GOP 2012 race: Does it boil down to 'purity' vs. electability?

If the moderate Mitt Romney gets the nomination in the GOP 2012 race, the question is whether he could marshall the tea party movement's energy.

Photo Illustration by John Kehe/Staff, Photos by AP and Reuters
Possible Republican candidates include (l. to r.) Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman Jr., Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney. Rick Perry (far r.) has not declared his candidacy, but has tea party fans.

Already, the outlines of a possible showdown between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are coming into focus in the GOP presidential nomination race.

It is, of course, way too early to predict that with any certainty. The field is still forming; Texas Gov. Rick Perry might jump in, a potential game-changer. And most Republican voters are not firm in their choice of candidate – if they have chosen at all. But Congresswoman Bachmann made a strong showing in the first major Iowa poll, released last weekend, and Mr. Romney has built a solid lead in the other early nominating state – New Hampshire – and in national polls.

For now, though, it’s easier to see Romney’s path to the nomination. He is organized, raising lots of money, and, as a repeat candidate, less likely to make rookie mistakes than are the newbies. So with about a half-year to go before the first nominating contests, conservative activists and Republican leaders are beginning to contemplate the possibility that Romney, a relative moderate, could win the nomination, while grass-roots energy lies with the conservative tea party.

How damaging could that disconnect be? Look at what happened with Sen. John McCain, the losing GOP nominee in 2008, who was not a down-the-line conservative, says Matt Kibbe, president and chief executive officer of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based outfit that advises tea party groups.

"The same might happen with Romney," says Mr. Kibbe. With Mr. McCain, "you had a lack of enthusiasm, which meant less work, fewer people bothering to show up on Election Day at the margin. That's the reality if Republicans nominate a candidate who's not exciting or even acceptable to fiscal conservatives who do so much of the work."

In Florida, both an early primary state and a critical swing state in the general election, one active tea party group is focused mostly on local tax issues and on ousting the state's Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, who is up for reelection. But the presidential race is never far from thought.

"We have high hopes a couple of other people will jump in the race," says Eric West, chairman of the St. Augustine (Fla.) Tea Party, listing Governor Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan as possibilities. "Overall, I would say we're not pleased with who the anointed front-runner is right now."

But were Romney to get the nomination, "then we'd all have to do our job – make sure [President] Obama does not get reelected," Mr. West says.

If tea party is tepid on GOP nominee?

West notes that as a member of the local Republican executive committee, he is obligated to support the party's nominee. The same can't be said for tea party activists, who can be aggressively independent. And if the Republicans mount anything less than an enthusiastic turnout operation, as Mr. Obama did in 2008, that could spell the difference between victory and defeat in a close election.

West and Kibbe don't expect a third party to spring up in the face of a Romney nomination, but there's really no predicting how the highly decentralized tea party movement would react. It's always possible that support for an independent tea party-backed candidacy could grow organically out of a disgruntled movement.

"I'm not predicting a third party, and I would never support that, because I think it's a bad strategy," says Kibbe. "But if the Republican Party fails to produce a candidate that meets basic standards, that's always a problem."

For now, Republican leaders are urging party members to remain focused on defeating Obama and nominating someone who both satisfies conservatives and can win in the general election. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been warning party faithful in speeches not to get "hung up on purity." Whoever the party nominates will be "many multiples better" than Obama, he says.

"In politics purity is a loser," Governor Barbour told the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on June 17. "As I say, our candidate won't be perfect. But in this business it is unity that wins elections."

In a Monitor interview, Barbour said he did not have a particular scenario in mind – such as a Romney nomination – when he made that statement, and pointed out that he's been warning against getting "hung up on purity" for decades. But in this unusual GOP nomination race, where there's clear discomfort with the front-runner, it's not hard to see why Barbour is cautioning regularly against purity.

Barbour notes that the last time party unity was a problem was in 1964, when moderate Rockefeller Republicans wouldn't support the party's nominee, Barry Goldwater, who lost badly to President Lyndon Johnson. Ever since Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, the party "quit having two wings," he says.

In this election, Barbour says he doesn't see a particularly big risk of disunity, "especially since the tea party voters have proven they recognize that they shouldn't be a third party, because it would ensure Obama's reelection."

More focus on electability

One good sign for Republicans is that their voters are placing a higher premium on electability than they did four years ago. A recent Gallup poll found 50 percent of GOP voters ranked "ability to beat Obama" over "issue agreement" in deciding whom to back for the nomination. Forty-four percent preferred "issue agreement" over "electability." In late 2007, Gallup found a slight majority of Republicans said "issue agreement" was more important, while about 4 in 10 chose "electability."

The next question is, whom do Republican voters consider electable? That's a highly subjective term. Over the next several months, the candidates will go through their paces, organizing their campaigns, giving speeches, raising money, and taking part in debates. Even if the field looks disorganized now, with no clear, viable alternative to Romney in sight, there's plenty of time for that person to emerge.

One wild card is Texas' Perry, who says he's seriously considering running. More than all the other conservative alternatives to Romney, Perry has a lengthy tenure as a state chief executive – 10-1/2 years – and a major accomplishment on the top issue of the day: Some 37 percent of all new US jobs in the past two years were created in Texas, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Perry is also credited with embracing the tea party early.

"He would be formidable, because he could raise money and has a great jobs record in Texas," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "What have Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann accomplished in the public world except give speeches and make noise?"

But Perry may not run, or if he does, he could face problems. He's untested on the national stage, and it's not clear the country is ready for another swaggering Texas governor.

Some tea party supporters already back Romney. They cite electability and polls that show him doing better against Obama than any other Republican contender.

Saul Anuzis, a Republican national committeeman from Michigan, spoke at a recent Republican convention in Montana and said that almost all of the tea partyers he met said they would support whomever wins the nomination.

"Only one person said, 'Well, if we don't get someone who's a real [conservative], I'd rather have Obama and let everything go down in flames,' " Mr. Anuzis said.

West, the tea party chairman in St. Augustine, says the vice presidential choice – say, Bachmann of Minnesota, leader of the House Tea Party Caucus – could help a less-than-conservative nominee win tea party hearts.

"Look what happened in 2008, when a fairly vanilla, uninspiring candidate picked the fiery governor of Alaska," says West. "You saw the excitement level go up 10-fold. So that would help keep us in the game. At least it's someone saying, 'We hear you. We've got your interests at heart.' "

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