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.
The first decision was a mistake: Pawlenty should have let other candidates flay Romney, and then added weight to their critique. But running away from the criticism once he had made it was a disaster. It made him seem too weak to take on Romney, and, by extension, Obama. The incident also highlighted some fundamental flaws of Pawlenty’s campaign. Pawlenty is a thoughtful conservative running as a caricature of a tea partier, in part because of an exaggerated concern, fueled by the coverage of his campaign, that he is too dull. “Obamneycare” was a borderline-juvenile taunt; Pawlenty would not have felt awkward delivering a more serious critique — e.g., “I think Romney went down the wrong path on health care” — to Romney’s face.
Facing criticism after the debate for cowardice, Pawlenty then, absurdly, called Romney a “co-conspirator” with Obama on health care — as though Romney had consciously attempted to make it easier to pass the national health-care law. If Pawlenty had run as himself, he could have spared himself all this trouble. He has made it less likely that he will ever be in a position to take down Romney. Now Pawlenty is having to take shots at Bachmann, Romney, and Obama in order to stay in the game.
Romney, on the other hand, has the luxury of just taking on Obama. His record on health care is still a serious potential vulnerability, but so long as no alternative candidate takes flight, it may not matter. It seems pretty clear that Romney’s advisers think that Bachmann cannot defeat him but can prevent anyone who can from emerging as the anyone-but-Romney candidate. Pawlenty’s decline and Bachmann’s rise are thus both very good pieces of news for him — as is the continuing weakness of the economy, which makes him appear a safer bet for the general election.
The Republican field is not weak in the sense that its members are sure losers in a general election: Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman all meet the criteria to win in November 2012. They have executive experience, they come across as sensible, and they have not taken any sure-loser positions. But nobody is dominating the primaries, and that vacuum is tempting Perry into the race. If he runs, he could be a formidable candidate: a big-state governor with a nearly impeccably conservative record and tea-party cred. Again, though, he would be running to the right of anyone who has won the nomination in the last 26 years. As for his chances in the general election: Many conservatives believe that a blunt, unapologetic, and uncompromised conservatism is just what the nation is waiting to support next fall. But Perry’s loose talk about Texan secession from the Union, his sponsorship as governor of a Christian day of prayer for the nation this August, and his general refusal to acknowledge that any aspect of contemporary conservatism might need modification before the electorate as a whole will embrace it, could just as easily prove fatal.
If Perry does not run, his toying with the idea will merely have helped Romney a little bit more by making it that much harder for a feasible alternative to gain momentum. In recent weeks, Romney has gone from being a weak frontrunner to being the frontrunner, period. But the party is contemplating a marriage of convenience, not of love. Romney knows better than most how fleeting these perceptions of inevitability can be. In late 2007, six weeks or so before the Iowa caucuses, a very well plugged-in Republican — I will violate protocol to say that he was the highest Republican source in the land — lamented that Romney was likely to win both Iowa and New Hampshire and thus get the nomination without ever being seriously tested. At the time it was what many observers predicted. Romney ended up winning neither.