What to make of the Republican presidential race at this point?
Given that he’s a successful two-term governor of a blue Midwestern state, Tim Pawlenty has underperformed. His refusal to follow through on his own Obamneycare remarks and attack Romney in the last debate was a costly error, since it played into the already existing knock that he’s “too Minnesota nice.” Pawlenty’s poll numbers are disappointing, but his gubernatorial experience, compelling personal narrative, acceptability to all party factions, and potential appeal to independents in a general election mean that it would be a serious mistake to write him off this early. To a point, a serious, level-headed, not-particularly-charismatic candidate may actually have an advantage this time, given the country’s growing disappointment with the celebrity candidate it elected in 2008. Even so, if Pawlenty can’t find a way to create more excitement, he’s out.
It’s fun to watch Michele Bachmann drive the left nuts. Bachmann is smart, principled, and accomplished. She isn’t afraid to put the case that bold steps are needed if fiscal disaster is to be averted. While she’ll be accused of polarization, as the public actually listens to her, I suspect Bachmann will win many voters over to the cause of fiscal conservatism, whether she takes the nomination or not. But while Bachmann is an asset to the party, running from the House and without gubernatorial experience is a clear disadvantage.
Rick Perry is potentially the solution to the GOP’s problems. A three-term governor of a large state with strong conservative credentials, an effective speaking style, and the best job-creation record in the country hits all the bases. Perry is Pawlenty with charisma and Bachmann with experience. With strong libertarian and social conservative credentials, he unites the poles of the party.
Perry’s Texas accent makes him sound like George W. Bush to most Americans. Will Texas fatigue do Perry in? Not if it stays at the level of a style issue. Voters know that the stakes of this election are ultimate–what sort of country we want–and they aren’t going to let themselves be swayed by window dressing.
But Perry has never been vetted in a national campaign. Already the mainstream press is filled with thinly disguised attack articles probing Perry’s background. His less-than-impressive college transcripts have been leaked, and his prayer rally is under massive scrutiny. How will Perry hold up under all the attention? Will the press succeed in making his Texas accent the symbol of a larger set of supposed foibles? We’ll have to wait and see.
That brings us to Mitt Romney. If it was strictly a question of who would be most likely to defeat President Obama, Romney would be the solution. Especially at this moment of economic turmoil, Romney’s reputation as a businessman and fixer makes him the ideal candidate. As the former Republican governor of a blue Eastern state who’s already been tested by a national campaign, Romney would likely go into a race with Obama as the favorite, barring an economic turnaround.
But of course, Romneycare is the very big problem. Romney has in no way consolidated the conservative base, which at this point is downright hostile to him for refusing to repudiate his ill-advised Massachusetts experiment.
So where does this look at my personal list of the top-tier of candidates leave us? I think it should make us cautious. Rick Perry may soon sweep the field, but it’s too early for conservatives to put all our chips on someone untested on the national stage. I haven’t been impressed by the substance of the media scrutiny now being brought to bear on Perry, but I am impressed by the sheer weight of it.
I’d like to see the race last long enough to put all the candidates through their paces. Pawlenty’s laid a lot of chips down on Iowa, but he should soldier on whatever the outcome. Conservatives owe it to themselves not to write off Pawlenty when Perry is still so untested. Let these two ex-governors go at each other for a while. It’ll do them both good, and us too.
As for Romney, I don’t think conservatives have the luxury of dismissing him, Romeycare notwithstanding. If Perry crashes and burns, and Pawlenty fails to catch on, we’ll be down to Bachmann and Romney. At that point, given his current lead, Romney would likely take the nomination. Even if I’d prefer another nominee, I’d be thrilled to see Romney defeat Obama. Conservatives need to get their heads around that scenario, even as they fight for another.