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?
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."