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GOP Insiders Say It's Romney, but...

Mitt Romney speaks at 2011 CPAC.(Chet Susslin)

June 2, 2011

For four consecutive Political Insiders Polls dating back to January, 2010, Romney has held onto his first-place ranking in this survey. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is ranked as the second leading contender for the nomination, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, heretofore an afterthought for most GOP Insiders, rocketed into third place in the ranking.

Romney holds multiple advantages over the rest of the Republican field in the eyes of the GOP Insiders. He's seen as having a superior fundraising operation and national political organization, in part because he was able to build up those assets in his unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in 2008. His years running a private equity firm before he became governor give him credibility on the economy.

Some GOP Insiders believe that the decision by two highly regarded governors, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and just recently Indiana's Mitch Daniels, to not seek the nomination will help Romney woo party leaders. "Daniels' departure moves Mitt closer to establishment support," observed one GOP Insider. Others believe that 2008 was a useful learning experience for Romney. "Smarter this time around," observed one GOP insider assessing how Romney has been positioning himself.

But many GOP Insiders believe Romney is simply the best candidate in an unimpressive field who benefits from the tendency of Republican primary voters and caucus-goers to nominate the runner-up from the previous nominating contest. "We seem unable to get beyond putting the frontrunner at the head of the ticket, even if it takes forever to establish that status and even if the candidate is as weak as this one," moaned one GOP Insider. "We have a terrible habit of blindly promoting the previous also-ran," echoed another.

"The nomination is clearly Romney's to lose, but he's in danger of becoming less energizing than John McCain was for the base of the party," said one GOP Insider, worried about Romney's support for health care reform in Massachusetts, anathema to many conservatives. "He should be toast, but it's a weak field," said another.

One GOP Insider offered a withering compliment that Romney was "looking a lot like John Kerry. He got nominated."

Romney's not the only Republican presidential hopeful that GOP Insiders find wanting. Pawlenty is viewed as a fresh face, and disciplined candidate, broadly acceptable to the party rank-and-file, who could appeal to some independent voters. Describing Pawlenty, one Insider said he was "the most conservative candidate who could get elected: sooner or later Republicans will see it and he'll win the nod."

But another GOP Insider said, "He is the least unacceptable candidate--a good choice to lose respectably to Obama." There is also a sense that Pawlenty is elevated by Barbour, Daniels and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee not running, but he still has to get a break to take the brass ring. "Benefits the most by other governors taking a pass," said one GOP Insider. "Needs Romney to implode and then must grab the space left vacant, but has to survive long enough to see that happen," observed another.

For Republicans looking for an establishment alternative to Romney, Huntsman is the new kid on the block who finished in eighth place when the Republican Insiders ranked their 2012 field in March. "The polish on this guy's apple is still fresh and shiny," said a GOP Insider. "With fewer and fewer mainstream alternatives to Romney, his odds of filling that slot rise," said another GOP Insider.

But others felt that Huntsman's moderate demeanor could doom him in the Republican nominating contest. "Solid record, but will conservatives trust him?" asked one GOP Insider. And said, "This is the guy the GOP should nominate, but he is probably too thoughtful and collaborative for most primary voters."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has indicated that he may reconsider his previous stance not to seek the White House in 2012, is seen as someone who could rally the GOP's tea party wing. "He brings all of the positives of Sarah Palin with none of the negatives," said one Insider. But another worried that his Lone Star credentials aren't an asset just four years after George W. Bush left office. "Tough, conservative, [comes from a] mega-state, but are we ready for another Texan?" wondered a GOP Insider.

Rounding out the top-five were Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Palin, who were tied for fifth in the GOP Insider's rankings. One GOP Insider said of Bachmann, " If she catches fire in Iowa, survives South Carolina, and hangs around, she is going to be both formidable and a player for years to come." But another GOP Insider gauged Bachmann this way: "Crazy sells in primaries and she has plenty to put up for sale."

And as they have in the past, GOP Insiders have little love for their 2008 vice presidential nominee. While one judged that Palin's "celebrity is a real advantage in fundraising and media coverage," another cracked, "she might win if primary voters don't care about winning in November." Another GOP Insider dismissed Palin this way: "Electable? No. Nominate-able? Sadly, yes."

Judging by their comments, this is no field of dreams for GOP Insiders.

The National Journal Political Insiders Poll is a regular survey of political operatives, strategists, campaign consultants and lobbyists in both parties. Below are the names of the Republican Insiders who are surveyed:

Dan Allen, Stan Anderson, Gary Andres, Saulius (Saul) Anuzis, Rich Ashooh, Whit Ayres, Brett Bader, Mitch Bainwol, Gary Bauer, David Beckwith, Paul Bennecke, Clark Benson, Wayne Berman, Brian Bieron, Charlie Black, Kirk Blalock, Carmine Boal, Jeff Boeyink, Ron Bonjean, Jeff Buley, Luke Byars, Nick Calio, Al Cardenas, Danny Carroll, Alex Castellanos, Ron Christie, Jim Cicconi, Rob Collins, Cesar Conda, Jake Corman, Scott Cottington, Jay Cranford, Greg Crist, Diane Crookham-Johnson, Fergus Cullen, Tom Davis, Mike Dennehy, Ken Duberstein, Steve Duprey, Debi Durham, Sara Fagen, Frank Fahrenkopf, John Feehery, Don Fierce, Mindy Finn, Mindy Fletcher, Carl Forti, Alex Gage, Bruce A. Gates, Sam Geduldig, Adam Geller, Benjamin Ginsberg, David Girard-diCarlo, Bill Greener, Lanny Griffith, Janet Mullins Grissom, Doug Gross, Todd Harris, Steve Hart, Christopher Healy, Ralph Hellmann, Chris Henick, Terry Holt, David Iannelli, Ed Ingle, Jim Innoconzi, Clark Judge, David Keating, David Kensinger, Bob Kjellander, Ed Kutler, Chris LaCivita, Jim Lake, George S. LeMieux, Steve Lombardo, Kevin Madden, Joel Maiola, Gary Maloney, David Marin, Mary Matalin, Dan Mattoon, Brian McCormack, Mark McKinnon, Kyle McSlarrow, Ken Mehlman, Jim Merrill, Lisa Camooso Miller, Tim Morrison, Mike Murphy, Phil Musser, Ron Nehring, Terry Nelson, Neil Newhouse, David Norcross, Ziad Ojakli, Jack Oliver, Todd Olsen, Connie Partoyan, Dana Perino, Billy Piper, Van B. Poole, Tom Rath, Scott Reed, David Rehr, Tom Reynolds, Steve Roberts, Jason Roe, David Roederer, Dan Schnur, Russ Schriefer, Rich Schwarm, Brent Seaborn, Rick Shelby, Andrew Shore, Kevin Shuvalov, Don Sipple, Ken Spain, Fred Steeper, Bob Stevenson, Terry Sullivan, Eric Tanenblatt, Richard Temple, Heath Thompson, Jay Timmons, Warren Tompkins, Ted Van Der Meid, Dirk van Dongen, Jan van Lohuizen, Stewart Verdery, Dick Wadhams, John Weaver, Lezlee Westine, Dave Winston, Ginny Wolfe, Fred Wszolek and Matthew Zablud.

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