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N2K: Rules of the Game Unclear for 2012

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April 10, 2011, 6:27 p.m.

In­side-the-Belt­way ana­lysts, ourselves in­cluded, are ob­sessed with the money game. Every time the DCCC or NR­CC re­ports its monthly num­bers, it’s an­oth­er meas­ure­ment of a party’s poise, power and prowess. But, it turns out, every­one got the story very wrong.

— In truth, the party-af­fil­i­ated cmtes are not the ones driv­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. It’s the out­side groups that have dom­in­ated the air­waves. The DSCC, for ex­ample, has spent about $13.5M on in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures. Amer­ic­an Cross­roads alone has spent nearly $13.2M on their own ads against Dem SEN can­did­ates. Add in the Cham­ber of Com­merce and its $25M spent so far — with $50M left to go in just the next 3 weeks — and the GOP has a clear ad­vant­age. And we didn’t even men­tion the NR­SC, which still has mil­lions more to spend.

— Pres. Obama was pres­ci­ent in lam­bast­ing SCOTUS’s Cit­izens United de­cision so many months ago. The 5-4 rul­ing, along with oth­er sim­il­ar lower court rul­ings in the last year or so, has be­nefited the GOP to a lop­sided de­gree, and it’ll cost Dems seats this year.

— But that doesn’t mean Obama’s cam­paign fin­ance rhet­or­ic makes good polit­ics. A 10/9 NYT story decim­ated Dems’ Cham­ber-uses-for­eign-money com­plaint, and the WH has ad­mit­ted to every­one who asks they have no proof it’s true. With un­em­ploy­ment at 9.6%, voters can be for­giv­en if what’s fas­cin­at­ing to Belt­way types isn’t at the top of their minds.

As the trav­ails of Her­man Cain re­main front-and-cen­ter, this “con­test” for the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion is be­com­ing bor­ing. Like a for­mu­laic movie, few plot twists are un­fa­mil­i­ar and we all know how it ends.

This leads me to think about the nature and his­tory of Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tions. In 1960, Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated then-Vice Pres­id­ent Richard Nix­on. In 1968, they chose Nix­on again. After his 1974 resig­na­tion el­ev­ated Vice Pres­id­ent Ger­ald Ford to the pres­id­ency, they nom­in­ated Ford, who had fended off a chal­lenge from Ron­ald Re­agan, in 1976. Four years later, it was Re­agan’s turn. They se­lec­ted him from a big field that in­cluded former CIA Dir­ect­or and U.N. Am­bas­sad­or George H.W. Bush. In 1988, after Re­agan’s two terms, the GOP nom­in­ated then-Vice Pres­id­ent Bush, who had beaten out, among oth­ers, Sen. Bob Dole of Kan­sas. In 1996, it was Dole’s turn. In 2008, they el­ev­ated Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona, who eight years earli­er was beaten out by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

In a half cen­tury, the only ex­cep­tions to the rule of Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­at­ing sit­ting or former vice pres­id­ents, or pre­vi­ous pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, were Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter of Ari­zona in 1964 and Bush in 2000. Sense a pat­tern here? Let’s just say that Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t ex­actly early ad­op­ters. They prefer the fa­mil­i­ar and com­fort­able, even when they have spir­ited primary con­tests. In this field, only former Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Mitt Rom­ney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, both vet­er­ans of the 2008 cam­paign, have done this be­fore. Ar­gu­ably, one might throw in former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich. Al­though the Geor­gi­an hasn’t run for pres­id­ent be­fore, Gin­grich has ex­per­i­ence play­ing more or less on this level.

Then there is money. This year’s GOP race might look fa­mil­i­ar to act­ors Charlie Sheen and now Ashton Kutcher: Two and a Half Men. Ba­sic­ally, Rom­ney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are the only can­did­ates rais­ing grown-up money. Paul brings in con­sid­er­ably less. The rest col­lect chump change — not enough to make a dent on the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign trail. Iowa is less than two months away. If a can­did­ate isn’t even in the hunt now, he isn’t likely to get there.

Rom­ney is hav­ing a hard time rising above 25 per­cent to 30 per­cent in polls. However, in a field of eight can­did­ates, or 10 if you add in former Louisi­ana Gov. Buddy Roe­mer and former New Mex­ico Gov. Gary John­son, get­ting a third of the vote months be­fore the first bal­lot is cast may be an ar­ti­fi­cially high stand­ard. It’s true that there is con­sid­er­able res­ist­ance among con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans to Rom­ney. Many don’t fully trust his con­ser­vat­ive bona fides. But couldn’t you have said the same thing about Mc­Cain last time?

Now, Re­pub­lic­ans look like people shop­ping for a new dress or suit. They first stop in front of the Rom­ney win­dow. It seems OK but not ex­cit­ing. They then stroll next door to the win­dow of Rep. Michele Bach­mann, R-Minn. They are briefly in­trigued but ul­ti­mately de­cide it’s not for them. Then, they go to Perry’s and now to Cain’s win­dow. But it is look­ing less at­tract­ive than at first glance. Most find Paul more of an oddity or a curi­os­ity and are not really paus­ing much. There are still a couple more store­fronts to per­use. Gin­grich’s might be next. Maybe they will stop at the win­dow of former Sen. Rick San­tor­um, R-Pa., for a mo­ment.

But in the end, I think we know where this thing is headed: Rom­ney. His weak­ness, that he doesn’t provide a starkly dif­fer­ent ideo­lo­gic­al pro­file, is ac­tu­ally his strength in a gen­er­al elec­tion. If the 2012 elec­tion is a ref­er­en­dum on the Obama pres­id­ency, Re­pub­lic­ans will very likely win. Rom­ney would make it a ref­er­en­dum. If there is a vivid ideo­lo­gic­al choice, next Novem­ber’s elec­tion would be a more evenly matched fight. Voters doubt Obama is big enough for the job. Polls and fo­cus groups show that swing voters like him and don’t ques­tion his motives or in­ten­tions. They just don’t think he is get­ting the job done. They will pick a Re­pub­lic­an who presents a com­pet­ent al­tern­at­ive.

Too of­ten, a party wins be­cause voters are angry with the party in power. It wins not be­cause of what it is or what it stands for, but be­cause of what it isn’t. As soon as the vic­tory cel­eb­ra­tions are over, an ideo­lo­gic­al man­date is ret­ro­act­ively con­struc­ted and ad­op­ted. It’s quickly for­got­ten why a party won — both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are guilty of this. Right now, the Amer­ic­an people aren’t look­ing for ideo­logy. They are look­ing for com­pet­ence.

Rom­ney is in no way a sure bet next Novem­ber. But he is the best shot Re­pub­lic­ans have against Obama. Money, or­gan­iz­a­tion, can­did­ate skills — Rom­ney, un­like the rest of the field, seems to have the fun­da­ment­als down. I think we know how this movie ends.

WATCH Cain joked about al­leg­a­tions on “Jimmy Kim­mel Live!” on Monday:

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