(Before you read this, do keep in mind that I have not endorsed anyone and I’m not going to pull any punches. So if you can’t stand the idea of someone saying something negative about your favorite candidate, you should probably stop now.)
Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that this is a better field to choose from than we had in 2008. Back then, we had Duncan Hunter (whom I worked for), Fred Thompson, and a bunch of other guys it was impossible to get excited about. Unlike a lot of conservatives, I was at least lukewarm on Mike Huckabee, but I really didn’t like Romney or Giuliani and McCain made my skin crawl. This time around, the field’s better, but the number of potentially viable candidates is probably a little smaller, too. In fact, barring Sarah Palin’s entry into the race or a Rick Perry meltdown, this is perilously close to turning into a two person race already. Let’s start with the front-runner…
1) Rick Perry: Perry’s leading the polls in Iowa and South Carolina, he has money, charisma, and he’s doing well with conservatives. So, he’s definitely the front runner and could certainly win, BUT — and this is a big but — his lead is more fragile than he looks. There are a number of potential pitfalls that could cut Perry down to size.
A) Perry is the front runner and he excites conservatives, which means that the establishment Republicans and the mainstream media hate him with the burning heat of 1000 suns. In addition, the other candidates, the Bushies/Karl Rove contingent, and Ron Paul’s crazier fans who think Perry was helping the Bilderbergers institute a North American Union are ALL going to be gunning for him. If there’s one lesson that can be learned from what was done to Sarah Palin, it’s that there doesn’t have to be much “there there” to damage someone’s reputation. Toss enough smears against the wall for a long enough time and some of them will eventually stick.
B) When the entirety of your political world changes from being one state (Texas) to the whole United States, you will quickly find that you’re way behind on the learning curve. There are undoubtedly huge gaps in Rick Perry’s level of knowledge about certain national issues that could conceivably be exposed in interviews or debates. In the age of YouTube, those mistakes, even if they’re largely inconsequential, like Palin’s weak Katie Couric interview in 2008, live on forever and are ENDLESSLY repeated. Hopefully, Rick Perry’s staff is drilling him non-stop to get him fully up to speed in a hurry.
C) Rick Perry has one very obvious Achilles heel: illegal immigration. He is probably to Bush’s right on the issue, but he’s well to the left of most of the base. I also notice that Perry has yet to stake out an official position on the issue on his website. Could that one issue cost him the nomination? You bet it could. However, he does have a saving grace: Mitt Romney has a terrible record on illegal immigration and has moved to the Right. So, if Perry does the same, that at least gets him back on an even plane with his top competitor.
2) Mitt Romney: Being a Mormon doesn’t help Mitt Romney, but his real problem is that he comes across as a phony, plastic, car salesman of a candidate who doesn’t believe in anything and will say whatever he needs to say to get elected. Although Romney’s not a bad speaker, he inspires no passion or excitement because it’s hard to get jazzed up about a political robot mouthing slogans that are programmed into him based on poll testing. Romney is competent, organized, can raise money, and he has successful private sector experience, but he’s not a movement conservative, he’s not particularly likable, and he reeks of inauthenticity.
3) Michele Bachmann: Before Perry got in, it was shaping up to be a Bachmann vs. Romney fight, but the Texan has stolen a lot of her thunder. To be perfectly honest, Bachmann is probably going to have a tough time getting more traction unless Palin doesn’t get in and Perry collapses. If that were to happen, then Bachmann could have a shot as the Romney alternative. If that doesn’t happen, then she’s going to have to put everything she has into Iowa, hope she pulls off a come-from-behind victory, and then ride the momentum from there.
Bachmann, who’s charismatic, photogenic, genuinely conservative, frighteningly organized, and an enthusiastic campaigner has a couple of problems. She’s a congresswoman, not a governor and she has trouble staying on message. Fiery conservatives can win elections, but they need a lot of message discipline. When those on the opposition are telling everyone that you’re a radical, extremist, crazy person, the public doesn’t take them at their word, but they do watch you very carefully to see what you say. In Bachmann’s case, every two or three weeks, she blurts out a line or two that allows her to be portrayed as a wild-eyed radical. In the race for the presidency, where every comment can become national front page news, those little gaffes can absolutely kill you over the course of a campaign.
4) Sarah Palin: Out of everyone who’s run for the presidency in the last few elections, on both sides of the aisle, I find Sarah Palin to be the most admirable person. She’s extremely competent, charismatic, she’s succeeded in business, politics, raised a big family, made a huge difference for the GOP in 2010, done more for feminism than anyone since Susan B. Anthony — she’s just an extraordinary human being. Of course, because all of that’s true, the Left has put together an unprecedented three year long, incredibly vicious smear campaign aimed at her and her family.
Sadly, it was effective. Sarah Palin has lost some conservative support and her numbers with Independents are mediocre. While I do think she could conceivably win the presidency and the nomination, I think it would be a tremendous uphill fight for her. If she got in the race tomorrow, she would probably get a big enough bounce to put her in second place, but it’s entirely possible that a week later she could be sitting in third place, with roughly 10% of the vote. Additionally, while she would fight to make up that ground, she’d have Bachmann fighting her tooth and nail for her constituency and poll after poll would likely show her performing worse than the other major candidates against Obama.
Although again, I am a great admirer of Sarah Palin and do think she could conceivably win the nomination and the presidency, I would advise her to take a lesson from Richard Nixon in 1964, skip the election and look for her chance to run again in either 2012 or 2016….if she wants to run at all. After all, even though she doesn’t hold political office, Sarah Palin is making millions of dollars and is one of the single most influential people in politics. That’s not to say that the presidency wouldn’t be a step up, but it would be a much smaller step up for her than for any other Republican candidate in the race.
5) Ron Paul: Paul can raise money, dominate online polls, and he has inspired the largest group of rabid, diehard supporters you’ll find anywhere in politics. Unfortunately, most of those fanatical supporters are conspiracy theorists, pacifists, or Big-L Libertarians. In other words, the very traits that have allowed Ron Paul to acquire that frothing mass of zealous supporters who can outwork and out-donate any other candidate’s followers 1-for-1, make it impossible for him to have wider appeal. That’s because most of the primary voters are conservatives, not Libertarians, they’re turned off by conspiracy theories, and Paul’s pacifistic/isolationist foreign policy views are anathema to most conservatives. So, although Ron Paul will generate lots of excitement for a certain segment of the base, he will never be able to acquire the critical mass he needs to win the nomination.
6) The Rest: Herman Cain is an appealing guy, but he’s raw and has made too many rookie mistakes. Rick Santorum is a strong advocate for social conservatives, but he lacks the charisma and necessary stature (He lost his last race as a senator) to take off. Newt Gingrich doesn’t seem to be getting much traction. Jon Huntsman is far too moderate to have any appeal. Buddy Roemer, Gary Johnson, and Thaddeus McCotter don’t seem to be getting enough oxygen right now to even get a serious look from most voters. That’s particularly a shame in the case of McCotter, who’s charismatic and conservative. While you should “never say ‘never,’” at the moment, none of these candidates look likely to move up into the top tier right now.
PS: If you want contribute to the eventual winner, you can do it at Raising Red.