The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

Rick Perry Fills the GOP Field’s Vacuum


It’s been said that while the Republican party is still looking for its ideal presidential candidate for the 2012 election, the party has a bumper crop of impressive potential running mates and/or options for 2016. Among those mentioned often are Florida senator Marco Rubio, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey, and Ohio senator Rob Portman.

It’s odd that a field that includes seven eight candidates (Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman*, and eleven if you include Thad McCotter, Gary Johnson, and Tim Pawlenty) hasn’t included that type of figure: a fresh face on the national scene who has a certain amount of serious experience in government, who seems smart, and who is a reliable conservative but not a fire-breather. (On the list above, Jindal, Toomey, and Portman are former U.S. House members; McDonnell and Christie are former prosecutors/state attorneys general, and Rubio was speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives.)

Throughout 2011, we’ve seen flurries of excitement surrounding other figures who fit that template: Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, John Thune, Haley Barbour . . .

The boomlet for Perry since his debut is perhaps explained by his ability to fit that template. He’s been governor of Texas for ten years, yet isn’t well-known outside his state. He’s indisputably conservative, and some may think that the “fire-breather” label fits after the secession remark, his suggestion of a brusque welcome for Fed chairman Bernanke, or his “ponzi scheme” label for Social Security.  But he’s filling a vacuum.

Part of Romney’s weakness is how poorly he fits this template. Let’s credit him for smarts. But he’s a 2008 retread, who, while not inexperienced, somehow had become GOP frontrunner by winning exactly one general-election race in his life. He has reached the point where he’s bashing “career politicians,” awkwardly ignoring his campaigns of 1994 and 2008. (Had Romney beaten Ted Kennedy in 1994, would he have retired from public office in 2000?) Romney’s status as a reliable conservative is shaken, badly, by the individual mandate enacted under Romneycare.

Bachmann is a fresh face whose intellect is far beyond the impression of unflattering Newsweek cover photos and gaffes about Bunker Hill. But she’s certainly indulged in her share of fiery rhetoric, and it is a sign of the post-Obama era that a House member elected in 2006 can begin a campaign to be the next commander-in-chief in 2011.

Ron Paul fits few of these categories, and it’s undoubtedly why many of his supporters love him, because he’s so far from the cookie-cutter GOP candidate. He’s been around a long time, he’s undoubtedly the oldest candidate on stage (he is 76 and will turn 77 next August; John McCain ran when he was 71-and-turning-72), and his views and rhetoric can shock some members of his own party.

Herman Cain has no government experience; both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are very familiar faces whose rhetoric and stances are often heavy with red meat.

There was a time where it appeared Sarah Palin would fit this template perfectly. Instead, if she runs, she will be running as half-term governor who somehow spent her career fighting oil companies and her party’s establishment, only to be demonized as a right-wing partisan corporate stooge.

Ironically, the figure in this field who may have fit the template closest was Tim Pawlenty, who obviously just couldn’t catch on with the GOP grassroots. Obviously, the template isn’t everything — charisma, a fundraising base, tone, style, and other intangibles play big factors. But in the end, the field was looking for a figure who was Goldilocks in two key categories — conservative, but not too conservative, and experienced, but not too experienced. The Perry team is undoubtedly confident they can win one-on-one with Romney. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a Perry nomination would be some other figure who matches this template entering the race.

* UPDATE: In the comments, a reader chuckles at the observation that I completely forgot Jon Huntsman. He clears the experience bar with flying colors, but even that brings one of Huntsman’s own enormous challenges, having worked for the president he seeks to beat. Whether Huntsman likes it or not, he is perceived as the most leftward candidate seeking the nomination of the party of the Right, and is open about his disagreements with large chunks of the GOP base on the use of the military overseas, global warming, evolution, etc. If Huntsman were a mainstream conservative with his résumé, he might be frontrunner . . . but then again, if he were a mainstream conservative, it’s unlikely Obama would have selected him to be U.S. ambassador to China.

Tags: 2012 , Michele Bachmann , Mitt Romney , Rick Perry


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