The Republican presidential field is starting to winnow itself, even before Iowa holds the straw poll that traditionally starts the remorseless process. The Georgians — former House speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain — seem to be on their way out. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is fizzling. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has been sinking. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the other Minnesotan, is rising. Mitt Romney is more securely in front of the other candidates than ever. And Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is sizing up his chances.
It is Perry, Pawlenty, and Bachmann who have done the most to reshape the race in recent weeks. The others have either passively benefited from the events that trio set in motion or confirmed their marginality. When Newt Gingrich was deciding whether to run, the conventional wisdom was that he was too erratic and undisciplined to win. Once he ran, he quickly proved his doubters right. A brief flurry of interest in Cain raised the possibility that he would become a major voice for conservatives in the primaries, although no sensible person believed he could be the nominee. But Bachmann has eclipsed him (as she has also done to Sen. Rick Santorum, who remains in the race for no obvious reason), and he is losing staff.
It has always been difficult to see how Huntsman could win the nomination by running, at least stylistically, to the left of a frontrunner who is already positioned as a relative moderate in a conservative party. He has done little to dispel the impression that the point of his campaign is to raise his profile, perhaps in anticipation of a more serious run in 2016.
Representative Bachmann has benefited from being underestimated, and in particular from being dismissed as a pale imitation of Sarah Palin. The comparison works in Bachmann’s favor. The congresswoman is more knowledgeable about national policy than Palin is, which is not surprising since, unlike Palin, she has federal-government experience. (No top-tier candidate has more.) She does her homework. She doesn’t constantly stoke the fire of her own grievances. When a Pawlenty adviser commented recently about her “sex appeal,” she graciously accepted his apology and joked that she considered it a compliment given her age. She did not complain about sexism. Note the contrast to Palin, who cannot ignore insults, even from the likes of vulgar comic Kathy Griffin. While Palin may have brought more charisma to the national scene, Bachmann’s assets are likely to prove more enduring.
Can she win the nomination? History is not on her side. Nobody even slightly to the right of the party establishment has won it since 1984. The party has enough conservative voters to make the victory of such a candidate possible, but it is hard to unify them around a single candidate in opposition to an establishment favorite. And Bachmann is well to the right of previous candidates who have tried, such as Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, and the 2008 Romney. The party has moved right in recent years, but probably not enough for Bachmann to make it.
Pawlenty could in theory be a strong general-election candidate: He is a moderate conservative who governed a deep-blue state in a region that has been trending toward the Republicans. He could also pose a serious threat to Romney’s chances of winning the nomination, since he could win establishment support while also running to Romney’s right. The question about his candidacy has always been whether he would ever be able to get alone in the ring with Romney. During the spring, it began to look possible. Republicans’ familiarity with him increased, he got favorable mentions in the conservative media, and insiders began rating his chances better. Doubts about whether he could excite voters and raise money began to recede.
Then he brought them back. He spent early June positioning himself as the candidate most committed to supply-side economics and neoconservative foreign policy, to little noticeable effect in the polls. But the time he spent on those projects was merely a missed opportunity. More damaging were his decisions, first, to light into Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan as “Obamneycare” during a television interview, and, second, to back away from the criticism a day later, during the first presidential debate that included Romney.