It wasn’t exactly a full-fledged draft, but for a few, brief shining moments, Mike Pence was in demand as a presidential candidate.
The Indiana congressman would have faced a huge fundraising challenge, but when a group of Republican hotshots, including Dick Armey, began trying to persuade Pence to make a run, the effort warranted a big headline in Politico.
Well, that didn’t last long. Pence told the Indiana press last night that he may run for governor instead.
The curious mating dance unfolding these days suggests an unmistakable void in the amorphous Republican field.
With everyone from Donald Trump to pizza mogul Herman Cain to wrong-camera maverick Michele Bachmann eyeing the race, we have Bill Kristol posting this strange Help Wanted ad on his Weekly Standard site: “Any Republican leader who cares about the future of the country, and who thinks it's possible he or she might be the best nominee, should keep an open mind about running.” Take my nomination, puh-leaze!
Mike Huckabee may be leading some of the GOP preference polls, but lately he doesn’t sound like a man who is ready to take the plunge:
“It’s a lot harder to beat President Obama in 2012 than a lot of people are saying…He’s going to have a billion dollars in the bank…And he faces someone who’s going to have to go through a demolition derby of 12 to 20 candidates and will come out of that bruised, broke and bleeding.” Huckabee said this the other day on Fox News, which happens to be paying him a bundle to live the lucrative life of a commentator.
So while the former Arkansas governor is on the air with commercials attacking Obamacare, he may well decline to be bloodied.
So what’s going on?
First, Obama isn’t looking like the loser he was depicted as being on Shellacking Day. He forged important bipartisan compromises in the lame-duck session, made an inspiring speech in Tucson and has ticked up—as high as 54 percent—in the polls. That means journalists will start treating him as the Comeback Kid. And the power of incumbency is no small matter.
Those close to Huckabee say he fears his brand will be damaged if he runs and falters in the primaries (as opposed to winning the nomination and losing to Obama).
Second, Sarah Palin is making the GOP establishment nervous. Many Republican insiders hope she doesn’t run, seeing her as a primary powerhouse but a general-election disaster, or that she flames out early.
Third, with a number of potential aspirants—Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels—coming from the party’s so-called managerial wing, there is hunger for an anybody-but-Palin candidate on the true-believer right.
Huckabee is best positioned to fill that vacuum. He leads the latest Washington Post/ABC poll--with 21 percent to Palin’s 19 percent and Romney’s 17 percent--among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. That’s a margin-of-error lead, but he and Palin run most strongly among whites without college degrees and people with family incomes below $50,000. Not bad for a formerly overweight ex-Baptist preacher who started the 2008 with little money and less name recognition.
Huckabee stunned the punditocracy by winning Iowa and went on to capture seven other primaries and caucuses. The problem this time is he doesn’t want to give up his substantial income for another losing bid, which is why he’s putting things off until late summer.
“This is a very personal decision,” says Chip Saltsman, Huckabee’s 2008 campaign manager. “I do think he’s got a great organization in the early states, and money people around the country have encouraged him and want to help. We don’t have to build an organization from scratch like last time. He’s got a following out there that will wait on him to make his decision.”
As Huckabee told me a year ago, “I’m not going to jump into a pool with no water… I like having a life. There's a certain level of enjoyment in the independence I have. Someone puts a microphone in my face and demands I answer a question, I can say, ‘Put it where the sun don't shine.’”
Those close to him say he fears his brand will be damaged if he runs and falters in the primaries (as opposed to winning the nomination and losing to Obama). In effect, they say, a draft-Huckabee movement will have to emerge by the spring to persuade him that he would have substantial support within the party, and not just its evangelical wing.
Some are already interpreting his decision to host a cruise to Alaska in June, and Saltsman’s hiring by a freshman House member, as signs that he won’t run. On the other hand, Huckabee’s upcoming book tour—can anyone run for president anymore without cranking out a hardcover?—includes nearly a dozen stops in Iowa and South Carolina.
But even if Huck gets in, the yearning is likely to continue. In 2008, some Republican elders were so dissatisfied with the field that they ginned up a movement for Fred Thompson—whose low-energy campaign sunk like a stone. The GOP is not very hospitable to insurgents of the Howard Dean or Gary Hart variety, and efforts to anoint one in a party that bows to seniority generally fizzle. That’s why John McCain and Bob Dole were nominated, despite widespread doubts about their prospects.
The headline on Kristol’s blog is that “The 2012 GOP Nomination is Too Important to Waste.” But it may be a little less valuable than it seemed until recently, unless a floundering economy dooms the current president. A strong Republican contender will emerge from somewhere, but for now the party’s conservative base is still searching for Mr. Right.
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.