain in the race. It wouldn’t increase her viability as a potential nominee, but if Bachmann does not break Perry right now, she is heading down to the third-tier, and quickly.

If she attacks Perry with as much ferocity as she did Pawlenty, whom she compared to Barack Obama, Bachmann will be reinforcing her biggest negative: that she’s too edgy for mainstream politics. As much as conservative activists want someone who is preaching fundamental change in politics, they know that the middle third of the political spectrum has to be convinced or Obama will squeeze out a second term and cement he and his movement’s gains.

Attack dogs don’t win party nominations, and if Bachmann becomes a perpetual antagonist – especially over matters of conservative orthodoxy – that’s how she will be branded.

She could do to Perry what Jon Huntsman seems committed to doing to Romney on the left: run a geographically narrow effort aimed at hobbling a more powerful candidate. For Huntsman, it’s Florida and New Hampshire. For Bachmann it would be Iowa and South Carolina.

Bachmann is in a pickle. She may have to decide soon whether she would rather see Perry or Romney as the nominee -- a hard choice for a woman who was, for at least one evening, in the lead.

Ron Paul

Ron Paul can command the support of about 8 percent of the Republican electorate indefinitely. That’s not enough to be the nominee, but it is enough to change the trajectory of the Republican Party for the next generation.

Unlike Michele Bachmann or any of the other candidates who have seen bursts of sudden support, Paul is not in the race because of his personality, biography or stump speech. His backers support the 76-year-old Texas congressman because he offers the purest articulation of libertarian principles and doesn’t change his tune is pursuit of broader support.

A lot of politicians like to say that they are leading a movement, not running a campaign. In Paul’s case, that is actually true. And while Bachmann has seen her support diminish amid questions of her viability, Paul has no such concern because his backers don’t care if he’s not the frontrunner.

The question that haunts Republican strategists is whether Paul will take that support into a Libertarian general election candidacy. Paul and his backers have a prickly past with frontrunner Perry down in Texas and surely have no love for corporate captain Romney, he of the mandatory health insurance. If he and his backers balk at backing the eventual GOP nominee, it could be serious trouble for the party in the 2012 election.

While Paul wouldn’t take all of his Republican supporters in the general election, he would pick up many independents and Libertarians to replace them. In an election that could come down to a few precincts in Ohio or Florida, that’s a serious threat.

Paul’s 8 percent is his ticket to stay in the race, remain on the debate stage and its also the reason that Perry and Romney can’t do what Rudy Giuliani tried in 2008 and attempt to demonize Paul or his principles.

The Rest

Labor Day is hard on the third tier of any presidential contest. Now it’s too late to say that it’s early.

For some, like Gary Johnson, Herman Cain and Buddy Roemer, their campaigns are not hard to sustain because the only costs involved are a few small salaries and diesel for a bus. For others, like Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who rely on support from donors to keep slightly larger (or in Huntsman’s case, vastly larger) operations afloat, it’s gut check time.

They can’t qualify for federal matching funds until January, but staying on the road for three more months will be hard for any of them. Huntsman could tap into his father’s fortune if he decides to stay in and try to play spoiler to fellow Mormon moderate Mitt Romney, but for the rest, it will only get harder to endure.