Changes in the Republican line-up

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 16, 2011


The entrance of Rick Perry to the presidential race, the exit of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and the Michele Bachmann victory in the Iowa straw poll confirm the Republican predicament. When President Barack Obama looks most vulnerable, the Republican Party seems incapable of finding a presidential candidate that can actually defeat Obama come November of 2012.


After he announced he would seek the Republican Presidential nomination, sitting Texas Governor Rick Perry immediately became the front runner among the fifteen Republicans who are officially running. Along with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney—who lost the nomination to John McCain in 2008—Perry is the favorite among likely primary voters.


A couple of days after Perry entered the race, the Iowa Republican Party organized a straw poll in the city of Ames among existing candidates. Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann won a plurality in the Ames Straw Poll, gathering 28.6% of the vote. She edged out another Tea Party favorite, U.S. Representative and self-declared Libertarian Ron Paul, who got 27.7%. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty came third, with 13.6%. After that poor showing, and because of the hyped produced by Perry’s entry, Pawlenty announced he was withdrawing from the race. Rommey, who had won that straw poll four years ago, did not campaign in Iowa and only got 3.4%. The fact that the three top vote-getters were Bachmann, Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum—a favorite of the Christian right—highlights the polarization in the Republican Party base. Moderate candidates, like Rommey, simply opted not to participate in a straw poll that is not representative of likely Republican primary voters. Pawlenty, another moderate, did campaign but did so poorly that he withdrew from the race the next day.


Perry did not campaign in the straw poll, but he was included as a write-in candidate. He received a respectable 4.3%, ahead of Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House whose campaign is in deep trouble after he has repeatedly failed to find a support base. Moderates don’t like him for his policies. Conservatives like his policies but don’t like his private life. He is on his third marriage and a few years ago converted from Southern Baptism to Catholicism, the religion of his third wife, 23 years younger. Many doubt that 68-year old Gingrich will stay in the race much longer, but the savvy politician thinks that when the primaries start, he can become a compromise candidate between the extreme rightwing Tea Party and Christian conservative base and the more moderate business oriented wing.  Perry’s entry means that someone else will vie for that position of compromise candidate as well.


Rommey, who is considered a flip-flopper by many in his own Party, is the natural favorite among the business wing of the Republican Party. Yet, his inability to attract support will make many business leaders in the party take a good look at Perry before choosing their candidate. As a fiscal conservative, opposed to raising taxes and ready to hand out tax break to large businesses, Perry has built an impressively conservative track record. As a governor of a large oil-producing state that has benefited from high energy prices and that has a large Hispanic population, Perry might likely emerge as the most electable conservative candidate, as he has lower negatives than Bachmann or Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential candidate who has yet to officially announce she is running. Perry has a long way to go to get some name recognition and there are many potentially damaging controversies that will hurt him—including the highly symbolic fact that he was George W. Bush successor in Texas. Though Obama’s approval has fallen below 40%, the sitting President is still much more popular than Bush. For Perry, the “W” liability will be a hard campaign issue to deal with.


Still, Barack Obama is highly vulnerable. During the debt ceiling negotiations, Obama manage to upset everyone. Democrats thought he gave up too much in negotiating with Republicans, Republicans thought he did not give up enough and moderates thought he lacked leadership. Besides, when compared with a state governor with ample experience in a diverse state (though more conservative than the rest of the country), the incumbent President might still look a bit inexperienced.


The enthusiasm generated by Perry’s official entry into the race is justified. He stands a real good chance against Obama in November of 2012. He will need to cater towards Latino and African voters and abate fear among moderates and liberals in California and the Northeast. However, just as Bush did in 2000, Perry could win in the electoral college, without winning the majority of the votes nationally. Yet, he will first have to work his way up the complicated and highly polarized primaries in the Republican Party. If he manages to do that, and keeps away from controversies and avoids mistakes, President Obama’s re-election chances will be by no means guaranteed.