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Ranking the Republican presidential candidates: The best and worst

at 12:06 PM ET, 04/13/2012

The Republican primary is now over. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s decision to end his bid on Tuesday means that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will be the Republican standard-bearer against President Obama in the fall.


The candidates are introduced before morning's debate. (AP)
The end of the race means a time for reflection in Fixworld. (We are nothing if not introspective.) And, regular readers know the Fix loves looking back at the campaign that was and deciding who did it best and, more deliciously, who did it worst. (Some people call this back seat driving; we call it “analysis”!)

We’ve spent the last 48 hours or so marinating on the Republican presidential primary race and talking to smart GOP operatives about the field of candidates.

Our goal was to produce a ranking — from worst to best — of the nine major candidates (sorry Fred Karger, Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer) based on but not limited to a handful of criteria including quality of candidate, quality of campaign organization, over/underperformance of expectations and influence on the overall conversation in the race.

This is, obviously, a somewhat subjective exercise — particularly in the middle of the pack. It’s far easier to determine the best and the worst; making slight gradations between those who ranked somewhere between fourth and seventh is much tougher.

So, who did we rank too low? Who too high? The comments section awaits.

Our Line is below. Remember the number one ranked candidate ran the best campaign; the number nine ranked candidate the worst. (Duh.)

To the Line!

9. Rick Perry: To who much is given, much is expected. The Texas governor entered the Republican presidential race on the day of the Ames Straw Poll (Aug. 11) and immediately became its frontrunner. Perry seemingly had it all: a conservative record of governance in the Lone Star State, a confrontational rhetorical style that fit the Republican electorate, the southern roots that the party had rewarded in the past and access to unlimited stores of money. On paper, there’s little question that Perry should have been the nominee. But, the race revolved around debates in the fall and winter months and Perry bombed worse in those get-togethers than even his biggest detractors expected. (Perry’s “oops” moment may be the lasting memory of this Republican presidential race.) His message also meandered badly — was he the job creator, the social conservative, the populist of something else? — and he was never a real factor once voters started voting.

8. Jon Huntsman: Like Perry, Huntsman was a late entrant into a field that seemed desperate for figures of real heft to take on Romney. But from the moment he resigned his post as the Obama Administration’s Ambassador to China in the spring of 2011, Huntsman’s stock steadily declined. His positioning in the race — a centrist (tonally, at least) preaching the need to avoid wedge issues in order to solve big problems — was a terrible fit for the Republican electorate. He never seemed to find an issue that really resonated. And, most importantly, Huntsman never seemed to be truly all-in on the race. Never was that more evident than in the debates when Huntsman was as likely to make oblique attempts at humor (a Nirvana reference!) as try to score political points against his opponents. It seemed like Huntsman felt obligated to run — not that he wanted to run. And voters sensed it.

7. Tim Pawlenty: The Minnesota governor was the first major candidate to drop from the race after finishing a disappointing third at the Ames Straw Poll. That showing culminated a disastrous three months for Pawlenty that began with his unwillingness to attack Romney over health care during a June New Hampshire debate. While it’s impossible to blame the failure of a presidential candidacy on a single moment, Pawlenty’s inexplicable pass on hitting Romney was a window into why the former Minnesota governor simply couldn’t turn potential into anything more. The truth laid bare by that moment was that Pawlenty was just too nice for this process, that he wasn’t willing (or able) to do what it takes to win. By Ames, it was clear to Pawlenty — and anyone who covered him — that he was done with the race. He had seen what it takes to win and found himself wanting.

6. Michele Bachmann: Bachmann had a moment in the race, which was more than the people ranked higher than her can say. From the time she wowed in a June debate in New Hampshire all the way through the Ames Straw Poll in August, she was the “it” candidate in the race. Bachmann’s rise effectively killed of Pawlenty’s prospects and, for those three months, she looked every bit the frontrunner in the Iowa caucuses. Bachmann’s problem was that Perry stole the momentum she should have received for winning Ames and better filled the slot as the electable conservative in the field. Bachmann and her campaign team never seemed to have formulated an effective plan to deal with Perry and by the time he began to flame out, she was in no position to capi­tal­ize. Given her short — and largely unremarkable — record in Congress, the fact that Bachmann was ever regarded as a serious threat to Romney (and for a time she was) is pretty amazing.

5. Herman Cain: No, Herman Cain was never going to be the Republican presidential nominee. His jaw-dropping lack of knowledge about foreign policy coupled with a tumultuous — to put it kindly — personal life ensured that. But, look at what Cain did accomplish in the race. For a time in the fall he was the frontrunner, according to polls, and better known candidates like Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were scrambling to find an economic message as simple and appealing as Cain’s “9-9-9” plan. As a candidate, Cain was what Republicans wanted: a straight-talking political outsider. The problem was he never had any real campaign to speak of or much discipline on the trail. Cain succeeded — for a time — on the strength of his personality alone. But, when you scratched even half an inch below the surface, there was no there there. Or, put more accurately, the there that was there was often troubling. Still, not a bad performance for a guy whose last run for office was a huge loss in a Georgia Senate primary.

4. Newt Gingrich: In our conversations with various Republican operatives about the field, the biggest point of contention was where to rank the former House Speaker. Some suggested he should be at or near the top because he dominated most of the early debates, willed himself into the top tier and managed to win the usually predictive South Carolina primary convincingly. Other people said Gingrich belonged at the bottom because his campaign consisted of doing and saying whatever he wanted, which, after all, is not really a campaign at all. While we generally agree with the idea that Gingrich’s “campaign” quickly devolved into a sort of vanity effort that provided Gingrich a convenient platform to sell his “big” ideas to audiences around the country, he still deserves real credit for watching his campaign implode in the summer of 2011 and managing — some how, some way — to get himself into contention by the time voters started to vote. What’s clear is that Gingrich remains, in some circles, a remarkably compelling politician with considerable rhetorical gifts. He is also someone who simply will not listen to the advice of others and forever thinks he knows best. It’s the yin and yang of Newt. And both were on full display during this campaign.

3. Ron Paul: There’s an argument to be made that if the Texas Republican Congressman has been willing to hedge his foreign policy views even slightly, he could have been a major factor in the race as opposed to a bit player. But, of course, that’s not Ron Paul. Paul’s campaign in 2012 was a vast improvement from his 2008 effort; his ads stood out for their uniqueness and — dare we say it — humor. Paul’s messaging on economic issues went from the fringe in 2008 to the center in 2012 as ending the Federal Reserve and distrusting big government policies as they relate to the economy was adopted by literally every candidate in the field. And yet, Paul always seemed to want to talk about his non-interventionist foreign policy beliefs, beliefs that are drastically out of step with the Republican party. Paul’s unwillingness to compromise his beliefs made him a hero to his backers. But, it also severely limited his ability to grow his base of support. In the end, that turned Paul into a slightly more influential version of what he was in 2008. But, his campaign may have proved that a more political politician with similar views on economic issues — like, say, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — could make a real run at the nomination in the future.

2. Rick Santorum: When we met with Santorum a few years back and he and his consultant John Brabender told us he was thinking about running for president.. We rolled our eyes — figuratively speaking. Well, Santorum/Brabender were right. And we were wrong. Santorum’s tortoise-like rise in the race was built on a belief that people wanted an alternative to Romney and that, when all of the others had risen and faded, that the former Pennsylvania senator’s record would appeal to them. Santorum was clearly the momentum candidate going into Iowa and if not for a slip-up by the Iowa Republican Party would have been declared the winner of that race and emerged far sooner as the main conservative alternative to Romney. Santorum drifted down a cul-de-sac of cultural issues and attacks against people like John F. Kennedy in the runup to the Feb. 28 Michigan primary and doomed his chances. Still, Santorum wound up winning 11 states while being drastically outspent and out-organized by Romney at every turn. And, he emerges from this race with a significantly higher and better profile than he entered it.

1. Mitt Romney: No, Romney’s campaign wasn’t perfect. And yes, Romney as a candidate was far from perfect. And yes, the field of challengers against him was among the weakest in modern presidential history. But, he won. And, he won despite a number of strikes against him — Mormon, moderate (tonally), and health care among them. Romney effectively leveraged his clear advantages in the race — money and organization — to insulate himself from the fact that he never was going to be the first choice of conservatives. While he made a handful of verbal gaffes — corporations are people too, $10,000 bet, I like to fire people — that will come back to haunt him in the general election, he largely ran a disciplined and effective messaging effort that focused on his economic expertise. While Romney doesn’t step away from the primary process as early or as emboldened as his campaign would have liked, he remains a candidate who is a viable alternative to Obama if voters decide that they want to fire the incumbent in the fall. And, if winning is the ultimate judgment on who did the best — and it is — it’s hard not to say that Romney ran the best campaign of anyone on the Republican side.

 
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