Sizing up Republican candidates

In case you haven’t heard, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana announced that he won’t run for president in 2012.

During my time at The Indianapolis Star, I edited and wrote display copy for many, many stories about Daniels’ administration. Even though I disagree with Daniels politically (especially with his decision to deny funding to Planned Parenthood), I came away thinking he was a fundamentally decent man. In particular, I remember his timely and compassionate response to victims of the terrible flooding during the summer of 2008. I think the Republican field is diminished for not having him in it.

I’m following the Republican nomination contest fairly closely, if only to see who will eventually triumph. I think the upcoming primaries will offer keen insight into the mindset of the party. Will the monied establishment get its candidate in the form of Mitt Romney  or even Tim Pawlenty? Or will the grassroots social conservatives get their man (or woman) with Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann?

Several major names have already dropped out. Donald Trump’s publicity stunt ran out of gas, Mike Huckabee ostensibly thought he’d get more out of staying with Fox News and Daniels, from the looks of it, just didn’t want the headache.

So who’s left?

Romney is probably the closest thing to a front-runner. He has the money, the experience and the name recognition. What will tank him is his healthcare initiative in Massachusetts, which he oversaw while he was governor and which looks suspiciously like the dreaded “Obamacare.” He could lure independents to his side in the general election, especially if the economy keeps flagging. His biggest hurdle will be getting out of the primaries.

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is inoffensive at face value. And that’s his problem: There is virtually nothing interesting, outstanding or noteworthy about him. He’s practically a cipher. I’m getting sleepy just writing about him.

Then there’s ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Spotty personal life (and Tiffany’s habit) aside, Gingrich seems to be a legend in his own mind. Still living in, apparently, 1995, it doesn’t occur to him that he’s overcooked to the tune of about 15 years. His gaffe regarding Paul Ryan’s budget infuriated many in his party and showed that he’s out of touch with the overall agenda.

Ron Paul, a Texas representative, is a libertarian favorite and kind of a little-engine-that-could. But while he gets grassroots support, he alienates the establishment. Not to mention that for every reasonable platform he has, there are two or three more that are just crazy.

Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, has a pretty enthusiastic social conservative base. If the Tea Party contingent really shows up in the primaries, I dare say she could have a fighting chance. Until she gets to the general, that is, where her ideology on social policy and reputation for bizarre comments will send independents and probably even some moderate Republicans running for the hills.

Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was booted out of the Senate in 2006 and is basically a slightly more composed male version of Bachmann. Pass.

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, is running a sort of stunt campaign. It’s an amusing sideshow, but that’s it.

Finally we have Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and until recently President Obama’s ambassador to China. He’s kind of taken on the darkhorse mantle. He’s experienced, smart and not crazy. However, he just doesn’t seem to be getting much steam, and he’d have to explain why he went to work for Obama. He may, in the end, not be bombastic enough to stand out, and will probably have to compete with Romney for similar donors and voting demographics.

(I’m aware that I did not mention arah-Say alin-Pay, mostly because I don’t think she’s running.)

If I were a Republican voter, I’d be a little dismayed by this field. Candidates who’d bore the base would have a chance with independents, and those with red-meat support will alienate moderates. The thinking now is that some sort of savior will swoop in at the last minute and dazzle everyone (think Bill Clinton in 1991-92), but I have no idea who it would be. The economy looks like it’s on the mend, unemployment is ever-so-slowly dropping and Obama’s security credentials are rock-solid after the death of Osama bin Laden. Any successful Republican candidate would have to weather the, pardon the expression, freak show of the primaries and emerge unscathed enough to challenge Obama’s popularity and immense fundraising network. It’s a daunting task, and I can’t help but think that the sanest ones are those who have already bowed out.

What say you? In a year, who will be left?


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