The GOP's 2012 Fantasies

Why are so many long-shot or no-shot Republicans making noises about running for president? Howard Kurtz on the would-be candidates—and the upside of getting yourself mentioned.

12.26.10 6:49 PM ET

You may be unaware that Mike Pence is on the verge of deciding whether to run for president.

“Pence Announcement Looms in January,” a Politico headline blared the other day.

Looming is a great journalistic verb, suggesting that the masses await, eyes turned upward, the great man’s decision. Which isn’t to suggest that the Indiana congressman—who may run instead for governor, a decision that looms over all Hoosiers—isn’t worthy of the Oval Office. It’s just that so many Republicans of all shapes and stripes are eyeing that office that it’s hard to keep track.

There are five basic reasons why everyone and his brother—not to mention one caribou-slaying mama—are contemplating the rigors of a White House campaign:

—They look in the mirror. Lightning might strike, and they could win.

—Barack Obama looks beatable. Which means they could be the ones to take our country back from the not-so-closeted socialist and restore the Constitution.

—They could use the exposure. Why else did Alan Keyes, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, Fred Thompson, Carol Moseley-Braun, Pat Buchanan, Jim Gilmore, Duncan Hunter, Gary Bauer and Pete DuPont run? None of them had a snowball’s chance of winning, but they got to stand on the stage during the endless debates and be profiled by top-flight reporters.

—They already feel like big shots. Members of Congress in particular are surrounded by sycophantic staffs and are always rushing to subcommittee hearings to insert language in arcane bills. They don’t realize most of the country hasn’t heard of them.

—They are bored. Running for president is a good way to see the country and sample tasty hotel food—at least in Iowa and New Hampshire, since most candidates get knocked out by then.

Every presidential race attracts its share of ego-tripping attention-mongers who revel in the all-too-brief spotlight.

Against this backdrop, President Pence doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

You already know about those the press has put in the first tier of 2012 aspirants. Mitt Romney has been running since the day he conceded to John McCain last time around. Sarah Palin may be running for celebrity-in-chief, but her reality-show escapades have positioned her for a White House bid that would defy the lamestream media. Mike Huckabee, a long shot in 2008 until he won the Iowa caucuses, would be a credible candidate if he can bring himself to give up his Fox News gig. (If he doesn’t have financial and party support, Huckabee told me a year ago, “I'm not going to jump in a pool with no water.”)

What about the others?

Newt Gingrich (the third Fox commentator in the bunch) seems to threaten to run every four years, hyping his book sales in the process. He’s a big-think guy with lots of ideas, plausible on paper, and recently said he is “more inclined” to think a 2012 campaign is “doable.” (That’s the kind of language you use when it’s a looong tease.) But Gingrich brings a lot of baggage and scars from his days as speaker, and he knows it.

Tim Pawlenty must be running—he’s launching a book tour, with stops in Manchester and West Des Moines, next month. The outgoing Minnesota governor has a solid, fiscally conservative record and was on McCain’s short list for veep. Problem: No one would call him an exciting politician, so Pawlenty may have to rent some charisma.

From there the odds get longer.

John Bolton, a hard-line former undersecretary of State who could never get himself confirmed as U.N. ambassador, is also dreaming of 2012—and is featured on the cover of the latest National Review. Won’t the fact that the Fox analyst has no history of talking about domestic issues, uh, hamper him? “National security issues have to be brought back to center stage,” he told the magazine.

Haley Barbour also has cover-boy cred this week, in the Weekly Standard. Unfortunately for him, his gauzy recollections of life in segregated Mississippi not being so bad sparked a media furor that forced a hasty retreat. Barbour is a skilled pol who handled Katrina well and raised a boatload of money for the Republican governors. But he was a big-time Beltway lobbyist and now has a racial cloud hanging over his head.

John Thune, whose claim to fame is ousting Tom Daschle in South Dakota, certainly has the looks. “Handsome and athletic,” writes ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, a perfect conservative voting record, and “an almost equally perfect absence of dangerously memorable utterance or action.” Oops. But Thune has plenty of company on that score.

Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor and a former Bush budget director, has a tax-cutting record and told the Standard that the next president should “call a truce on the so-called social issues.” Great! But those issues are what motivate the Christian conservatives who show up in GOP primaries. Also, Daniels is short (5-7). Not that such things matter.

Rick Santorum (yet another horse from the Fox stable) has spent at least 14 days in Iowa since the last election and is clearly itching to run. Downside: He lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2006 by a near-landslide. Perhaps that sort of thing builds character.

The Donald? “For the first time in my life, I'm actually thinking about it,” Trump told Fox News. (That’s funny; Trump said in early 2000 there was a “very good possibility” he’d mount a $100-million campaign for the Reform Party nomination.) Presumably he realizes he could spend a fortune and still get fired by the electorate with Apprentice-like swiftness. Running would be a riskier bet than buying another casino.

And then there’s Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor who wants to legalize marijuana and doesn’t hide the fact that he’s done his share of pot smoking. Maybe he’ll win the nomination if all the primary voters are high.

Oh, and Jeb Bush? Well, he’s got name recognition.

If you’re a Republican mulling a run and I’ve left you out, feel free to e-mail me.

With this large a potential field—the Democrats trotted out only “Seven Dwarfs” in 1988—it’s no wonder that any unindicted Republican can fantasize about getting in. The Dems have a history of outsider candidates catching fire: Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Howard Dean. The Republicans tend to anoint the next in line, and this time there is no heir apparent.

The early skirmishing has basically resembled pattycake: Huckabee (who once lost 110 pounds) defending Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign against a swipe from the former Alaska governor–“with all due respect to my colleague and friend Sarah Palin.” Why fire your ammunition now when no one, except underemployed political reporters, is paying attention?

I’m not suggesting it’s an impossible climb for many of these lawmakers and governors, current and former, to reach the nomination. You win a primary or two and you can get awfully famous awfully fast in our media culture. Just ask the skinny kid with the funny name who spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention.

But let’s face it: every presidential race attracts its share of ego-tripping attention-mongers who revel in the all-too-brief spotlight. And we are about to enable a whole new batch of them.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.