A lot of Republicans aren’t surprised by the inauspicious start of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. GOP insiders who know and admire Gingrich and respect his intellect and creativity have long suspected that his candidacy would not end well. Some Republican operatives say they advised Gingrich not to run but that the former House speaker felt that mounting a presidential campaign was an itch he had to scratch. They say that Gingrich desperately wanted to run and would have gone to his grave second-guessing himself if he hadn’t tried it once.
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Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s odds of winning look as long as Gingrich’s. The Republican Party’s moderate wing is all but extinct today. It’s hard to see how Huntsman’s decision to accept President Obama’s offer to serve as ambassador to China isn’t fatal in a party in which as many as 45 percent believe that Obama was not born in the United States. Beyond that, Huntsman’s proponents don’t seem to have an explanation for why he lacks popularity in the state that knows him best. Even though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lived in Utah only while running the 2002 Olympic Winter Games (and used to own a vacation home there), he scored 56 percent to Huntsman’s 26 percent in a February Deseret News/KSL-TV poll. In that survey, 37 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote for Romney and just 17 percent indicated they would definitely vote for Huntsman.
If he can’t generate strong support in his home state, it’s hard to see how Huntsman can gain momentum elsewhere. Additionally, the former governor and ambassador says he won’t tap into his personal wealth or family fortune, based on the Huntsman Corp., an $8 billion chemical company founded by his father; this decision further undercuts his potential. By all accounts, Huntsman is an impressive individual, but it’s awfully hard to see how this candidacy works.
At this stage, Pawlenty’s strength is more theoretical than real.
Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are trying to make inroads among the GOP’s social, cultural, and religious base, filling the hole left by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run. Neither of these campaigns shows many signs of catching on. Likewise, there’s little reason to believe that Rep. Ron Paul of Texas will improve on his 2008 showing.
(RELATED: Bachmann keeps inching toward run)
To the extent that there is a front-runner at this point, it is Romney. Although he enjoys national name recognition and an impressive network of supporters and donors remaining from his 2008 bid for the GOP nomination, Romney carries burdens that may limit his ability to expand his current levels of support. The health care plan he pushed through as governor gets good reviews from many experts in the field, but it is decidedly unpopular among conservatives and puts Romney in a defensive position that wasn’t there during the last presidential campaign. It exacerbates a challenge that some call his “authenticity problem.” Is he Romney 1.0, the brilliant, analytical problem-solving business executive initially portrayed through much of 2007? Or is he Romney 2.0, “the most conservative candidate in the race,” as he described himself from August 2007 until dropping out of the race the following February. Finally, for a long time I was dismissive of suggestions that Romney’s Mormon faith was a significant obstacle, but it does seem to be holding him back among rank-and-file Republicans, particularly evangelical Christians and voters in small-town and rural America, most specifically in the South and Midwest.
The candidate with arguably the best chance of bridging the gap between the secular, business-oriented, establishment wing of the Republican Party; the social, cultural, and religious wing; and the tea party faction seems to be former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Although largely unknown nationally, he seems to be more broadly acceptable to all three groups, and any one of them has enough leverage to effectively veto a candidate’s nomination. At this stage, Pawlenty’s strength is more theoretical than real, but when you work through the challenges that each of the other candidates faces, he seems to have fewer problems than the rest.
However, there remains, particularly after Huckabee’s departure from the field, a vacuum in both the social and the tea party brackets in this tournament. Unless former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin proves naysayers wrong and enters the race, watch for Rep. Michele Bachmann and/or Texas Gov. Rick Perry to enter the fray and fill that void. Although it is doubtful that either could win the nomination, they could change the dynamics of the contest in a significant and potentially unpredictable way. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and there certainly seems to be one on that side of the GOP equation.
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This article appears in the May 28, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.