How’s this for an impressive Republican lineup?
A likable former governor and TV personality; a two-term governor with an unmatched fiscal record; another former governor with the best education-reform credentials in the country; a rising star in the House; and a photogenic senator from the heartland.
They are Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, Mike Pence, and John Thune. The Republicans sitting out the 2012 nomination battle would themselves make a formidable field. Indeed, more formidable than the actual entrants. The hottest place to be in Republican politics right now is sitting on the sidelines.
With Governor Daniels deciding over the weekend not to run, it is slowly dawning on the Republican mind that the party’s choice may effectively come down to Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. This prospect produces a range of emotions running from disappointment to panic.
Former Massachusetts governor Romney is next in line, an advantageous place to be in a party that traditionally chooses its candidates like the guy behind the counter in a deli — take a number and wait. If Romney wins the nomination, it will probably be a victory in the tradition of GOP front-runners Bob Dole and John McCain, who got the party’s nod out of sheer reflex or the lack of more appealing choices.
Former Minnesota governor Pawlenty makes sense on paper. He compiled a conservative record as governor of a Democratic state, and he comes from the upper Midwest, an area where Republicans have growth potential. But nominations aren’t won on paper. Pawlenty will have to energize GOP voters without being too obviously false to his mild-mannered persona.
Jon Huntsman is the other candidate with credentials usually associated with a presidential nominee — former governor and former ambassador. He was President Obama’s ambassador to China, though, and he spent much of his Utah governorship lecturing the party to be less conservative on fashionable issues such as the environment and gay rights. That he is now being mentioned as a top-tier candidate is commentary on the weakness of that tier.
Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann will probably run and generate excitement in Howard Dean style as the candidate of “the conservative wing of the Republican party.” Like another compelling grassroots candidate, Pat Buchanan, she’s more likely to be a glorious cause than an eventual nominee. Herman Cain is a big, appealing personality but has never held elective office. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum lost his job by 18 points in 2006. Newt Gingrich is running around his launching pad in a flame-retardant suit trying to douse the fire.
Which is why the party turns its lonely eyes to New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan. Christie has grappled with his state’s fiscal problems with brio. He’s fresh and unconventional, at a time of exhaustion with politics as usual. Yet the moment he even dips his toe in the presidential waters, his standing will decline among New Jersey voters, who will feel jilted. If he makes the plunge, he’d be staking his career on a late entrance and victory in New Hampshire, where there’s no guarantee he’d sell the way he does in the Garden State.
Among the crop of candidates and potential candidates, Ryan has the profile most similar to that of the Barack Obama of 2007 as he prepared to take his party by storm. Ryan, too, is an implausible candidate; no one has won the presidency from the House since 1880. He, too, is young, talented and winsome, and captures something important in the zeitgeist of his party. But he just ascended to the Budget Committee chairmanship, from which he is already defining the national debate. There’s one quality that unites all the declared or likely candidates so far: They have nothing to lose.
Every nomination fight produces surprises and dark horses, a John McCain in 2000, a Mike Huckabee in 2008. As their field emerges into the cold light of day, Republicans are desperate to be surprised.
— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate