President Barack Obama launched a vicious, underhanded attack on one of the leading contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination last month: He praised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for launching a state-administered health care plan.
“I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he’s proud of what he accomplished on health care in Massachusetts,” Obama told the nation’s governors.
Romney supporters winced, but his potential rivals for the Republican nomination were delighted. They’ve already taken to calling the Massachusetts health care plan “RomneyCare,” to remind conservative voters how much it resembles the “ObamaCare” law they loathe.
Like the “tea party,” the Obama White House, it appears, is hoping for a Republican candidate more conservative than Romney.
On paper, Romney should be the front-runner for next year’s GOP nomination: He has experience, name recognition, broad popularity and plenty of money. But Republican strategists warn that because of “RomneyCare” and other early flings with moderation, Romney lacks one important factor: fervent support from the strongly conservative voters who dominate the primary electorate in most states.
“I don’t see any way he can become the nominee,” said Eddie Mahe Jr., a former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.
And that’s why so many Republican politicians — 17, at last count — are testing the waters for potential presidential campaigns: There’s a big opportunity for anyone with conservative credentials who isn’t named Romney.
The country’s in a conservative mood. Republicans just won a landslide victory in last year’s congressional elections. The unemployment rate is likely to remain stubbornly high all 20 months until the presidential election. Defeating an incumbent president is never easy, but this ought to be one of the best chances in a generation. If only conservatives can settle on a champion, that is.
Some potential champions appear unlikely to run. GOP strategists say there’s no sign that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a potential front-runner, is preparing a campaign. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a favorite of fiscal conservatives for his enthusiastic budget cutting, has emphatically ruled out a run.
Others are waffling. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is widely popular, but he talks fervently, and convincingly, about how much he enjoys not being a candidate. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced last week that he was “seriously exploring” a candidacy, but all he displayed, aside from a new website, was continued uncertainty. And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who won attention for a tough speech on fiscal responsibility last month, took a step back from candidacy last week, saying his home state’s budget crisis might get in the way of saving the rest of the nation.
That process of elimination has led Republican strategists to begin focusing on two politicians who, though unknown to most Americans, at least appear serious about pursuing the nomination: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Both are orthodox conservatives who, unlike Romney, never passed a healthcare law, supported a federal bank bailout or governed where same-sex marriage was legal. Barbour, a former lobbyist and chairman of the RNC, is a prodigious fundraiser, a useful skill for any national candidate. Pawlenty, who calls himself a blue-collar “Sam’s Club” Republican, has built a solid following among conservatives in Iowa, where next year’s first caucuses will be held in February.
One danger for the party, though, is that the nominating process could erase one of the lessons of last year’s victory: that Republicans can win among independent voters when they focus on fiscal concerns and downplay social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
When Daniels recently called for a “truce” on social issues to focus on deficit reduction, he was roundly condemned by social conservatives. Meanwhile, Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, has kept cultural issues prominent in his speeches; last week he said (wrongly) that Obama had grown up in Kenya, and he condemned actress Natalie Portman for “boasting” about her unwed pregnancy. And Gingrich’s core message is heavy with warnings about Muslim inroads into American life, including the suggestion, unsupported by much evidence, that U.S. courts might begin to administer Islamic law.
The structure of the election could also push candidates to the right. Iowa, where the first caucus vote is held, has historically been hospitable to cultural conservatives; Huckabee won there in 2008. And the debates leading up to that contest are starting early, with the first one May 2 at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
It’s too early to predict which of the potential candidates will prove the strongest alternative to Romney. But the fragmented field suggests two possible scenarios. One is that a multitude of feuding conservatives divide the GOP base into many pieces, allowing Romney to muscle his way through the crowded field.
But it’s more likely, Mahe suggests, that a candidate such as Pawlenty, Barbour or Daniels finds the sweet spot in the race: one step to the right of Romney but one step to the left of everyone else.
“If you have 12 lookalikes, the one who’s the most moderate may end up a winner,” he said.
“I do not think it’s going to be easy to defeat Obama,” he warned. “Defeating an incumbent is tough. He has a dedicated, committed base that seems to be holding. The American people don’t seem to dislike him as a human being.
“It can be done,” he said. “It depends on who we nominate.”
On the other hand, with an overcrowded Republican field, a polarizing GOP primary battle, a White House that’s heading back toward the center — and, perhaps, a slowly improving economy — it could be a good year for Obama after all.
• McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.