Updated at 10:59 a.m. on January 31.
Rudy Giuliani, who didn’t win a single Republican presidential primary in 2008, isn’t ruling out another bid in 2012. Three-term Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and defeated Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada recently made suspicious trips to first-in-the-nation Iowa. Already close to meeting residency requirements there: former Sen. Rick Santorum, whose last bid for reelection in Pennsylvania ended in a landslide defeat in 2006.
Let’s make this easier. Any Republican thinking about not running for president, raise your hand.
For a party so disciplined that the primary process resembles an orderly deli counter where everybody takes a number and waits their turn, for a party that scored historic victories just three months ago, for a party well positioned to exploit the lingering recession, the potential GOP field in 2012 is unusually chaotic.
“Someone threw out a name yesterday I’ve never even heard before,” longtime conservative activist Brent Bozell said. “I didn’t know who it was, and yet this person was considered presidential timber. Maybe some lieutenant governor in some Midwestern state?”
Bozell was part of a small circle of Republicans who unsuccessfully urged staunchly conservative Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana to enter the race. That Pence seriously considered a White House bid, before opting out last week, speaks volumes. He is as close to a sure bet as exists in politics if he runs for governor in 2012, and no one has made the leap directly from the House to the White House since James Garfield did it in 1880. But with none of President Obama’s potential challengers breaking 20 percent in most polls, any self-respecting Republican can look in the mirror and ask, “Why not me?”
“There is a void, and the opportunity to surge is wide open,” said Chris Chocola, president of the powerful antitax Club for Growth. “There could be 15 guys with a legitimate chance.”
Hard-and-fast rule-me-outs are rare. So far on the list are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Texas Gov. Rick Perry; and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who quipped, “I am not arrogant enough to believe that after one year as governor of New Jersey and seven years as the United States attorney that I’m ready to be president of the United States.”
Yet with all of the potential candidates generating discussion, no one seems to be hitting the ground running. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, widely viewed as fundraising-challenged, says he won’t get off the fence until this summer. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, whose limited national exposure means that he would require time to build a following, said he needs another two months to think about it.
Republicans are on a Goldilocks-like mission for the candidate who is just right.
Meanwhile, each would-be Republican nominee seems bogged down by at least one major liability: Mitt Romney’s record of passing an Obama-style health care reform in Massachusetts; Sarah Palin’s grenade-throwing style; Tim Pawlenty’s lack of star quality; Newt Gingrich’s political baggage. Is Haley Barbour too fat? Mitch Daniels too short? Republicans are on a Goldilocks-like mission for the candidate who is just right.
“The way the field is shaping up now is basically a stop-Obama movement that’s more about what’s wrong with him and not what’s right with a particular candidate,” said Tom McClusky, senior vice president at the socially conservative Family Research Council. “No one has grown into a counterpoint to Barack Obama.”
Some Republicans view the delay as a tactical advantage because it keeps the White House guessing about its potential opponent a little longer. Not Republican consultant Keith Appell, who is part of the pro-Pence crowd.
“I personally think that’s a mistake,” he said. “If you want the job and you’re serious, get in it to win it.... The longer you wait, the longer you give Obama time to get back on his feet.”
Timing is everything. Get in too soon, and you become an easy target who runs out of steam. Get in too late, and key fundraisers will be sewn up.
Many might find door No. 3 the most attractive option: Quietly lay down a campaign framework and line up supporters so that you can post a big fundraising number right off the bat. Some insiders say that the pressure will start building on candidates to announce by spring and make the most of the April-to-June fundraising quarter. The political world traditionally has used those results as a gauge to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
“You always want to peak at the right time,” said Republican strategist Todd Harris, who advised late-arriving Fred Thompson in 2008 and steered Marco Rubio to victory in Florida’s Senate race last year. “Whoever is up in the polls, whoever has the most money becomes the de facto inside candidate, and you can only survive as an insider on top for so long.... It’s possible in 2012 for someone to come out of nowhere and really surprise a lot of people.”
All of which begs the question: Is it possible that the next Republican nominee will be someone we haven’t even thought about? Harris said that a late bloomer is possible in 2012—if the candidate has either fame or fortune to play catch-up.
So what about Rubio, who is one of the GOP’s freshest-faced stars and has already been dubbed “the Republican Obama”? He has ruled the idea out so far, but if he changed his mind, it wouldn’t be the first time that an unusually charismatic first-term senator and former state legislator shocked the world with a serious quest for the White House.
“All of the Republican candidates from last time—no one left [voters] clamoring for more,” said Bozell, who has launched a conservative grassroots organization called ForAmerica. “The consensus is that it was a pretty weak field, which is why people are casting about for names. My advice to anyone interested? Go for it.”
This article appears in the January 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.