“Speculation was that the former three-term governor would announce his candidacy Saturday at the Polk County Republican fundraiser,” wrote Mark Preston in CNN’s Political Ticker blog. “But the source said that Pataki, who seriously considered running, has decided instead to forgo a run for the GOP nomination.”
The three-term governor, who also flirted with a 2008 White House bid, had been showing telltale signs of running in 2012: He signed on for the Polk County Republican Party picnic, scheduled several speeches in Iowa, and his nonprofit “No American Debt” has been airing TV ads in New Hampshire, an early nomination battleground state.
But the buzz also had candidate-watchers scratching their heads.
Though Pataki is a thrice-elected governor of the large, liberal, northeastern state of New York – no small feat for a Republican – his candidacy would have been difficult to justify, politically and strategically, says Brian Carso, a professor of history and government at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., who served three years in the Pataki administration.
“I just don’t see a compelling rationale for his candidacy,” Professor Carso said in an interview before Pataki decided not to run.
For starters, Pataki's record on the issues important to Republican primary voters wouldn’t have gotten him far, says Ford O’Connell, director of the Virginia-based Civic Forum PAC. “Being a pro-choice, pro-gay-union candidate with union ties is not a winner with the Republican electorate,” he says.
Indeed, Pataki’s moderate stance on social issues is at odds with the current mood of the tea party-tippling GOP base and would not have inspired much support in a nominating contest.
If Pataki were to run as a fiscal conservative, it probably wouldn’t have gotten him far, either. Spending and state income taxes swelled during the governor’s three terms in office, with an average spending increase of 6.3 percent per year during his first six years. In 2006, near the end of his term, the libertarian Cato Institute gave him a ‘D’ for fiscal policy. Pataki would have been hard-pressed to defend his policies at a time when the GOP is more antitax and antispending than ever.
As a moderate, establishment Republican, Pataki would have occupied the same space as former Massachusetts governor and GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, but with far less name recognition and money (or as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who’s struggling to poll around 2 percent).
“If the electorate is looking for a Northeastern moderate Republican, Romney has captured that,” says Carso. “If they’re looking for charisma, [former New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani fits the bill better than Pataki.”
Pataki, like former candidate Tim Pawlenty, is charismatically challenged, a weakness that can’t be underestimated in modern-day campaigning – and in a nominating race.
In a field crowded with larger-than-life personas and tea party populists, Pataki would have faded into the background with his low-key, retiring style. Or, as Professor Muzzio puts it: “He’s dull. Find him in the sleep aid section in the pharmacy.”
Still, the decision may have disappointed some moderate Republicans or independents who were looking for more representation in the field, says O’Connell. “He could raise some questions a lot of independents want to see raised,” he says.
Pataki’s decision not to enter will register barely a blip on the campaign strategies of his contenders, most of whom didn’t feel threatened by the moderate Republican. The same cannot be said of Sarah Palin, who has been flirting with a White House bid for months and who could be a game-changer if she decides to run.