The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the start of the 2012 U.S. presidential race, are only a little over a year away. For more than four decades, at this stage, Republicans had either an incumbent president or an established front-runner who goes on to win the nomination.
There is no such figure today, making the race more wide open.
Many of the events that will shape this contest have yet to occur; who actually runs, how the economy and the war in Afghanistan fare, the performance of the Republican majority in the U.S. House.
There is no candidate like a Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or Bob Dole, waiting his turn as the nominee. “We’re not going to do what we normally do, nominate the steady beau,” says Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the Republicans’ most influential social conservatives.
As the grassroots Tea Party movement showed in state after state in the 2010 congressional elections, this is no longer a hierarchical party. And the field of contenders doesn’t overwhelm anyone. “All the major candidates have significant problems,” Land says.
This prompts increasing chatter among party strategists about non-candidates such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of President George W. Bush, or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, only in office a year. Both have said they aren’t running.
Of those who are more likely to run, here is how experts size up their strengths, and weaknesses.
MITT ROMNEY: The closest thing to a front-runner, the 63-year-old former Massachusetts governor has business and economic expertise, is solid in New Hampshire, where he finished second in 2008, and can raise plenty of money. The downside: Some Christian conservatives remain skeptical of his Mormon faith; Iowa, the first test, isn’t friendly, though Tom Rath, the longtime national committeeman from New Hampshire, dismisses the impact of a loss there: “No Republican ever wins Iowa and New Hampshire.” Most of all, the Massachusetts health-care measure, enacted when Romney was governor, looks like a state version of the national plan put in place by President Barack Obama. “It’s hard to distinguish the two,” says one of his likely rival candidates. “Most Americans don’t like Obamacare; almost all Republicans don’t.”
SARAH PALIN: No candidate arouses the passions and intensity engendered by the 46-year-old, 2008 vice-presidential candidate. She is setting the agenda on issues ranging from the proposed mosque in New York City to the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program; she opposed both, and others in her party followed. Many voters, and privately many Republican politicians, question whether she could win a general election or has the capacity to govern. An abbreviated single term as Alaska governor doesn’t reassure.
MIKE HUCKABEE: The 55-year-old, former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and grasps popular culture. Had he won the South Carolina primary -- he finished a close second to John McCain. -- he might have been the nominee.
If he runs, he will have more competition for the religious right vote, particularly from a Palin candidacy. He isn’t trusted by economic conservatives, who view him as a closet populist. As governor, he handed down more than 1,000 clemencies, including one for a man who went on to kill four cops in Seattle.
NEWT GINGRICH: The 67-year-old former House speaker is the most policy-versed figure in the field. He is comfortable and conversant on any subject. Yet in a party that stresses personal virtues, his two messy divorces and ethical transgressions may be disqualifications. “His personal life probably is an insurmountable liability,” Land says.
TIM PAWLENTY: The 50-year-old Minnesota governor could be the strongest of the long shots. He meets the conservative litmus tests on most issues, and has moved to the right on matters like immigration, is devoid of hard edges, and his working-class roots are an alluring asset. He is spending a lot of time in neighboring Iowa, and David Yepsen, the former longtime political reporter for the Des Moines Register, says, “He has a style very appealing to Iowa; he could take off.” Still, even his supporters say the likeable Pawlenty lacks charisma. There are serious doubts that he can raise the $100 million that may be necessary for the nomination.
Straight From House
MIKE PENCE: No president has come directly from the House since James Garfield in 1881. The 51-year-old Indiana lawmaker, a favorite of evangelical conservatives, would be one of the stronger candidates to try. Some political observers believe that Pence, aware of this 130-year-drought, is more likely to run for governor of Indiana in 2012.
MITCH DANIELS: The current Indiana governor would bring the most comprehensive and cogent policy prescriptions. A former budget director under President George W. Bush, he has won wide praise from other Republicans and business executives for his six-year stewardship of his state. More interested in policy than politics, it’s an open question whether the 61-year-old Daniels would be willing to put in the thousands of hours a nominee is required to devote to fundraising and campaigning in small hamlets.
HALEY BARBOUR: There is no one more connected to the Republican political and moneyed establishment than the Mississippi governor and former party chairman. The convivial, portly 63-year-old looks very much the part of the big-time, special-interest lobbyist he used to be, not a winning credential. A recent magazine article, in which he praises the old segregationist Citizens Councils in the South, doesn’t help.
JOHN THUNE: The 49-year-old tall, athletic, one-term South Dakota senator looks the ideal presidential candidate. Yet he has no experience in national politics, and the Senate, where his record is very thin, isn’t a much better launching pad for Republicans than the House.
RICK SANTORUM: Defeated in a bid for re-election to his Pennsylvania Senate seat four years ago, the 52-year-old Santorum stresses his conservative Catholic credentials, assailing John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on the separation of church and religion from state. Even in today’s conservative Republican Party, it seems unlikely an anti-JFK message will be a game changer.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)