Still room for ev­ery­one in GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion con­test

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz balzd@wash­post.com

For­mer New York mayor Rudy Gi­u­liani said last week on CNBC that he is “ab­so­lutely” open to con­sid­er­ing an­other pres­i­den­tial run in 2012. That tells you all you need to know about the flu­id­ity of the GOP’s com­ing nom­i­na­tion con­test.

Not that Gi­u­liani is likely to be a se­ri­ous can­di­date. The odds are low that he’ll even run. Given the in­ep­ti­tude of his 2008 can­di­dacy and his rel­a­tively lib­eral views on abor­tion and gay rights in a party that, if any­thing, has be­come even more con­ser­va­tive in re­cent years, it’s dif­fi­cult to see a path to the nom­i­na­tion for him. But with the field so un­set­tled, any­body can dream.

Gi­u­liani isn’t the only long shot Repub­li­can whose mus­ings about a pos­si­ble 2012 run un­der­score the chal­lenge fac­ing party ac­tivists, strate­gists and elected of­fi­cials try­ing to di­vine the likely nom­i­nee. Over the Christ­mas hol­i­day, Jon Hunts­man, the U.S. am­bas­sador to China and a for­mer gover­nor of Utah, sug­gested to a Newsweek re­porter that he might con­sider run­ning in 2012.

Pres­i­dent Obama couldn’t re­sist pok­ing fun at that no­tion dur­ing last week’s news con­fer­ence with Chi­nese Pres­i­den­tHu Jin­tao. With Hunts­man sit­ting in the front row, Obama was asked about a pos­si­ble chal­lenge from his am­bas­sador. Obama was clearly ready for the ques­tion. Prais­ing Hunts­man’s work, he said with a grin, “I’msure that him hav­ing worked so well with me will be a great as­set in any Repub­li­can pri­mary.”

Repub­li­cans’ con­fu­sion about their pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion con­test runs deep: They are con­fused about who may ac­tu­ally run and about who might be their strong­est can­di­date against an in­cum­bent pres­i­dent who looks more for­mi­da­ble to­day than he did just three months ago.

Ex­clud­ing a hand­ful of al­most cer­tain can­di­dates— in­clud­ing for­mer Mas­sachusetts gover­nor Mitt Rom­ney, for­mer Min­nesota gover­nor Tim Paw­lenty, for­mer House speaker Newt Gin­grich and for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia sen­a­tor Rick San­to­rum— the Repub­li­can field is full of ques­tion marks.

The list of pos­si­bil­i­ties starts with the Repub­li­can who at­tracts more at­ten­tion than al­most ev­ery­one else com­bined, for­mer Alaska gover­nor Sarah Palin. Be­yond Palin, how­ever, there are for­mer Arkansas gover­nor Mike Huck­abee, Mis­sis­sippi Gov. Ha­ley Bar­bour, In­di­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, In­di­ana Rep. Mike Pence and per­haps a few oth­ers. Busi­ness­man Her­man Cain has formed an ex­ploratory com­mit­tee. And there are also those who have said no but who still gen­er­ate spec­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Na­tional polls of­fer lit­tle guid­ance on the likely nom­i­nee’s iden­tity, al­though they are heav­ily re­ported and closely an­a­lyzed for clues. The lat­est Washington Post-ABC News sur­vey put the peck­ing or­der this way: Huck­abee, Palin and Rom­ney bunched be­tween 20 per­cent and 16 per­cent among reg­is­tered Repub­li­can vot­ers, with Gin­grich fourth at 10 per­cent. The lat­est NBC News-Wall Street Jour­nal poll showed the or­der as fol­lows: Rom­ney, Huck­abee, Palin and Gin­grich, with their num­bers al­most iden­ti­cal to those of the Post-ABC News poll.

Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion cam­paigns of­ten de­volve into a con­test be­tween the party’s es­tab­lish­ment wing and its con­ser­va­tive or in­sur­gent wing (al­though the es­tab­lish­ment wing to­day is not to be mis­taken for mod­er­ate). Other ob­servers de­scribe the con­test as pit­ting the Fox News con­tin­gent (Palin, Huck­abee, Gin­grich and San­to­rum are all on the TV chan­nel’s pay­roll) against the rest of the field. Given what hap­pened in the 2010 pri­maries, the 2012 race could be es­tab­lish­ment vs. tea party, al­though ev­ery­one run­ning will find ways to present them­selves as in tune with the tea party.

Na­tional Jour­nal’s Ron Brownstein, a shrewd an­a­lyst of coali­tions and de­mo­graph­ics, de­scribes the com­ing GOP race as a vari­a­tion on the es­tab­lish­ment vs. con­ser­va­tive theme. He calls it man­agers vs. pop­ulists. Rom­ney epit­o­mizes the man­agers, along with peo­ple such as Daniels and Bar­bour. Palin and Huck­abee are the prime ex­am­ples of the pop­ulists. Gin­grich, Paw­lenty and Thune fall some­where in be­tween.

The Repub­li­can Party may be more ide­o­log­i­cally ho­moge­nous than it’s been in the past, but there are clear fis­sures that will shape the nom­i­na­tion cam­paign. The Post-ABC News poll showed sig­nif­i­cant di­vi­sions along in­come lines. Palin and Huck­abee were dis­pro­por­tion­ately pop­u­lar among white vot­ers with house­hold in­comes be­low $50,000, while Rom­ney did dis­pro­por­tion­ately bet­ter among those with in­comes above $50,000. The same held true for ed­u­ca­tion: Palin and Huck­abee were even more pop­u­lar with Repub­li­cans who lack a col­lege de­gree, Rom­ney even more pop­u­lar among col­lege grad­u­ates.

Vot­ers with house­hold in­comes above $50,000 made up a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the elec­torate in the early pri­maries and cau­cuses in 2008. In Iowa, they ac­counted for 63 per­cent of vot­ers, in NewHamp­shire 76 per­cent and in South Carolina 72 per­cent. That would seem to be good for Rom­ney, though three years ago he lost all three of those states. The other re­al­ity is that the Repub­li­can Party has at­tracted more down­scale vot­ers in re­cent years.

By next fall, state polls will be a far bet­ter in­di­ca­tor than na­tional polls of the shape of the Repub­li­can con­test. (Four years ago, Gi­u­liani led na­tional polls of Repub­li­cans.) To­day, Huck­abee leads among Repub­li­cans in Iowa, while Rom­ney has a sub­stan­tial lead in New Hamp­shire, his most crit­i­cal state. In South Carolina, which has a his­tory of de­cid­ing the GOP nom­i­na­tion, a poll taken last fall showed no clear leader.

In past Repub­li­can races, there has al­most al­ways been a can­di­date to beat: Ge­orge H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, Ge­orgeW. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008. All faced ad­ver­sity along the way, but all still won. (McCain was given up for dead po­lit­i­cally half­way through 2007 but man­aged to pre­vail.)

Ask Repub­li­cans who that can­di­date is for 2012, and many will say Rom­ney. Why? Be­cause he’s run be­fore, can present him­self as an eco­nomic man­ager, will have plenty of money and roughly fits the pro­file of pre­vi­ous GOP nom­i­nees. Not be­cause he is a com­mand­ing front-run­ner— the polls clearly show oth­er­wise— or with­out neg­a­tives (think Mas­sachusetts health care). And not be­cause he is the dar­ling of the hard-core con­ser­va­tives who are en­er­giz­ing the GOP more than ever.

The Repub­li­can race is start­ing slowly for the very rea­son that it is so full of un­cer­tainty, with more ques­tions than an­swers about the field. What that means, for now, is that ev­ery­one can be a dreamer.

The race is start­ing slowly, leav­ing open the field of po­ten­tial can­di­dates such as, clock­wise from top left, Mitt Rom­ney, Rudy Gi­u­liani, Newt Gin­grich, Ha­ley Bar­bour, Tim Paw­lenty and Rick San­to­rum.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS AND REUTERS FILE PHO­TOS

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