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Monday, March 7, 2011

REPUBLICANS: CANDIDATES, CAUCUSES AND CAMPAIGNS

Is it too early to start a more than cursory analysis of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination? Yes. But the nature of American presidential politics which now requires the creation of national organizations, the hiring of professional consultants, pollsters and managers and the raising of enormous sums of money says otherwise. The ever earlier primary season which is now "only" twelve months away adds to the pressure to "get out of the gate early". So, the first "early bird special" was scheduled by the Iowa based Faith and Freedom Coalition on March 7th which hosted invited speakers from the presumed Republican hopefuls.

Professional pollsters and pundits are in a quandary as early polls indicate what can only be described as a “No! Not already!” attitude among voters. So the crystal ball, tea leaf, and chicken bone analysts have little to go on which leaves the speculation open mostly to early supporters of particular candidates to make rosy predictions in their favor.

In the primordial ooze where ultra-early campaigns are born, the unrecognized favorite might well be the candidate who puts together the best campaign organization behind the scenes while simple name recognition drives the early polls. Now of course, the availability of free and universal communication networks via the otherwise mind numbing but ubiquitous Twitter chatter and the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” Face book pages, offer an opportunity for a variety of improbable candidacies. These “making a statement” candidates just clutter up the polls and eventually turn the debates into a “babble with the stars” reality format.

Early indications are that this superfluous group may include former Libertarian Party and Republican Party candidate Ron Paul. Why the seventy-five year old congressman from Texas would run again no one but Ron Paul knows. As the 1988 Libertarian candidate Paul achieved a whopping .5% of the popular vote and as a 2008 Republican candidate for the nomination he maxed out at 10% of the delegate count. Paul wants to abolish most of the functions of the federal government including the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve system, ideas which appeal mostly to the Grizzly Adams survivalist vote. Still, he won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee convention earlier last year and was one of the top two vote getters in a recent straw poll of the Tea Party Patriots in Phoenix, AZ in late February. Of course straw polls by ideological activists are only good for . . . well, not much.

The other leading Tea Party vote getter was Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather Pizza and current radio host. Cain is a smart guy with Bachelors and Masters Degrees and a successful big business career in the food industry but he was unsuccessful in his only attempt at elective office and is a bit of a rarity as a conservative black from the South. Without money and an organization, he's not likely to have much of an impact in the early primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Since the Republicans don't have a "The Rent is Too Damn High" party candidate like the Democrats, they may have to rely on the novelty of potential candidate Fred Kargan for entertainment. Kargan is a sort of Republican, but dedicated gay activist from California. His issues, not surprisingly are focused on those perennial conservative Republican favorites, gay marriage and HIV-AIDS. He also wants to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds which of course would make Lady Gaga a serious contender. The religious based Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, refused to invite him to their presidential contender forum which resulted in Karger filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, always a good way to generate popular support in a conservative state.

Of course things in Iowa and New Hampshire could really get fun if the always colorful Donald Trump makes good on his possible threat to enter the race.
But leaving the entertainment aside, which of the major contenders seems likely to break out of the pack early and grab the inside track to the nomination? In spite of President Obama's lack luster popularity (currently @49%) and the Republican surge in the mid-term elections, the popularity of each of the most talked about contenders is both underwhelming and raising eyebrows among the formerly optimistic members of the Party establishment.

The nominee will probably come from this short list:

Mitt Romney
Tim Pawlenty
Mitch Daniels
Newt Gingrich

Romney has the advantage of name identification from having run for the Republican nomination in 2008. He looks and sounds "presidential" which is important in an era of television and personal campaigning. He has a successful record in the financial industry, an important plus since the focus in this election is the economy, and as a Republican, he was elected governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal Democrat states. The "good news" for Romney is thus that he has more appeal to the general electorate including moderates, Independents and conservative Democrats giving him a better chance at defeating Obama than some of the more doctrinaire conservative candidates. The "bad news" is that the far Right has a greater voice in the primary process than in the general election and Romney's Morman religion, Massachusetts health care bill which has similarities to "Obamacare", and lack of religious right fire breathing on social issues like abortion and gay rights, will hurt him. At this point, his main strength lies in the weakness of the other candidates.

Tim Pawlenty, a former two term governor of Minnesota is a tried and true conservative on both fiscal and social issues. Pawlenty's problem is that few people outside of Minnesota and neighboring states know anything about him. He is not a particularly dynamic speaker and in a campaign where little separates the candidates in terms of their economic message, he will have a difficult time distinguishing himself from the others which he must do to generate a following.

Mitch Daniels is the "dark horse" to watch. His financial background includes the directorship of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration and as an effective economic manager during his one and a half terms as governor of Indiana. He is not a social issue firebrand and has urged Republicans in Congress to set those controversial issues aside and concentrate on the economy. This could hurt him in Iowa but help him in later primaries if he can develop an effective organization and raise enough money.

Newt Gingrich has plenty of name recognition, is an articulate and knowledgeable speaker and indeed was Speaker of the House during the Clinton Administration. He knows government; knows economics; knows history BUT. . .Newt is associated with several negative issues. First, he led the politically disastrous government shutdown in 1995 over a budget impasse with Democrats. Second, he was forced to resign as Speaker and from Congress over an ethics violation. Third, he is twice divorced and thrice married and admits to having had an affair with a Congressional employee, now his current wife. He has tried to overcome these latter problems by sounding more and more "devout" while addressing issues in a religious context but it has had the ring of insincerity, as has his obvious tilt towards the Tea Party's economic fundamentalism.

There are several second tier candidates who could make a surprise showing in the early primaries and thus hope to generate a band wagon effect but each has political weaknesses which make them long shots. Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi is the quintessential political insider as the former head of the Republican National Committee and head of the Republican Governor’s Association. He was widely perceived as having handled the Hurricane Katrina disaster effectively in his state, but being the governor of the nation’s most culturally “southern” and poorest state can be, fairly or not, a disadvantage. Barbour hasn’t helped this image by making some remarks that liberals have happily describes as racially insensitive.

Mike Huckabee, won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 partially on the strength of his background as a Baptist preacher, as well as being the former governor of Arkansas, but claims that he wants to “change the constitution to bring it back to God” aren’t going to be enough in the current economic situation. With the nation facing chaos abroad and terrorism and economic crisis at home, Huckabee’s “Mister Rogers” personality doesn’t inspire much confidence, nor does his recent Palinesque knowledge breakdown claiming that Obama was raised in Kenya and had an “anti-British colonial” mindset; a position not even the craziest “birthers” have adopted and one for which Huckabee had to make a weak sounding retraction.

Guess who said this:

"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence."

And this:

"Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas."

And:
"There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design."

Sarah Palin? A credible but inaccurate guess. These are the confused thoughts of Palin’s Tea Party twin, slightly better educated but equally intellectually challenged Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MI). Bachmann is making candidate type noises but may just be on a resume’ (and thus book and speaking fee) enhancing mission. She might also be fantasizing about replicating Palin’s 2008 vice presidential nomination. However like Palin, Bachmann’s support seems to be mostly among various Tea Party organizations and not wide spread among the general population of Republicans.

Then of course, there is Sarah Palin herself. She has cleverly maintained her public profile by offering teasing responses to questions about her possible candidacy. However, she has so far avoided efforts to create a campaign organization in Iowa where presumably her religious fundamentalism and simple minded anti-Obama sloganeering would be most accepted. Also, according to the Gallup poll, Palin “continues to have the highest unfavorable ratings” among the most prominent candidates. If she does want to run she will need to move fairly quickly lest Bachmann fill the limited political niche of female, religious right, Tea Party candidate.

So what does all this mean? Not very much at this stage and it should be kept in mind that Iowa, a small population, heavily religious, agricultural based state, is neither representative of Republican voters across the nation nor typical politically with its caucus system as opposed to the primary elections held in most other states. Thus the media driven “horse race” in Iowa may well be misleading as an early predictor of the nomination process. Also, with a large number of candidates with similar governing philosophies, the Iowa and other early votes could be so fragmented that and early leader will not be determined.

But, since it “doesn’t mean very much”, here’s the first early meaningless prediction about the race for the nomination: “And the nominee is. . . . Mitt Romney. And his vice presidential choice is . . .Tim Pawlenty (or Governor John Kasich of Ohio, or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida or . . . )  Stay tuned for the next year and a half.

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