The Republican Short List

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 24, 2011


The Republican Party is finally narrowing down its list of presidential candidates that will compete for the party nomination starting with the Iowa caucus of February 6, 2012 and the New Hampshire primaries of February 14, 2012. In recent weeks, a few hopefuls have formally thrown their hats into the ring and a larger number has formally announced that they will not seek the nomination.  Going over their names tells a story of formidable strengths and evident weaknesses of the opposition party.


The best known hopeful to decline a presidential run is Donald Trump. The controversial businessman and television personality championed the cause of the “birthers”, the vocal group who questions the place of birth of the U.S. President.  Trump attracted media attention by suggesting that Obama might not have been born in American territory (and thus would be ineligible to be the U.S. president). However, two events conspired against Trump. First, Obama produced new evidence of his birth in Hawaii (the so called long form birth certificate). A few days later, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops in a secret operation in Pakistan. While Trump was making fuzz over a nonissue, the President accomplished a very important political development. After that sequence of events, Trump vowed out.


Other lesser known have also withdrawn. The intense media scrutiny over their personal lives, the need to raise millions to have a viable chance and the exhausting schedule of campaign appearances was apparently sufficient to dissuade Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels and Halley Barbour.


Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, former protestant minister and television host had some support among religious conservatives, the Republican establishment and the business elite. However, Huckabee was only a second best for the three groups that are not yet in the mood to work out a compromise on a second best.


Barbour, the outgoing governor of Mississippi, has strong ties with the business elite—he was an influential lobbyist in the 80s and 90s—and with the Republican establishment, as he was the Chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 90s. However, he would have made an easy target for anti-establishment candidates. Harbour symbolizes everything that many conservative grassroots believe is not working well with the Republican Party.


The governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels is an experienced governor in a swing state whose approval ratings are high and his policies sensible. However, his record of having served as George W. Bush’s Budget Director would make him an easy target in the budget deficit blame game and would weaken him as a contender against Barack Obama in a year when balancing the budget will be a key campaign issue.   


As some notable Republicans have withdrawn their names, a few others have formally thrown their hats into the race. Former Speaker of the House and leader of the 1994 Republican Contract with America Newt Gingrich has attracted attention and raised considerable money. His good links with the three factions of the party help, but his past record—including marital infidelities in a previous marriage—will be a heavy burden in in a national campaign against a reasonably popular and scandal-free incumbent President. Gingrich's run seems aimed more at gaining more influence within the party than at trying to secure the nomination to run against Obama.


Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty also announced his candidacy. He is not controversial. However, his calm manners and apparent lack of enthusiasm also make him less attractive to the general public and even to primary voters. He has few detractors, but very few strong supporters as well. If the Republican primaries deteriorate into a civil war between the different factions, he might stand a chance of getting the nomination. Yet, running against Obama will be a difficult challenge for this excessively plain candidate.


Long standing front runner Mitt Romney has yet to officially confirm he will run. His hesitation seems to underline the growing perception that he will get the nomination if no new attractive candidate enters the race. He is the default candidate, but not a very exciting one. 


Finally, two other likely candidates have yet to announce their decisions, former Alaska governor and 2008 VP candidate Sarah Palin and Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachman. These two controversial women have strong following—especially among Tea Party sympathizers and religious voters—but they are widely seen as unelectable against Obama and prone to making unforced errors. Palin's personal life and unscripted comments, as well as her lack of preparation and intellectual curiosity concern many middle class persons and alienate educated voters. Bachman's dogmatic positions in favor of Tea Party principles are seen as politically immature and even irresponsible for a politician whose main legislative task is to work out compromises. 


As the number of hopefuls shrinks, the names in the race show the uphill battle for the Republican Party in next year’s election. It is much better to have fewer names, but so far none of the names in the race seems strong enough to credibly challenge Barack Obama’s re-election chances.