We saw dramatic events in the Republican presidential primary this week. Mike Huckabee is out. Newt Gingrich is technically still in the race, but not a single conservative, except his verbose press secretary, has defended him. This should also suggest that despite his prosperous Newt-related endeavors, there really aren’t “Gingrich voters” out there.
Of those left in, no one can doubt that Mitt Romney had a better week than last. He did some fundraising, saw a couple of competitors go down the tubes, issued a forceful statement criticizing the president on Israel and avoided further gaffes. Aside from health care, he’s an impressive candidate. But health care is a really big deal.
As for the rest, Tim Pawlenty got good press coverage, continues to build a presence in early states, also bashed the president on his Middle East speech and saw his biggest problem in Iowa — Mike Huckabee — vanish. He will announce his candidacy in Iowa on Monday. He is chugging along in single digits in the polls. But remember: Mitt Romney was there for much of 2007, zoomed to the top of the pack and, well . . . then lost. I suppose that means early poll numbers aren’t that meaningful; it’s what you do when your name recognition increases. (Gallup has Pawlenty’s below 50 percent.)
The non-candidates are still the most intriguing part of this race. The anxiety among conservatives that Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) might run for the Senate (and thereby eliminate himself from presidential contention) and the rally-’round-Ryan phenomenon during the Gingrich fiasco suggest that Ryan is still the most sought after non-candidate for the presidency. Will he decide to run? Well, he can’t possibly tell himself there are more viable and exciting candidates in the race.
Then there is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He is quick becoming the candidate in the race conservatives are suspicious of. They are a suspicious lot, those conservatives; experience has made them so. Whether it is “read my lips, no new taxes” George H.W. Bush or the pork-barreling House Republicans who lost the majority in 2006 or the numerous times Republicans have caved on confirming liberal, activist judges, conservatives have become a bit paranoid. Yes, but, paranoids have enemies, too, or in this case, have seen many sunny conservative candidates who sound tough on the campaign trail and melt like butter once elected.
That’s Daniels’s biggest challenge. There are concerns about the “social truce” and the ”wedge issue” aversion. Others now question his stance on health care. Some are worried about his stance on right-to-work laws. And then there is the tax issue. It’s not clear that Daniels will run (although he’s leaning that way), but if he does, he’s going to have to convince the base that he won’t let the Democrats roll over him on a myriad of issues. And while Romney and Pawlenty issued strong statements on the president’s speech this is all Daniels could muster:
What is going on in the Arab world these days has little or nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, it has to do with tyrannical regimes which have really stifled prospects for their people who are now restless for a better life . . . I don’t think right now it pays very much of a dividend to try to cut the Gordian Knot of Israel and Palestine.
You don’t get the sense he comprehends or feels deeply about the president’s harmful words regarding Israel; Daniels just thinks we should talk about other things.
Then there is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) waiting in the wings. She is the un-Daniels: passionate, outspoken on Israel, popular with social conservatives and ready to concede nothing (certainly not before she gets in a bargaining room) to the liberals. She’s not popular with conservative elites, and some mainstream conservatives are wary of her, so her challenge remains to demonstrate the sobriety and smarts in public that are so evident when you meet her one-on-one.
And finally, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is up in New Hampshire campaigning. Unlike Gingrich, he put the stamp of approval on the Ryan Medicare plan. He’s got a long ways to go in explaining his service in the Obama administration and a gubernatorial record less conservative than other governors in the race. However, compared to some of the other candidates, he seems, well, more presidential. He’s dynamic, well-spoken and has a lovely family. The question is whether he can do any better with the conservative base than Romney (who’s weighed down by RomneyCare) and Daniels.
Some still hope that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) might get into the race. (Another un-Daniels, who’s not giving an inch before entering negotiations.) Now there is word that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is poking around. He, too, could be a favorite with the conservative base.
For now the hunt goes on for a candidate who excites the base and could beat Obama in 2012.