Republicans, be careful in wishing for a 'dream candidate'

When Mitch Daniels decided not to run for president, many Republicans were disappointed that their dream candidate bowed out. But the current field may not be as weak as people think.

At last, the Republican field of presidential candidates is firming up. But it seems many primary voters are still dissatisfied with their choices.

When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels declined to run over the weekend, a great sigh of disappointment went up among some Republicans. They had seen him as a strong candidate in a weak pack – someone with a state track record of fiscal strength; a person of broad appeal, who, as budget director for President George W. Bush, would do well on the fundraising circuit.

With Governor Daniels out (his family vetoed a run), e-mails urging a candidacy again flowed to the in-boxes of other GOP stars, people such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a two-termer, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a charismatic bulldog of an executive. They both still insist they’re not running, but oh, how some wish they would!

Republicans have to be careful about fixating on “dream” candidates. What if Daniels had thrown his hat in the ring? He has a strong record, but voters might not find him charismatic enough. The former governor of Florida may seem unbeatable, but what about the “Bush dynasty” label? New Jersey’s Mr. Christie has that can-do brashness, but he’s still relatively inexperienced as a governor.

What was it Donald Rumsfeld said? You go to war with the army you have, not the one you wish you had?

Granted, the GOP “army” of today also has its flaws. Base voters aren’t keen on Mitt Romney’s state health-care plan while he was governor of Massachusetts – a plan that, like President Obama’s, included a mandate that everyone have insurance.

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota who entered the race today, has low name recognition. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is known for gaffes and personal baggage.

But also consider the experience among the current group of hopefuls – and others, such as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who are still testing the waters.

They include former governors who know how to balance budgets; a former ambassador (if Mr. Huntsman runs) at a time when foreign affairs is ascendent; and, for all his claim that he’s an “outsider,” a former House speaker familiar with the ways of Washington.

Those waiting out this round may fear they can’t unite tea partyers with independents and moderate Republicans, or unseat an incumbent president (a historically difficult thing to do).

But today’s crop of candidates senses opportunity. And they’re running on substantive ideas, not the least of which is the need to reform costly entitlements such as Medicare.

That last point should cause some self-examination among GOP voters. If some of them are disappointed that more stars aren’t running even as they see Mr. Obama as vulnerable (he is, after all, president at a time of three wars and a weak economy), what about their own inconsistency?

Deficit reduction has become a key issue for many Americans. And yet, the majority of them still say “hands off” to entitlements, the most expensive items in the federal budget. A May poll by the Associated Press-GfK found the majority of the public believes it’s possible to balance the federal budget without cutting Medicare or Social Security.

Of Republicans polled, majorities trusted Democrats – not their own party – to handle those two programs. Indeed, the GOP plan in the House to introduce vouchers to Medicare is not going over well on the campaign trail.

America is just starting Campaign 2012 (blessedly later than in the 2008 cycle, whose length tired everyone out). Over time, voters will become better acquainted with the candidates as the primaries heat up. The field will mature until a nominee – perhaps an unexpected star – claims the spotlight. Will voters, too, mature and face the country’s deep problems?

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