There were still eight Republican presidential contenders on the Dartmouth College stage on Tuesday night, but this contest has clarified a great deal in recent weeks. Looking at national and state poll standings, fundraising, endorsements by key leaders, and campaign organization, it’s pretty clear that Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul, and former Sen. Rick Santorum will not win the GOP presidential nomination. Each can point to individual or sporadic successes—or positive talking points about their chances—but the fact is that if any were going to catch fire in this campaign, there would at least have been a spark by now. From the Oct. 15 date on this issue’s cover, there are 80 days until the probable Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. New Hampshire’s primary will come the next week, followed by an almost endless stream of contests.
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Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has seen a spark recently, spiking in national and state surveys. (Straw polls are meaningless: Just ask Ron Paul, who won many in 2008 yet failed to win a single caucus or primary.) But Cain appears to have little if any campaign infrastructure and few resources to take advantage of a surge. Additionally, many Republicans believe that President Obama’s lack of experience contributed to his problems in the White House; they argue that electing Cain would simply replace one inexperienced candidate with another. While it’s nice to talk about an executive track record, the question remains whether running Godfather’s Pizza or overseeing 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia region are sufficient preparation for becoming president of the United States and leader of the free world.
Fitting in campaign events around Cain’s long-planned book tour is certainly an interesting approach to the final stretch leading into the first caucuses and primaries—a time critical for fundraising and laying the groundwork for the grind that starts just after the first of the year. To be sure, a lot of conservatives like what Cain is saying and the way he says it, and they’re intrigued by his 9-9-9 tax plan (even though, as Bachmann points out, you flip it over and it becomes the devilish 6-6-6). But without money and an organization, he could be all dressed up with no place to go.
Cain seems to be functioning as a parking place for conservatives who have grown disillusioned or who harbor reservations about the previous flavors of the month. Until he demonstrates strength in some of these other dimensions (fundraising, campaign organization), it’s a good bet that Cain is little more than a place for conservatives to window shop while they decide what to do. If Gertrude Stein were alive, she might observe that with the Cain campaign, “there is no there there.”
If Gertrude Stein were alive, she might observe that with the Cain campaign, “there is no there there.”
In reality, there is an extraordinarily high probability that the Republican nominee will be either former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Two-thirds of Republican voters are now very right of center. Call them tea party or social conservatives or whatever you want, but they want a Republican nominee who is a no-holds-barred, unadulterated conservative. They want a Perry or a Bachmann or someone like that, but they aren’t sure they specifically want Perry, and they seem to have concluded that they don’t want Bachmann. In any case, that type of candidate does not include someone from the establishment Republican Party like Romney. Maybe it’s Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, maybe it’s his (to use Edward Kennedy’s phrase) “multiple-choice” positions on abortion or other cultural issues, or maybe it’s his Mormon faith, but these conservative Republicans have a lot of reservations about Romney.
Then there is Perry. In Tuesday’s debate, the Texas governor was clearly not the winner. Indeed, his performance was underwhelming. But he did survive with no apparent stumbles that could harm his competitiveness as a candidate. With the Republican Party wanting to nominate someone of his ilk, the question is whether Perry can effectively grow and develop as a national candidate—and tone down the rhetorical excesses and missteps—enough to win outside of the Deep South. If he can, he’s the nominee. If he can’t, he might not be.
Romney exudes intelligence and competence, and every debate makes him look more presidential and more like someone who would be a very strong favorite to win a general election—if he wins the GOP nomination. Whether he can overcome right-wing doubts will largely hinge on whether Perry makes the turn from being a Texas candidate into being a national one, scratching that ideological itch that conservatives have. If he doesn’t, Republicans may hold their noses and go with the guy that is a very good bet to beat President Obama next November.
This article appears in the October 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.