Bland Old Party
To win the White House, the GOP needs a candidate with
that old Ronald Reagan appeal. So far, that person
Practice makes perfect. President Barack Obama finally
has shot a hole-in-one.
The chief executive's takedown of elusive terrorist
kingpin Osama bin Laden was a bold, brilliant stroke.
Euphoria rippled through the populace. The president's
Gallup poll approval numbers among likely voters popped
six points, to 52%, his best showing in 12 months. The
increase came exclusively from Republicans and
Meanwhile, the long line of suspected Republican 2012
presidential challengers remains deep in the rough,
unable to generate excitement among its party's base,
let alone the public at large. In fact, the Grand Old
Party is desperately seeking someone with both substance
and Reagan-like charisma to inspire the electorate. Just
who might that be?
Definitely not branding expert Donald Trump, the current
alpha dog because his name is clearly recognized,
according to the surveys, by about 98% of probable
voters. Lest the egotistical celebrity businessman let
that impressive number go to his golden hair, 46% of
likely GOP voters tell pollsters that they wouldn't vote
for him. Furthermore, according to a Rasmussen Poll, 61%
of probable voters believe that The Donald is a mere
publicity hound, not a serious candidate. In addition,
his recognition number barely noses out that of
moose-baiting Sarah Palin, who rates a 96%, and, like
Trump, hasn't officially filed as a candidate.
So could this perhaps be Ron Paul's year? Not likely.
His campaigns have become comic relief. How about Newt
Gingrich, who officially entered the race Wednesday?
Unlikely. He's running on a House track record more than
a decade old. In addition, American voters are
ballot-box hypocrites. They're likely to hold Newt's
messy personal life against him, even though studies
show that most Americans lead very messy lives.
The frisson generated by both the coy and the declared
GOP hopefuls is so feeble that former McCain campaign
advisor Doug Holtz-Eakin quips, ruefully: "Republicans
have cornered the market on vice-presidential
candidates." In short, while it does have some
polarizing characters, including Palin and Gingrich, the
Grand Old Party now finds itself the Bland Old Party.
BARRING A NATIONAL CATASTROPHE–like another deep
recession–over the next 18 months, only one potential
Republican candidate seems to have the credentials to
turn the contest into a horse race: brainy Indiana Gov.
Mitch Daniels, who is undeclared. He cut taxes and ran
government like a business, eliminating wasteful
spending and a state budget deficit that had persisted
for seven years. When Obama won Indiana in 2008,
Daniels, seeking a second term, got more votes than any
politician in the state's history.
Indiana currently has $1 billion in reserves. It's also
one of nine states with triple-A credit ratings from all
three major agencies. (The others are Iowa, Missouri,
Utah, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and
Delaware.) But in an era dominated by superficiality,
Daniels has a charisma problem. Democrats deride the
five-foot-seven governor as a policy wonk -- "the GOP's
Dukakis." There are plenty of photos of Daniels on the
Web wearing silly-looking helmets because he likes to
ride his Harley-Davidson when visiting constituents.
Daniels also has a messy personal story, including his
wife, Cheri, who ditched him and their four young
daughters in 1994, moving to California to wed a former
high-school sweetheart. Daniels divorced her, but
remarried her when she returned several years later.
Cheri, by most accounts, is reluctant to have this
episode endlessly autopsied in the tabloids and on TV
and the 'Net -- a certainty if Daniels tosses his helmet
into the ring.
If the election were held now, Obama would win, hands
down, regardless of his challenger. The bin Laden raid
has cast him as a decisive, resolute commander-in-chief,
rather than the "vacillator-in-chief" who, critics say,
led weakly after last summer's BP oil spill and, more
recently, was late to the debate led by Republican Rep.
Paul Ryan over the best way to reduce the federal
deficit and overhaul entitlements.
Obama also has reinvigorated his party base,
particularly the African-Americans, college students and
Hispanics who helped him into office in 2008. He can't
win without their enthusiastic support.
However, the vote isn't being held today, so an Obama
victory, while probable, isn't a sure thing. A Gallup
poll taken after the bin Laden raid found that, given a
choice between the president and an unnamed Republican,
43% of registered voters say they are more likely to
vote for Obama and 40% are more likely to vote for the
Republican -- essentially unchanged from polls in
February and April.
That poll actually provides more hope for the GOP than a
CNN/Opinion Research survey released on May 5 and taken
before the raid. It found that, in a race against Obama,
Paul would trail by seven percentage points; ex-Arkansas
Gov. Mike Huckabee would be beaten by eight points;
former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 11, Gingrich by
17, Palin by 19 and Trump by 22. (Friday, there were
reports that Huckabee might drop out of the race over
Daniels wasn't included, but he could be a more daunting
challenger in a general election. Certainly, the
president would face a much more competitive contest
than he did in 2008 when his agile tongue propelled him
into the White House over John McCain. Obama is such a
highly divisive president -- loved by many hard-core
Democrats, disliked by many hard-core Republicans --
that his bin Laden triumph eventually may take a back
seat to the larger issue of Washington's proper role in
the economy and the citizenry's personal lives. Says
Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin: "This will be a
'decision election,' with voters making a fundamental
choice about the direction of the country."
Obama said much the same on May 11 at a Democratic Party
event in Austin, Texas: "The debate is not just about
numbers. It's about who are we, what do we believe. And
the debate that we're having now in Washington is
actually very instructive and I'm glad we're having it,
because [Republican Rep.] Paul Ryan put forward a budget
that is reflective; it is sort of the logical conclusion
to the Republican argument that's been going on for a
number of years. And essentially what they're talking
about is cutting education by 25%, cutting
transportation spending by 30%, cutting clean-energy
investments by 70%, voucherizing Medicare, slashing
Medicaid -- fundamentally reworking our social compact."
OBAMA'S DECISION TO ATTACK bin Laden's compound was very
risky. Failure would have guaranteed him a one-term
presidency, just as Jimmy Carter's botched rescue
attempt of American embassy hostages in Iran did in
April 1980. Following that fiasco, which cost the lives
of eight U.S. commandos, polls indicated that Carter was
more disliked by probable voters than Richard Nixon was
at the Watergate scandal's apex.
Even before the assault by Seal Team Six, defeating
Obama was problematic for the GOP. Says Larry Sabato,
director of the University of Virginia's Center for
Politics: "In all of American history, incumbent
presidents who have sought another term have won
re-election by a popular vote margin of 2.5-to-1. So the
odds automatically favor the incumbent." As he puts it:
"It takes a long time before people are prepared to take
the devil they don't know, rather than the devil they do
Republican pollster Scott Rasmussen says that if Obama's
approval rating stays above 50%, he'll probably win: "If
his ratings are below 45%, then he will lose. And if it
is between 45% and 50%, then the election will be
THE ABSENCE OF AN INSPIRATIONAL GOP presidential
aspirant is a big plus for Obama. Of course, it's still
early in the game. Voters haven't yet gotten to know
many of the prospects, other than round-the-clock
political-media stars like Huckabee, Palin and Gingrich;
nor are they overly interested yet in presidential
politics. To them, Herman Cain, who's never held
political office, is primarily a pizza guy. Gary Johnson
is the former governor of New Mexico? Most voters don't
know nor care. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has a
fine fiscal record. But his name is hard to pronounce --
it's PUH-lenti -- he doesn't deliver a rousing stump
speech and he's from that state that elected wrestler
Jesse Ventura governor and comedian Al Franken senator.
Generally, voters don't become interested in nominees
until the party primaries get under way. That won't
happen until February 2012. And, historically, a clear
winner doesn't emerge from these contests until early
March. This go-around, a winner might not become evident
until much later. When John McCain won the nomination, a
Republican victor in a state primary captured all of the
state's convention delegates. This year, some states
will be allowed to award delegates on a proportional
basis. That will let second- and third-place finishers
walk away with delegates and will encourage them to
remain in the race much longer. Democrats used such a
system in 2008, and it let Hillary Clinton engage in a
bruising battle with Obama right up to the national
convention. They still use it.
This rule change might swell the pack of candidates as
well. Don't be surprised to see former diplomat John
Bolton on the campaign trail. Or Rep. Thaddeus McCotter
of Michigan, a young Republican with a conservative fan
Some pundits view Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney as the
GOP's favorites, having finished second and third in
delegates to John McCain in the 2008 GOP primaries.
Romney seems more polished than he did then. Tapes of
his speeches tempt a viewer to believe he has found an
acting coach to teach him some Ronald Reagan-like
But Romney's polling numbers, which currently put him
even with Huckabee, are unimpressive. Says Democratic
pollster Stan Greenberg, one of Obama's favorite outside
advisors: "Given Romney's standing, his popularity and
[some] people's determination to defeat Obama, I would
have thought that Romney's numbers would be much more
In 2007, Barron'sidentified Romney as the candidate
whose policies would most likely benefit the stock
market. His health-care plan aside, he pared government
spending and cut taxes in the Bay State. He's a
successful venture capitalist and businessman, who
appreciates the dynamism of free markets. His religion
weighs against him, however, in some early primary
states like Iowa where evangelical Christians who are
suspicious of Mormons are active in the GOP. That's why
Romney doesn't campaign there much. Former Utah Gov. Jon
Huntsman, another Mormon, with leading-man looks and a
vast family fortune, also might enter the race. He's a
moderate and might trigger a revolt among party
conservatives. Some insiders say his entry would
engender a draft-Jeb-Bush movement by conservatives. The
former Florida governor, who publicly has shown no
interest in running for the White House, reduced taxes,
expanded the Sunshine State's economy, and is popular
among Hispanics, a large voting bloc that usually leans
"The only argument against Jeb Bush is that his brother
was president and is associated with the current
[fiscal] mess," says Grover Norquist, executive director
of Americans for Tax Reform.
In 2008, Romney's flip-flopping on major social issues,
such as abortion and immigration, eroded his
credibility. He seems to be flip-flopping again -- on
the health-insurance plan he passed in Massachusetts,
which looks a lot like Obamacare. But Romney says he
would repeal Obamacare because it's one-size-fits-all,
and each state should build its own insurance system. As
for Romneycare, which Obamacare copied to some extent,
he says it was right for Massachusetts, not necessarily
right for the nation.
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, tends to poll
well in states such as Iowa, Georgia and Alabama. He's a
social conservative, opposing abortion and gay marriage.
In 2008, he called himself a "Main Street Republican"
and derided Romney as a "Wall Street Republican." But he
came out in favor of replacing the federal income tax
with a consumption tax, which his opponents said would
hurt Main Street. His economic record as governor in
Arkansas was spotty. The libertarian Cato Institute gave
him a D rating for "raising taxes at almost every turn."
Huckabee counters that he lowered 94 taxes and fees, but
was forced by the state supreme court to raise revenue
for Arkansas's schools.
Another potential candidate, Tea Party favorite Michelle
Bachman, could run up some votes in Iowa because of her
fiscal conservatism and evangelical Christian
credentials. The Minnesota congresswoman, however, has
little mass-market appeal. Her speaking skills are
arguably high-school level at best and her shrill, hard,
angry edge is hardly endearing. A much better speaker,
Sarah Palin, would have a shot at winning some early
primaries if she runs, but alienates as many voters as
she attracts. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum,
another social conservative, also could do well in the
primaries, even though he has no fiscal track record to
BUT IT'S UNLIKELY that any of them could unseat Obama.
Democratic demographers Morley Winograd and Michael Hais
say that surveys of average Republicans and so-called
independents (who in reality consistently lean toward
the GOP) find that 49% agree with the Tea Party, a
movement founded to promote low taxes and smaller
government. In a book being published this fall, the two
will report that 60% of Tea Party supporters identify
with the Christian conservative movement and view the
U.S. as a Christian nation. So they'll judge candidates
on both their social and fiscal stances.
Pollster Garin claims that 60% of the Republicans who
participate in the nominating process will be Tea party
sympathizers. So, "candidates who might seem acceptable
in a general election context will first have to run the
gantlet of passing muster with the most conservative
element of the party." That could eliminate Republican
hopefuls who have a real chance of attracting votes from
the broader electorate. Tea Party members who stick to
economic issues do well. But when they elaborate on
social issues, they get into trouble with voters at
large. "You can argue that the Tea Party in 2010 cost
the Republicans three Senate races -- Nevada, Colorado
and Delaware," asserts Garin
Daniels might, in fact, be the one GOP candidate with
broad appeal within -- and maybe outside -- his party.
Besides shrinking Indiana's government, he ended
collective-bargaining rights for state employees and
forbade the use of state funds for Planned Parenthood.
And, under trying circumstances, he preserved his
family. "He's as good as Reagan," says GOP fund-raiser
and long-time friend Rick Hohlt. "He has the Reagan
touch. That's why he's so popular at home."
But in 2012, even being as good as Reagan might not be
enough to defeat Obama.
By Jim McTague
May 16, 2011