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The Underdogs Show Strength

Despite President Obama’s many strengths, a down economy could lift his Republican rival.

Pawlenty: Needs charisma, and a narrative.(Steve Pope/Getty Images)

It was striking Monday watching a split-screen of President Obama speaking in front of thousands of adoring fans in Ireland, next to footage of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty launching his presidential campaign to significantly less fanfare in Des Moines, Iowa.  

The contrast underscored the power of the bully pulpit, of a sitting president always upstaging his lesser-known opponents.

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That power of the presidency is fueling pessimism from Republican strategists, who are depressed about their ever-shrinking Republican field, and looking for a white knight to enter the race to save them. Already Republicans believe Obama will be easily reelected, if you believe much of the punditry.

But while the stature gap between Obama and a less-than-imposing Republican field seems significant at this stage, it won’t make a bit of difference come next fall if unemployment is sky-high and economic growth is still stagnant.

The reality is that the Republican field is hardly as weak as advertised, both by their own merit and by historical standards. Right now, one of three Republicans appears likely to win the nomination—Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. The three served as governors, the surest ticket to the presidency in recent decades. They have records managing and reforming state government and don’t carry the baggage of being associated with Congress and its rock-bottom approval ratings.

And they all have crossover appeal: Romney and Pawlenty governed states Obama carried in 2008. Huntsman’s record of bipartisanship makes him a formidable foe. Their most glaring weaknesses are with Republican primary voters, not in a general election against Obama.

The early conventional wisdom held that Huntsman’s apostasy, Romney’s flawed defense of his health care law in Massachusetts, and Pawlenty’s bland style would doom them against a purer conservative challenger. But the conservative alternatives are looking more like long-shots, and less like serious contenders for the GOP nomination.  

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., frittered away his already slim chances when he lambasted the proposed Medicare changes of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as “right-wing-engineering.”

Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann is the new flavor of the month, but if she enters the race, her undisciplined style will cause her problems.    

Despite spending as much time in the early primary states as anyone, former Sen. Rick Santorum hasn’t gotten any traction. Businessman Herman Cain has impressed early crowds, but he has no political track record.

That’s good news for Republicans. In a sluggish economy, they won’t need an all-star to win, but they will need someone credible, and Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman fit the bill.

All three have accomplished resumes.

Romney’s background at Bain Capital gives him a platform to ding Obama on his stewardship of the economy.

Pawlenty’s biography—he’s the son of a truck driver—combines with business-class positions like cutting taxes and spending and taking on labor interests.

The Obama administration was sufficiently concerned about Huntsman to send him to Beijing as U.S. ambassador—and Democratic officials have been praising him in a way that suggests they’re doing so to make it difficult for him with primary voters. But Huntsman has a record as Utah governor and a political talent that might make it tough for the president if he wins the nomination.

Clearly, all three have weaknesses that have been much scrutinized, and the upcoming primary will test to see who can overcome them. On one conservative litmus test issue, climate change, all three pushed market-based cap-and-trade plans. Although this was once Republican orthodoxy, it’s now a conservative bête noire.

Romney has the added baggage, among conservatives, of pushing and signing a health care overhaul that became a model for Obama’s health care proposal. His flip-flops on other issues are well-documented.

Pawlenty needs a compelling, consistent narrative, along with a dose of charisma.

Huntsman needs to convince conservatives he’s one of them.

But other successful presidential candidates had less going for them initially.

Jimmy Carter’s tenure as Georgia governor was typically overshadowed by jokes about him being a peanut farmer, yet he took down several senior Democratic would-bes in securing the nomination.

Bill Clinton was viewed as a small-state governor with untenable personal baggage. In August 1991, the New York Times’ blared an ominous headline for Democrats: “Distress Grows As Presidential Field Shrinks.” That could easily sub in for descriptions of the current GOP field.

Indeed, it’s a time-tested maxim to proclaim the lackluster quality of the field of candidates preparing to challenge an incumbent.

But there is a split verdict on the power of incumbency.

Since 1945, five presidents won a second term in office—Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush. But four either lost or decided not run as they faced long odds and low popularity—Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Carter, George H.W. Bush.

One statistic does hold up, though.

No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been reelected with unemployment above 8 percent. And despite Obama’s strengths—his charisma and what will likely be a well-funded campaign—winning in a down economy is hard to do. 

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