The latest polls show Republican Mitt Romney edging ahead of President Obama in a head-to-head matchup in 2012. Good news for the GOP, if only Romney could make it through his own party’s primaries.
The same survey shows Romney drawing just 18 percent of Republican support, trailing Sarah Palin—who clocks in at 19 percent. Rounding out the field: Mike Huckabee, with 17 percent, Newt Gingrich at 15 percent, and Tim Pawlenty, with just 6 percent. Gallup polling this month produces similar results: Romney at 19 percent, Palin at 16 percent, Huckabee at 16 percent, and Gingrich at 13 percent.
Call it the resurgent Republicans’ Achilles Heel. The GOP may have taken the House, closed in on the Senate, and made dramatic gains at the state level. But the party’s 2012 presidential field is weak—and a lot of Republicans know it.
“The Republican field is wide open with no clear frontrunner because they are all, in some respects, flawed,” Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and Daily Beast contributor, said in an email.
“I think to beat Obama we're going to have to have a much better field of candidates than are currently there,” Ryan Rhodes, a political consultant and chairman of the Iowa Tea Party Patriots, told The Daily Beast. His counterpart in the early caucus state of Maine didn’t sound any more pumped. “The modern parlance of ‘meh’ pretty much sums up the lineup,” Andrew Ian Dodge, coordinator for the state Tea Party Patriots, said.
Jeff Patch, a Republican consultant in Iowa currently based in DC, described the situation as a “magnification of the problems with the field in 2008”—when each of the major candidates, including eventual winner John McCain, were unpopular with large swaths of the GOP base.
“Instead of talking about Romney’s health-care plan, [the talk] was his tendency to flip-flop,” Patch said. “McCain raised concerns with not just social conservatives but fiscal ones as well. And Mike Huckabee was loathed by the Club for Growth.
“There really has been no candidate who seems poised to unite all the branches of the party,” Patch added.
Flush with their midterm victories, some GOP leaders are already talking up some of the party’s newest stars, hoping candidates who might normally sit out presidential politics for another cycle might jump in early. Asked about the presidential field, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe responded by waxing poetic about Florida’s senator-elect, Marco Rubio.
“The day he's sworn into the Senate he'll have had more experience, including his time as Speaker of the Florida House, than Barack Obama did,” Kibbe said.
He’s not alone. Many conservatives are actively trolling for a dark horse to come in and rescue them from the current stable of 2012 candidates. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is generating so much presidential buzz that he threatened suicide to end the constant speculation. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is also batting down constant questions about his future plans.
“The modern parlance of ‘meh’ pretty much sums up the lineup,” Andrew Ian Dodge, coordinator for the state Tea Party Patriots, said.
It’s still very early, so the field could change dramatically. And it’s not as if strong early polling always means a strong candidate: Rudy Giuliani posted double-digit leads throughout 2007 en route to winning fewer delegates than Ron Paul. But at the moment, the GOP’s presidential frontrunners all face an uphill struggle to draw anywhere near the support needed to clinch the nomination.
• Mark McKinnon: Don’t Run, SarahMITT ROMNEY
Assets: He's a reassuring grownup in the age of Palin. He carried 11 states during the 2008 primaries, pulling in 12 percent of the GOP delegates. He's been building his campaign team since grade school. And admit it: He looks presidential.
Liabilities: Romney is still widely perceived as what conservatives call a “squish”—having flip-flopped on issues ranging from gay rights to abortion and immigration reform. That perception enabled McCain to knock him off last time around—and the problem may only be worse now, when the GOP is more inclined toward ideological purity than ever.
Romney also has a huge new headache: Obamacare. The new law, despised by conservatives, was closely modeled after the health-care reforms Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts. He’s gone out of his way to distance himself from the president's plan, calling for its repeal and labeling it unconstitutional, but much to his horror, Obama won't stop crediting him with inspiring the bill.
"I do think, he is the conventional favorite," McKinnon said. "But, for a lot of reasons, I think we are in a different environment in which convention will be thrown out the window. Romney is going to have a big problem with his Massachusetts health-care plan, which his primary opponents will say is a mirror of Obamacare."
Oh and did we mention he supported the bank bailout?
Assets: She has a loyal fanbase that would rather eat glass than see her lose. She's ingratiated herself to the Tea Party. She's better at using Facebook than most college freshmen and has built up her personal brand (and bank) with bestselling books and high-priced speeches. And she's got a ready-made bank of favors from candidates across the country who have benefited from her endorsement.
Liabilities: Palin’s supporters show an intensity unrivaled by any potential candidate save maybe Ron Paul. But there aren't actually that many of them. Polls show plenty of Republicans are just as skeptical about the half-term governor's résumé as the rest of America: Some 47 percent of GOP voters say she's unqualified, per the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, leaving her little room to grow outside of her base. Her abysmal national numbers—67 percent see her as unqualified and her favorability rating is an anemic 39-54—make it tougher for any Republican whose top priority is winning back the White House to cast a ballot for her.
“Republican primary voters have shown time and again that they will pick the most electable candidate in the field—even when, as we saw in 2008, the most electable candidate is one that base voters are fundamentally suspicious of,” University of Maryland-BC Political Science Professor and FiveThirtyEight.com contributor Thomas Schaller told The Daily Beast.
Then there’s the Palin Bubble. She’s lived almost entirely in her own sheltered conservative world the last two years and thus avoided tough questions about everything from her sudden resignation to her support for the bank bailouts. But that won't fly in 2012, when she'll face these issues in debate after debate. The Fox News cocoon can only protect her so much when the attacks originate from other Republicans—as seems likely, given the recent comments from Karl Rove and other GOP leaders. Palin's interviews this month with The New York Times and ABC are a concession that she can't avoid the lamestream media forever either, but there's still no evidence she'll be any better at handling them than she was in 2008.
Assets: He's the most naturally likable candidate in the field. Evangelicals love him. He polls well against Obama and White House aides have reportedly pegged him as their most likely opponent.
Liabilities: The former Arkansas governor did better than expected in 2008, but even Chuck Norris couldn’t help him overcome weak fundraising and a shoddy campaign infrastructure. Apparently those same concerns are still operative: "I'm not sure that Huckabee has the ability to raise the tens or hundreds of millions necessary to run a presidential campaign in 2012. Huckabee was not able to raise much of anything for 2008, and that's what did him in," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told Fox recently.
An additional strike against Big Mike: Maurice Clemmons. You may not know that name yet, but if Huckabee ever gets within a whiff of the nomination, the entire country will. Clemmons was one of many prisoners the unusually compassionate governor granted clemency in Arkansas. Last year, Clemmons, who had an exhaustive rap sheet, murdered four police officers in Washington state before being gunned down himself. Huckabee will have his hands full explaining his decision if he runs.
Assets: Governor, check. Conservative, check. No scandals, check. Not Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin, check.
Liabilities: Tim who? Despite being widely discussed as a White House contender over the last two years, the Minnesota governor barely registers in the Republican consciousness. He scored 19 percent in a poll of one state's GOP primary—which might have been encouraging had it not been his own. And despite turns to the right on some social issues, Pawlenty hasn’t been able to break through. Nate Silver put it best when he subtly savaged Pawlenty as the " League Average Politician."
Assets: He’s still seen as the intellectual spark of his party. He led the last GOP revolution on Capitol Hill, and is advising on this one. And he’s a buzz factory, drawing “will he run” headlines practically every time he gives a speech.
Liabilities: He’s the guy who got rolled in the infamous standoff with President Clinton—which led to a government shutdown—an episode that haunts the GOP to this day. His personal life ranks somewhere between “Gary Hart” and “Mexican soap opera villain.” He famously left his first wife while she was in treatment for cancer, then left his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, shortly after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for a younger staffer. Marianne kept quiet about the incident until recently, but this summer the former Mrs. Gingrich fired .44 caliber warning shots at Newt in an Esquire interview."He believes that what he says in public and how he lives don't have to be connected," she said in the piece. "If you believe that, then yeah, you can run for president."
And while Gingrich has kept hard at work courting the Tea Party vote this year, he's hardly immune from attacks on his right flank. He also blasted the 2008 bailout only to reverse his position within days. Then there’s his flirtation with climate-change activism. “Anyone who wants to win only needs to replay the ad with Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich on the couch,” Rhodes told The Daily Beast.
“I'd be absolutely shocked if Newt Gingrich was even a halfway serious candidate,” political science blogger Jonathan Bernstein told The Daily Beast.
Assets: He became a Republican folk hero overnight when he took out Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004. He’s well-respected within the GOP establishment. And he’s movie-star handsome.
Liabilities: For Thune to win, we'd have to assume that GOP voters, after two years of shrieking about "Washington insiders" would choose a former lobbyist who is knee-deep in Beltway politics as their standard-bearer. And he bears the scars of having served in office—meaning he’d have to defend votes for TARP and a whole bunch of earmarks.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM
Assets: Has fans among social conservatives.
Liabilities: Social conservative causes have gone a bit out of fashion, as the base focuses on shrinking government, the evils of Wall Street, two wars, and the like. He was also blown out in his reelection bid for Senate in Pennsylvania just four short years ago and the loser label is going to be hard to shake in a year where Republican hopes are high for recapturing the White House.
INDIANA GOVERNOR MITCH DANIELS
Assets: He's a smart, successful governor in Indiana and former White House budget director with an extremely strong grasp of economic policy.
Liabilities: Policy smarts are actually a lot less popular than they sound in the GOP right now. Daniels is one of the few Republicans honest enough about the deficit to consider tax increases and serious enough about unemployment to consider increasing the deficit, both of which equal instant political death in the GOP. He suggested a VAT tax to pay down the deficit, an idea as popular with nonpartisan deficit hawks as it is reviled by the Republican base. There's no quicker route to becoming unelectable in a GOP primary than acquiring a reputation as the center-left's favorite Republican, and Daniels looks to have little competition for the spot. His proposal for a $450 billion-plus payroll tax holiday to combat unemployment was greeted with gushing praise from liberal budget wonks like Ezra Klein and some of his less-ambitious proposals have drawn serious consideration from the White House. And he already has two strikes against him with conservatives on the economy: As OMB director under Bush, he helped concoct the notorious budgets that Tea Partiers credit with wrecking the GOP.
REP. PAUL RYAN
Assets: One of the GOP's "Young Guns," he's an up-and-coming economic wonk whose top issue is the deficit and commands considerably good press.
Liabilities: Ryan's conservative budget-cutting zeal has been too much for Republican leaders to stomach so far, who want nothing to do with his much-discussed proposal to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits in the long term. Ryan's voting record hasn't been used against him much so far, but it would in a primary and there’s plenty for opponents to glom on to. Not only did he vote for TARP, but he was one of just a handful of Republicans to vote for the auto bailout, one of the most visceral issues for the Tea Party activists and the source of endless "Socialist!" epithets against the White House.
MISSISSIPPI GOVERNOR HALEY BARBOUR
Assets: He's coming off a successful stint as the influential head of the Republican Governors Association, knows everything there is to know about politics, and is well-connected with influential donors.
Liabilities: So the GOP is trying to rebrand itself as a diverse, principled, grassroots party and competing against a president who cruised to office with record turnout from African-American, Latino, and young voters. Who do they nominate? I’m guessing your first response wasn’t “a former tobacco lobbyist whose self-described ‘ fat redneck’ persona draws frequent comparisons to Boss Hogg.” Concerned, some top Republicans are working to dissuade Barbour from running. "Barbour has the perfect blend of base cred and insider chops," Schaller told The Daily Beast, "but his corpulent, corporate affect and Southern accent are precisely the fat-cat image the post-George W. Bush GOP doesn't need right now."
REP. MIKE PENCE
Assets: He's popular with social conservatives and doesn't raise any red flags on the right with fiscal conservatives either.
Liabilities: So he does well with evangelicals. Get in line. Pence lacks Sarah Palin's media buzz, Mike Huckabee's popularity and executive experience, and both of their name recognition, making it difficult to distinguish himself in that crowd if either or both run. As The Washington Post's Chris Cilliza notes, observers also expect him to lag behind the major players in organization and fundraising.
Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.