Newt Gingrich moved slowly through the halls as excited onlookers kept stopping him for photos and thrusting paper at him for autographs, each trying to briefly bask in his celebrity.
He had spent the day whacking President Obama on everything from energy to Egypt, but when I asked about his real agenda at the popular Conservative Political Action Conference—floating an actual candidacy—he turned cautious. “You have to decide whether it’s something you feel compelled to do,” the former House speaker said, “and if it’s absolutely your duty to do it.” In short, he wants to be wanted by a party that isn’t sure who or what it wants.
As all manner of pols, poseurs and publicity-seekers flirt with the idea of seeking the Republican nomination, we are witnessing an early round of shadow-boxing covered as if it were a heavyweight championship. A Web-driven wave of scrutiny, complete with reporters assigned to every potential candidate, has elevated a show that is clearly not ready for main arena.
In this heavy-breathing environment, signing up strategists—the search for the next Karl Rove—can provide instant cred. But the party’s big-name consultants, worried about backing a palooka, are staying on the sidelines. And no one has hit a financial gusher: only Sarah Palin had more than $1 million on hand at year’s end.
What’s left is something of a swamp, a muddy game of posturing and positioning in which the candidates attempt to crawl to higher ground. “They're trying to impress the process press, especially Politico, to get some clips they can show donors,” says GOP strategist Mike Murphy. “It's a big house of mirrors.” And the reflections were everywhere: Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was among those currying favor with righty bloggers at CPAC, trying to explain his onetime support for a cap-and-trade pollution bill: “Yeah, it was a mistake, it was stupid, I was wrong.”
As pols, poseurs and publicity-seekers flirt with the idea of seeking the Republican nomination, we are witnessing an early round of shadow-boxing covered as if it were a heavyweight championship.
Shushannah Walshe: Ann Romney's Survival Instinct
This should be a heady time for the Republicans, having delivered a shellacking to the man who beat them in 2008. But in the wake of CPAC, where a slew of White House aspirants, real and delusional, strutted their stuff, it was hard to miss the elephant that wasn’t in the room. There is no one, for now, with the stature to pose a clear threat to Obama; there’s,only a yearning for such a savior.
Among those auditioning: Michele Bachmann, the acid-tongued lawmaker who has warned of “anti-American” members of Congress; Donald Trump, the billionaire whose casino company once filed for bankruptcy, saying America has become a “laughingstock”; and Herman Cain, the pizza mogul who boasts that he has overcome Stage 4 colon cancer and that the response to his sudden availablilty “has overwhelmingly exceeded our expectations.”
These folks hear a siren call that remains inaudible to the rest of us. Jon Huntsman is quitting as Obama’s ambassador to China despite the handicap of, well, having worked for Obama. Could newly-elected Sen. Rand Paul mount a campaign, as his father (who won the CPAC straw poll) did last time? “I’ve only been here a month,” he says—but hey, be sure to check back.
The flavor of the month is Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, a balding, uncharismatic governor who won media raves for soberly warning that the country could drown in a sea of red ink. But no sooner did he threaten to emerge from the swamp than others tried to pull him back in, with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough noting that Daniels bore the albatross of serving as George W. Bush’s budget director.
So how did this unwieldy collection wind up looking like, well, disorganized Democrats? The GOP has always handed the nomination to the next old guy in line (John McCain, Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan); or the vice president (Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush), or a close relative (George W.). It’s the Dems who keep awarding their prize to insurgents—from Jimmy Carter to Obama—who upend the party establishment. We’ve seen the waiting-for-Mr. Right syndrome before, when Fred Thompson was supposed to rescue the GOP in 2008.
Historian Richard Norton Smith views the Tea Party’s rise as a factor: “A party that doesn’t speak with one voice is unlikely to be able to anoint a consensus candidate. There’s no consensus. And part of it is you’ve got a bunch of retreads.”
Republicans insist someone will catch fire. “It’s not a question that Obama’s not beatable,” says former party chairman Ed Gillespie. “Obama’s not scaring anybody out of running.”
Even Democrats say it’s way early. “You do look at them and think, ‘That’s all they got?’” says former Hillary Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald. “But you truly don’t know who’s a great candidate until you’re in the arena.”
Maybe not, but nobody wants the frontrunner’s mantle a year out. Mitt Romney has refused to participate in a Fox News series of candidate profiles and turned down a slew of interview requests. (Fox has its own slate of White House wannabes—Palin, Gingrich, Mike Huckabee—who enjoy narrowcasting to GOP primary voters without the hassles of actually campaigning.)
In the meantime, operatives are engaged in a not-so-subtle whisper campaign to undermine potential rivals. Here is what they’re telling reporters:
• Mitt Romney. Would be christened the frontrunner, with his business background, except reporters don’t much like him: Too robotic, too much flip-flopping in 2008, and can’t explain away a Massachusetts health plan that served as a model for Obamacare.
• Mitch Daniels. An accomplished record as governor but “the intellectuals’ choice, which is the kiss of death,” says a veteran of several White House campaigns. Plus, he dissed evangelicals by calling for a “truce” on abortion.
• Haley Barbour. The Mississippi governor is a canny pol but tried to whitewash his state’s segregationist past, and a drawling, overweight ex-lobbyist isn’t the party’s ideal image.
• Newt Gingrich. The party’s best idea man and futurist, but more baggage than a 747 after getting run out of the House speakership. And religious voters won’t flock to a guy who’s had three wives.
• Tim Pawlenty. Competent, conservative and colorless, but could break through if others falter.
• Mike Huckabee. Won Iowa last time but the one-time preacher probably can’t go the distance. And the ex-Arkansas governor tells people he likes his lucrative life as a Fox commentator, leading to perpetual predictions: He’s taking a June cruise to Alaska? He’s sailing out of the race! He’s attending an Iowa presidential lecture series in June? He’s definitely running!
• Rick Santorum. A true believer on social issues, but come on: He lost his Senate seat in Pennsylvania four years ago in a near-landslide. “I won my first two races,” counters Santorum. And his state is a tough one for Republicans.
• Sarah Palin. Too polarizing and too wedded to her grudge-match persona. Viewed negatively by 50 percent of likely GOP voters in New Hampshire, “she’s a media creation,” says an alumnus of several presidential campaigns. Besides, isn’t she really angling for another reality show?
That’s what this nascent campaign increasingly resembles, minus the big ratings. “There’s a lot going on in the shadows, but nobody wants to step into the sunlight,” says former John McCain adviser Mark McKinnon. “Everyone’s looking over their shoulder. There’s a lot of kabuki.”
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.