Some bright, talented, and highly qualified Republicans are thinking about running for president. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts—all current or former governors—are eminently capable. Regardless of whether you like or agree with them, they are worthy of consideration for the Republican nomination.
How demoralizing it must be, then, for them to look at national polling that shows Donald Trump tied for first place for the GOP nomination. According to the new CNN/Opinion Research poll, the New York real estate, hotel, and casino magnate was tied with Huckabee at 17 percent. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ran third with 12 percent; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Romney were fourth with 11 percent each; followed by Rep. Ron Paul (7 percent); Rep. Michele Bachmann (5 percent); Daniels (3 percent); Pawlenty and former Sen. Rick Santorum (2 percent each); and Barbour (less than 1 percent). On a separate question, 56 percent said they would like to see Trump run, while 43 percent indicated that they wouldn’t want to see him enter the race.
“It’s downright embarrassing,” confessed one former Republican House member, when apprised of the results. Of course, Trump’s chances of winning the GOP nomination are exceedingly remote, to say the least, and his poll numbers are all about name recognition. Anyone assuming that the reality-show host’s interest in running for president is just another one of his publicity stunts would not likely be wrong. But what does it say about the Republican Party or, for that matter, the American people that this guy gets a second glance? Could a Jersey Shore personality be far behind? Legitimate Republican candidates have to wonder whether they’ll be sharing a stage in the early debates with characters straight out of the bar scene in Star Wars.
Romney announced the establishment of a presidential exploratory committee this week, joining Pawlenty, who did so on March 21. No surprises there. Both have made no secret of their interest in running. The only surprise to some observers was that they waited this long. By this time four years ago, Romney had already aired television ads in four states, spending money that later in the campaign he probably wished he had at his disposal.
Declaring early has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, as soon as you set up a campaign apparatus, money starts running out the door because of campaign-related expenses. Yet there is a lot of money to be raised between now and next year’s GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton spent, respectively, $252 million and $216 million during the Democratic primaries. John McCain needed $202 million to win the Republican nomination, and Romney blew through $105 million to make it only halfway through the primaries and caucuses. Campaigns have to get going soon if they want to nail down the limited number of proven fundraisers in the party and lay the groundwork for a mammoth undertaking.
So, although it’s understandable that potential GOP candidates have held off on opening the spending spigot, their failure to act has created a vacuum that some of the more exotic candidates and faux contenders are more than willing to fill. A certain amount of presidential-campaign speculation will always occur at this stage, whether there are real candidates to dominate the discussion or not. Once a field is in place, the peripheral candidates will get less attention and fade into the woodwork.
Given the minefield of Washington politics, and all of the attention being paid to budget fights and the upcoming battle over the debt ceiling, Republican presidential candidates are probably better off lying low for now. They can allow the dust to settle before the press entourages form and start asking them to articulate a position on every issue in the news. Letting House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their respective leadership teams walk point in these fights is not the worst thing for these contenders. They can talk later about what they would have done in the budget battles.
But the current situation does make it harder for legitimate candidates to present themselves as viable alternatives to Obama—someone whom party members can imagine in the White House—when they are surrounded by less-than-serious people who are looking to make a spectacle of the process. In that sense, the more serious Republican contenders are probably better off if some of the earliest scheduled debates are deferred until the fall.
Defeating Obama looks to be a much tougher job than most people, and certainly most Republicans, thought just a few months ago. Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music featured the great song, “Send in the Clowns.” The challenge for Republicans now is to make the clowns go away.
This article appears in the April 16, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.