The starting bell has just rung for the 2012 presidential election, and the unofficial Republican front-runner is … former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The occasion is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, which serves as a cattle call for presidential wannabes. For the past three years, Mr. Romney has won the CPAC presidential straw poll, and in recent months, the more scientific surveys usually have shown him coming in first for 2012.
Not that any of these early polls mean a whole lot. Two years ago, even as he was winning the CPAC poll, he was losing the Republican nomination to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. (Senator McCain, viewed as a liberal by some conference attendees, wasn’t even invited to this year’s CPAC.) In fact, it was at CPAC that Romney dropped out of the 2008 race.
Now, Romney is showing all the telltale signs of candidacy. He has named a top former campaign aide, Matt Rhoades, to head his political action committee, Free and Strong America. He has written another book and mapped out a book tour that takes him to early primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, among others. His PAC raised more money last year, $2.9 million, than those of any of his potential nomination rivals.
And lest anyone doubt where he’s heading with all this organizing, he served up plenty of anti-Obama red meat in his CPAC speech on Thursday.
“America will not endure government-run healthcare, a new and expansive entitlement, an inexplicable and surely vanishing cut in Medicare, and an even greater burden of taxes,” he continued. “Americans said no, because Obama-care is bad for America!”
Romney, of course, has miles to go before he can put his name on any general election ballot. While his business background might help if the economy remains in the dumps when the 2012 primaries kick off, he may still have a hard time connecting personally with some voters, as he did in 2008. His background as a moderate (which he ditched for the 2008 run) may give some conservatives pause – and it’s conservatives, many newly active via the tea party movement, who will give the GOP its energy in 2012.
Romney is also likely to face a crowded field – many of whom are speaking at CPAC, which runs through Saturday. One potential rival who is conspicuous by her absence is former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who declined to come. But her name will still appear on the straw poll ballot. The others in the poll are: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
“Other” is another option. There’s always former Vice President Dick Cheney, who made a surprise appearance Thursday at CPAC, to thunderous applause. A draft Cheney movement has formed.
“A welcome like that almost makes me want to run for office,” he said. “But I’m not going to do it.”
Others might opt for a fresher face. Scott Brown, the newly minted senator from Massachusetts, got a big response when he introduced Romney at CPAC – even bigger than Romney himself. Senator Brown insists he won’t run in 2012.
Then there’s the darling of the tea party movement, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who threatens to beat Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican Senate nomination this summer. Some Rubio fans are already floating his name for 2012.
“No, that’s not going to happen,” he told Politico.
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