Obama is already campaigning against the Republicans' economic policies, which will prove unpopular - there's a reason Medicare is considered a third rail in American politics. But the GOP also lacks a strong candidate. And such candidates as they have will have to make it through a funhouse primary in a Republican Party dominated by the far-right fringe as never before. As we have already seen, the contest will be influenced by politicians and non-politicians with little to no chance of winning the nomination. Donald Trump is just the most notable of these figures so far. Still, it seems clear now that only a serious Republican candidate with an economics focused platform can give Obama a run for his money. And I actually think this is going to lead to the nomination of someone who is a relative moderate in today's GOP.
I've seen no shortage of commentary about the laughable state of the GOP primary field, and Saturday Night Live did a pretty great sketch on it this week after only five candidates, only one of them first tier, participated in the first debate on Fox News. But my aim here is a serious assessment of the candidates and probable/possible candidates, in reverse order of most likely to win the nomination. By now, there are already three drop-outs who'd looked seriously at running and decided not to - Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, South Dakota Senator John Thune, and Indiana Congressman Mike Pence.
16. The others who are running or talking about running. Talking about running for president is a good way to get more attention from the press. I really don't think Rudy Giuliani is seriously thinking about running, even in the way that Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin have to be. He has no shot - he was a disaster as a candidate, the initial frontrunner, in 2008. And his party has become more conservative. But Rudy gets more attention now. Like four years ago, George Pataki said at some point he was thinking of running and didn't do anything. Also in this category are John Bolton, George W. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations and a strong voice for a completely irresponsible and militaristic foreign policy, Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who refused to take a monument to the Ten Commandments out of his courthouse, and Fred Karger, a gay rights activist.
15. Former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer. Roemer gets his own place on the list because he's one of the eight (mostly former) governors in the race. Long forgotten, Roemer was governor from 1988 to 1992. He switched to the Republican Party while in office and came in third, behind David Duke, in his reelection campaign. He's running a real campaign in South Carolina, but gaining no traction. He was turned away from the debate of third-tier candidates because he's a fourth tier candidate.
14. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Johnson vetoed much of the legislation he received while serving as governor from 1995 through 2002. Nationally, he's best known for his support of legalizing marijuana. He has a solid libertarian record, in some ways a better one than Ron Paul. And the Tea Party is a largely libertarian movement. But Johnson's candidacy worked better on paper than it has so far in practice. Paul managed to gain himself quite a following in 2008, and they are among the most loyal fans in politics; since Paul is running, Johnson's potential has been squished. The Tea Party isn't just a libertarian movement and the Republican Party is not just the Tea Party, it is also the party of social conservatives, big business, and a swaggering foreign policy. Neither Johnson nor Paul can win the nomination.
13. Donald Trump. The high point of Trump's flirtation with running for president was when he spurred President Obama into revealing his long form birth certificate. The whole sordid birther movement was a national embarrassment and by latching himself to it Trump became more of one. But Trump got his comeuppance at the White House Press Correspondent's Dinner and when Obama got Osama, he was done. The flirtation will end without a run, and soon.
12. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Defeated in his reelection bid in 2006, Santorum looks like a has been. But he can argue that 2006 was a bad year for Republicans and he is from a moderate state. Fellow 2006 loser George Allen is mounting a comeback bid in Virginia. Santorum is a social conservative through and through. He believes abortion is a holocaust and homosexuality an abomination. In this, he really symbolizes what is anti-modern and worst about the Republican Party. There was a reason we leftists laughed at his daughter's tears when he lost. Does Santorum really believe he can win the nomination? I'm not sure. He can compete in Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelicals hold sway. But Bachmann is a fresher face. A victory for him in either state would be a shock. Seven months before the primaries, this candidacy looks stillborn.
11. Herman Cain. Cain is a talk show host and former CEO of a pizza chain. He must be an appealing speaker for the right, otherwise he would be grouped with Bolton, Karger, and Moore in the no-shot category. He provides the red meat conservatives like, for example his pledge not to include Muslims in his administrations. But he's a long-shot despite being an energizing new face. Cain is good for the Republican Party. In 2008, while Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson competed for the Democratic nomination, the Republicans had a field of only white men. Cain and Bachmann assure that the GOP field in 2012 will better reflect America - at a time when an ugly strain of the Tea Party exemplified by the birther issue leaves the party vulnerable to charges of racism. But the United States draws its presidents from the ranks of vice presidents, governors, senators, congressmen, and generals. Not talk show hosts and CEOs.
10. Texas Congressman Ron Paul. See what I wrote about Gary Johnson. Ron Paul had hundreds of thousands of devoted supporters. He could come in second in New Hampshire or Nevada and he will finish respectably in this race, possibly as high as third place. But he's not going to be the nominee. He's too much a classical Jeffersonian and not Republican enough.
9. A "savior," and no, I don't mean Jesus or Ronald Reagan. Republican voters and elites are not happy with the options they have, sparking movements to draft supposedly better candidates into the race. New Jersey Chris Christie is a serious blunt-spoken fiscal conservative fighter but he has repeatedly said that he will not run, that he is not ready yet after barely more than a year in office. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the architect of the Republican's deficit and debt reduction plan that would fundamentally change Medicare, is young, brainy, seen as charismatic and attractive, and he would probably be the best person to respond to Barack Obama's criticisms of the Paul Ryan budget plan, which will be a big part of his reelection effort. But it doesn't look like either are going to jump in. Also sometimes mentioned as savior candidates but even less likely - former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and new Florida Senator (and more likely someone's running mate) Marco Rubio.
8. Former Speaker of the House and Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich. Do you remember Newt from the 90s? He triumphed in the 1994 elections, but then he went toe to toe with Bill Clinton and lost repeatedly. Doonesbury perceptively drew him as a bomb with a lit fuse. He's the intellectual in a party with a strengthened anti-intellectual streak. He has a tendency to go too far in his rhetoric. He's never run for statewide office, much less national. As he finally genuinely begins to run for president after years of talking about it, he does not look like a serious candidate to me. Who wants yesterday's papers? Retreads from 2008 are bad enough, Gingrich is a retread from 1994-1998. If Romney and Pawlenty and Daniels and Huntsman aren't conservative enough, Bachmann and Palin and Huckabee and Santorum and Cain can all outflank him on the right. If the seven people listed above him on my list all run, I'd be surprised to see him earn a third-place finish anywhere.
7. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Six months ago I thought Palin was going to be the nominee. But now I doubt she will run, and I don't think she sees an opening herself. Her support has shrunk within her own party while her negatives remain sky high among the general public and if she ran she might only come in fourth or so. The attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords and Palin's response to criticism after the shooting of her aggressive rhetoric and tone, which she called "blood libel," was a key moment. Palin looks like she's done. But we'll see. Frankly, she's a more skilled and natural politician than anyone else here except maybe Mike Huckabee. She has gone abroad and made policy speeches. And she did perform better in the debate against Joe Biden than she did in the interview with Katie Couric. If there's anything we've learned about Sarah Palin since August 2008, it is that she is full of surprises.
6. Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. Palin has almost been replaced by Bachmann. A few years older, a bit smarter, and a bit crazier than Palin, when she saw her friend holding back on running, Bachmann dived into seriously considering running for president, to the surprise of many. Members of Congress do not have a good track record of getting elected to the highest office in the land. But Bachmann was the strongest voice of the Tea Party in the last Congress, and she has challenged the GOP leadership, giving her own "Tea Party" response to Obama's last State of the Union, for instance. She has a real shot at winning Iowa and becoming the candidate of the hard conservatives. If neither Palin or Huckabee run and her closest competitors for that role are Gingrich and Santorum, I think that translates as at least a 15% shot at the nomination. It also helps Romney.
5. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee finished in an effective tie for second place with Mitt Romney in 2008. He's fairly likeable (especially compared with Romney) and polls better than pretty much anyone against Obama. But he is reluctant to run. Running for president, and possibly becoming president, would not make Huckabee's life more enjoyable. As a well-paid conservative commentator, he has financial security for the first time in his life. Huckabee still appears to be about 50/50 on running and if I had to pick, I'd say he will run. But he's already hurt his candidacy by sitting on the fence this long.
4. Former Utah Governor and Former Ambassador to China and Singapore Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is definitely about to step into the race and he is the strongest candidate the Republicans have. Which is one reason Obama sent him to China, which would make him a stronger candidate in 2016, although not, Obama expected, in 2012. Huntsman was an effective governor and he has serious foreign policy experience focused on probably the most important region of the 21st century. His Mormonism seems less of a liability than Romney's, perhaps because it is less emphasized. His weakness is that Democrats like him more than Republicans. Is that disqualifying? It seems slightly less so after May 1, to the extent that I rate his chances of the nomination this high. Huntsman can make the case that he can best handle the challenge of China, which is a big part of the economic anxiety out there in America. But he steps into a crowded field to face Republican voters outraged by the fact that he worked for Obama. Winning the nomination will be harder than winning the general election for him, so we'll see just how politically talented he is. The other bit of conventional wisdom on Huntsman is that 2012 might be a dry run for 2016.
3. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. The only current governor in the race - or almost in the race. Daniels comes off as a serious policy guy focused like a laser beam on fiscal issues, and the race basically lacks that - and he's considered less of a RINO (Republican In Name Only) than Huntsman, although his comment that we should call a truce on social issues to focus on dealing with our debt and deficit crisis provoked outrage from people like Rick Santorum. Daniels has been a reluctant candidate, but could be that "savior" - and many Democrats would prefer their opponent to be an adult who they respect instead of Donald Trump or Sarah Palin. One reason for the reluctance is personal - Daniels' wife left him and their children for a few years in the 1990s, married another man, and then came back to him, and she is hardly eager for her marriage to be the focus of national attention. There is no campaign in waiting. But like Huntsman, Daniels would be a formidable opponent for Obama if he decides in the next few weeks to run and can convince primary voters to nominate him.
2. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. "Generic Republican" has polled better against Obama than the actual candidates. Pawlenty is trying his hardest to be that generic Republican, the least objectionable guy in the race. Mostly this means being the anti-Romney. He's more likable, didn't come from a privileged background, not Mormon, also governed a blue state but didn't do anything as objectionable as pass universal health care, does not hesitate from apologizing for past "mistakes" like supporting cap-and-trade climate change legislation as he moves to the right to win the primary. He's a new face - a former officeholder, but less former than Palin, Huckabee, Romney and others, having just ended his term. He's not super impressive (most just say boring), but his overdramatic action hero campaign ads are mildly amusing. In a weak field and a bad economy, he could conceivably become president. If it's Pawlenty vs. Romney vs. social conservatives in the primary, he's got a decent shot at Iowa, which he needs to win the nomination.
1. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. You know the story about Mitt Romney. He's the frontrunner with an asterisk. He's the easiest of the bunch to picture as president but he's got some clear problems with primary voters. First, he passed universal health care in Massachusetts, and inspired the final shape of Obamacare. Second, he's Mormon, and evangelical Christians don't trust him for that reason, it will also hurt him in the general election. Third, nobody particularly likes him. It's a big reason that he didn't win the 2008 primary and a big reason that John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Still, Mitt has the best shot of anyone. He's learned from his previous candidacy, we think. He's "next in line." And he has a clear path to the nomination. Don't let Pawlenty or Huckabee or Daniels win Iowa. Win big in New Hampshire and Nevada. Do well in Florida. If all this happens, Romney will be the presumptive nominee by some point in February.
I hope and expect President Obama will still be occupying the Oval Office by the end of January 2013. I think his chances are upwards of 70% at this point. But if the economy and the American people are still depressed, we could have a President Romney, a President Pawlenty, a President Daniels, a President Huntsman or a President Huckabee. It could be worse. Out of those five, only one truly terrifies me - Huckabee - on the grounds of his religious zeal and foreign policy cluelessness, which would be particular disastrous in a fast-changing Middle East. And for the destruction of the presidential prospects of the true demagogues and crazies, America's internal enemies, we can thank Obama's gut and the skill of the SEALs.