Five reasons the GOP race is so unsettled

Among the Republican candidates, Mitt Romney has emerged as the early front-runner. Yet the field remains as uncertain as any in modern times – can any of them beat Obama?

By , / Staff writer

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    This is the cover story of the June 20 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.
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Herman Cain strides into the BeanTowne Coffee House in Hampstead, N.H., on Memorial Day morning, staffers in tow. The presidential contender – a tea party favorite and the only African-American in the Republican primary race – had advertised his visit, and folks are eager to shake his hand, snap a picture, and ask him a question or two.

"Is America Ready?" read the Cain buttons some are wearing.

"Ready for what?" I wonder. So I ask the candidate.

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Mr. Cain, the former chief executive officer of Godfather's Pizza and a former talk radio host, has a ready answer, delivered with a hearty laugh: "for real problem solving and real leadership, which means the real Herman Cain. But if you ain't ready for leadership and you ain't ready for real problem solving, you ain't ready for Herman Cain!"

Cain is tall, bluff, and well-dressed, and it's not hard to see why he is catching on with some Republican voters, who like his private-sector success.

A 29-person focus group led by GOP strategist Frank Luntz deemed Cain the hands-down winner of the May 5 GOP debate in South Carolina. And he's shot up to second place in Iowa, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and is tied at 15 percent with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the latest survey by Public Policy Polling (PPP).

But Cain remains the longest of long shots for the 2012 Republican nomination. He has never been elected to public office, and admits he knows little about foreign policy. "I don't pretend to know everything," he told the BeanTowne crowd, promising that a President Cain would surround himself with "the right people."

It would be easy to dismiss Cain outright, but in this oddball campaign cycle, anything is possible, it seems. The Republican field is forming slowly and in fits and starts, at times masquerading as a three-ring circus. Billionaire Donald Trump became a P.T. Barnum; smoked out President Obama's long-form birth certificate; then said, nah, I like making money better. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign has imploded with the resignation of his top aides. Several potentially strong contenders have taken a pass – though one, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is now saying, well, maybe. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani may also jump in. He'll let us know by the end of the summer.

Then there's Ms. Palin. Her bus tour up the East Coast reminds us that nobody is better at grabbing the spotlight than the 2008 vice presidential nominee, and it's anybody's guess whether she will run. If she does, she could go all the way to the nomination. If not, Mr. Romney can stake a firmer claim as front-runner.

But it's still early. The first nominating contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, are at least seven months away. Here are five ways this campaign is unusual and why they matter:

So many candidates, so much dissatisfaction

For now, Romney leads the pack. But he's the weakest front-runner in modern Republican history. In Gallup polling since 1952, there was always a clear GOP front-runner in or about February of the year before a presidential election – and in most cases, that candidate went on to win the nomination.

This year is the exception. Romney has established himself as the clear front-runner only in the past week, now topping the GOP field in a Gallup poll released Monday with 24 percent of Republican voters. Palin places second at 16. The rest are in single digits.

But 24 percent is not a commanding lead, and many Republicans also seem determined not to fall into their usual pattern of nominating the candidate who's "next in line" – in part because this time, that person happens to be Romney, a runner-up to 2008 nominee John McCain. Romney has many pluses: a successful business career, a vast fundraising network and personal wealth he is willing to tap, a big attractive family. But he remains stiff on the stump, and he continues to defend his signature reform of the Massachusetts health-care system and its individual mandate to purchase health insurance, a model for Mr. Obama's reform and anathema to GOP orthodoxy. Romney's history of flip-flopping on issues and his Mormon faith also make some voters leery.

The public yearning by some Republicans for "better candidates" has had an almost unseemly quality to it. If only Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had decided to run! If only Chris Christie, the blunt-spoken governor of New Jersey, would jump in! If only Marco Rubio, the charismatic young senator from Florida, had a little more experience!

The field of announced and likely candidates is already fairly large (10 people, not including Palin or Mr. Giuliani). Still more are thinking of getting in, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan. But of those already effectively in the ring, only a few are considered viable in the general election: Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. So the "actual" field, if conventional wisdom holds, is pretty small.

"There aren't a whole lot of obvious possibilities out there," says William Mayer, an expert on presidential primaries at Northeastern University in Boston. "A good part of that, it seems to me, is that there was a Republican wipeout in '06 and '08, such that they lost a fair number of senators and governors."

The GOP gained a lot back in 2010, but it's too soon for those newly minted governors and senators to run, says Mr. Mayer, who has in mind people like Governor Christie, Senator Rubio, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. "It won't surprise me if the Republicans have a strong field in '16," says Mayer.

That is, if a Republican doesn't win this time around. Though Obama's reelection is far from guaranteed, especially with the latest spate of discouraging economic numbers, including a boost in unemployment to 9.1 percent. It's Obama's vulnerability that has so many Republicans salivating for a strong nominee and so many deciding to run.

Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Huntsman, the two others with perceived top-tier potential, remain question marks over their ability to attract a significant primary following. Neither has much of a national profile – Gallup has Pawlenty at 6 percent, Huntsman at 2 – though it's early. They have both assembled their core teams, including major fundraisers. The trick for both will be to raise enough money to get their names out. But without much name ID, it may be hard to raise big money.

A rare chance for free national publicity comes on Monday, June 13, with the televised GOP debate in New Hampshire. Seven candidates will take part: Romney, Pawlenty, Cain, Mr. Gingrich (who insists his campaign is still alive), Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Huntsman, Palin, and Giuliani were invited but declined. Huntsman has indicated he will announce his presidential intentions soon after the debate.

The tea party roils New Hampshire

New Hampshire Republicans had a big year in 2010. They elected a new senator and two new House members, and won lopsided control of both houses of the state legislature. State House Republicans elected a tea party favorite as speaker. And in January, the tea party-backed candidate for state GOP chair, Jack Kimball, won an upset victory over the establishment favorite, Juliana Bergeron. If not for the reelection of Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, the GOP sweep would have been complete.

Some state political observers say the rise of the tea party has already affected the nomination race. "I think it contributed to the slow start," says Fergus Cullen, who chaired the state GOP during the 2008 election cycle. "Romney is realizing that this primary electorate is very different from the one he faced four years ago."

Both Romney and Pawlenty understand that tea partyers might be skeptical of quintessential establishment candidates like them, says Mr. Cullen, who sees Pawlenty's rhetoric getting more populist.

"I don't see any candidate making a direct appeal to the broad mainstream of the Republican Party in New Hampshire," says Cullen. "It's an opportunity for Huntsman. It's an opportunity for Romney. Eighty percent of the primary voters here are going to identify as conservative or Republican, but not tea party."

And because the New Hampshire Republican primary is "open" – that is, independents can vote in it – that will dilute the tea party's impact. Some 40 percent of New Hampshire voters are registered independent. Bottom line: So far, so good for Romney. A recent CNN/WMUR poll of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters showed Romney at 32 percent, with the libertarian Congressman Paul a distant second at 9 percent. Mr. Gingrich and Giuliani are at 6 percent; Palin is at 5; and Ms. Bachmann, Pawlenty, Cain, and Huntsman are all at 4 percent.

But there are warning signs for Romney, who has to win his home turf if he is to secure the nomination. (He came in second to Mr. McCain in 2008 and never recovered.) The CNN/WMUR poll found that only 4 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters are certain of their vote, with a whopping 87 percent saying they have no idea who they'll end up supporting. Forty-three percent say they're unhappy with the GOP field.

Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll, doesn't see the tea party having much impact on the outcome of the New Hampshire primary. After all, the core tea party goals of lower taxes and smaller government are basic Republicanism. "It's a difference without a distinction," says Mr. Smith.

In New Hampshire, a smaller percentage of tea partyers focus on social issues than in other states. So socially conservative tea party favorites like Cain, Bachmann, and Palin, if she runs, are likely not to get as much traction in New Hampshire as they might in other states.

Former Gov. John Sununu, the most recent former state GOP chair, also plays down the tea party's role. "It wasn't a takeover," says Mr. Sununu, whose choice to succeed him, Ms. Bergeron, lost by a slim margin. He notes that the same state party convention that elected Mr. Kimball chairman also gave Romney first place with 35 percent in a presidential straw poll.

Kimball says the Republicans have a "great field." "As a person out of the tea party, what we want to see is smaller government, lower spending, tax cuts, and getting back to constitutional values," he says in an interview at a GOP Memorial Day picnic in Dover, N.H., that featured Bachmann. "The vast majority of [presidential] candidates are there."

The difference between the tea party and establishment Republicans may be more a matter of style than substance. "We're unafraid to take the gloves off," says Kimball.

Iowa could end up not mattering

Since 1976, when Jimmy Carter burst from obscurity in Iowa, the state's "precinct caucuses" have played a pivotal role in determining whom the parties will nominate for president. But the experience of both Democrats and Republicans there in 2008 may change that calculation. Caucuses require an evening-long commitment, and are thus low-turnout affairs that skew toward more activist voters (and those without work conflicts and young children).

In 2008, if Hillary Rodham Clinton and Romney had skipped Iowa and put all their emphasis in the New Hampshire primaries, that would have made New Hampshire the first real test. As it turned out, Ms. Clinton came in third in Iowa and Romney came in second – thus establishing the winners, Obama and Mr. Huckabee, as significant contenders. McCain's fourth-place finish in Iowa, where he barely campaigned, did not prevent him from winning New Hampshire and, eventually, the nomination.

This cycle, Romney is playing down Iowa. He visited the state for the first time this year only on May 27. And he is skipping the Iowa straw poll in Ames on Aug. 13, a state GOP fundraiser and potential early indicator of candidate strength. But, as with the caucuses, if he doesn't compete, then its significance is diminished.

The latest Iowa poll shows Romney ahead among Iowa Republicans with 21 percent. But that number from PPP mainly reflects name recognition. The field is still forming and voters are just tuning in. If Palin runs, she could win Iowa, where social conservatives dominate the GOP caucuses. So, too, could Bachmann, who is from neighboring Minnesota and originally from Waterloo, Iowa, where she plans to announce her presidential plans. Pawlenty, the other Minnesotan in the race, has also been counting on doing well in Iowa. And don't forget Cain, who tied for second with Palin at 15 percent in the PPP poll.

If Romney remains the man to beat for the nomination heading into the fall, the question becomes, who is the alternative? Among the candidates who look, as of now, strongest to win Iowa, the only one with establishment GOP credibility is Pawlenty. If he wins Iowa, that sets him up for a showdown in New Hampshire against Romney. If a more tea party-oriented Republican wins Iowa, that candidate may need to wait until the third contest – South Carolina – to do well. New Hampshire is famous for looking at the Iowa results, then running the other way.

History has shown that the Iowa GOP caucuses are rarely predictive. Since 1976, in years when there wasn't an incumbent Republican president competing, the Iowa winner has gone on to win the GOP nomination only twice. And only once has the Iowa winner become president: George W. Bush in 2000.

McCain's fourth-place Iowa caucus finish in 2008 is particularly worrisome to Iowa Republicans. On June 4, Huntsman announced he is skipping the state altogether, saying he cannot support ethanol subsidies to farmers. Pawlenty, too, opposes ethanol subsidies, but is wooing Iowans anyway.

Sensing disinterest and declining clout, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) has been urging the 2012 contenders to visit his state. "I just want to make it clear that we're wide-open for all the candidates," he said last month.

The Obama race issue, Part 2

By definition, the 2012 election is unusual because Obama is the first black president. True, his race isn't the wow factor it was four years ago. Obama himself recognizes that. On the stump, he concedes that this campaign won't have the "mystique" the last one did. He will be judged as an incumbent, with a record – most significantly, a tough economy that could well deny him a second term.

But the Republican candidates are going to have to be careful, as they were four years ago, in how they approach him. The challenge comes in navigating between the "two Obamas" – Obama the man and Obama the cultural icon – writes black conservative author Shelby Steele.

"If the actual man is distinctly ordinary, even a little flat and humorless, the cultural icon is quite extraordinary," Mr. Steele wrote May 26 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed called "Obama's Unspoken Reelection Edge." "The problem for Republicans is that they must run against both the man and the myth. In 2008, few knew the man and Republicans were walloped by the myth. Today the man is much clearer, and yet the myth remains compelling."

The "cultural charisma" that Obama exudes comes from his representation of a "truly inspiring American exceptionalism: He is the first black in the entire history of Western civilization to lead a Western nation – and the most powerful nation in the world at that," Steele writes. "Thus his presidency flatters America to a degree that no white Republican can hope to compete with."

In practical terms, for Republicans hoping to unseat the president, that means steering clear of the iconic Obama. Mr. Trump lunged headlong into Obama the icon with his crusade over the president's birth certificate, an episode that many Republicans believe hurt the party. It shined a light on Obama's heritage and the insidious idea that Obama is not a loyal American, and did nothing to attack his real vulnerability, the economy.

"You have your establishment Republicans, your social conservatives, and your tea party candidates, and if the Republicans are going to beat Obama, they have to nominate an establishment Republican with executive experience who understands the economy backwards and forwards," says Ford O'Connell, chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC. "If you can do that, then you can run against Obama the candidate."

The tea party's image as having some racist elements would dog almost any candidate seen as coming from that movement. The candidacy of Cain, who is black and has growing tea party support, mitigates to a degree the movement's largely white profile. But until he shows signs of becoming a top-tier candidate, his impact is limited.

Some GOP activists argue that their party's candidates need not hold back in their critique of Obama simply because of the color of his skin. Obama's election in 2008 by a solid popular majority represented a major step by the nation toward overcoming its ugly racial past, they argue.

Obama's race "will be an issue only to the extent that the Obama campaign will attempt to exploit it as an issue, and only to the extent that liberals in the media cooperate in that exploitation," says Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative activist who ran for president in 2000. "I think they need to be called on it very aggressively."

Mr. Bauer says he begged the McCain campaign in 2008 to confront Obama over his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a black pastor with a penchant for inflammatory comments. But he says the McCain people told him it would be "so divisive."

The Palin factor

Will she run? That's the biggest question hanging over the GOP race. Her recent "One Nation" bus tour reignited speculation that she was ready to jump in. So has the impending release of a Palin-authorized documentary about her in Iowa sometime this month. If she does run, it's a game changer. Her star power could eclipse the other candidates, especially those in the "outsider," tea party-oriented column, like Bachmann and Cain. A Palin candidacy could also cause more establishment-oriented Republicans to rally around Romney, solidifying his position as front-runner.

Maybe the bus tour was really all about refreshing her brand as a conservative pundit on Fox, author, speaker, and political kingmaker. At one point during the tour, she said she loved the "freedom of not having a title and being a declared candidate" and she knows she can "make a difference as an individual."

Or maybe she really does plan to run for president, and is whetting her fans' appetite. She has bought a home in Arizona, an easier launch point than Alaska for a national campaign. She says she has the "fire in the belly." And with universal name ID and fundraising skill, she knows she can jump in late. Or maybe, in fact, even she still doesn't know what she's going to do. Maybe the bus tour was a dry run to see how her family would do in campaign mode.

Republicans are divided on Palin's intentions. The bus tour "doesn't seem like just a publicity stunt," says Cullen of New Hampshire. "She could raise the money quickly enough to hire good operatives, and within 30 days have a good organization in South Carolina, New Hampshire, probably Iowa if she chose." She'd be a top-tier candidate "immediately," he says.

Another GOP activist, speaking not for attribution, says all the speculation is missing an important reality. "Roger Ailes is no fool," he says, referring to Palin's boss, the head of Fox News. In order not to lose her Fox contract, as Gingrich and Mr. Santorum did when it became clear they were running, "she would have had to give him an iron-clad promise not to run. I can't believe she's going to break a promise."

Establishment Republicans mention Palin's decision to resign the Alaska governorship 2-1/2 years into her term as a blight on her record. Voters don't like a quitter, they say. But in chats with people in New Hampshire, that didn't come up. Instead, they worry that the media have already ruined her. Indeed, polls show that a majority of general election voters say they would never vote for her for president.

"I like Sarah Palin, but I don't want her to run," says Nancy Ford, a retiree from Wells, Maine, who came to Dover, N.H., to see Bachmann. "She's been cannibalized by the media, and there's no way back."

Brandon Stauber, a small-business man, also hopes Palin doesn't run. "I like her personally, but she's too much of a lightning rod," he says, speaking at a Cain event.

Karla Gallagher, an X-ray technician from Salem, N.H., says she finds Palin a little too "rah-rah." But if she won the nomination, Ms. Gallagher would support her. "Sarah Palin scares the daylights out of the Democrats," she says, also at the Cain event. "I love that!"

The latest New Hampshire poll shows Palin at only 5 percent among GOP voters. Clearly this isn't her strongest early state. But in the 2008 campaign, she showed she could draw a big crowd here. So there's no telling what would happen if Palin were to run.

In a way, the wide-open 2012 Republican nomination battle looks a lot like some recent Democratic contests. In 1988, the field was ridiculed as "Gary Hart and the seven dwarfs." Out of that process came a former Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, as the nominee – and defeat at the hands of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

In 1991, around this time, President Bush looked unbeatable, and several high-profile Democrats chose not to run. It wasn't until October 1991 that a dark-horse contender opted in. His name: Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

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