Opinion writer April 19, 2011

There are those who say we already have too many Republicans running for president. But a few believe we need Moore.

Roy Moore, you may recall, is the Ten Commandments judge who was removed at chief justice of Alabama in 2003 for refusing to remove his stone pillars from the courthouse. He subsequently lost two races to be governor of Alabama, the last time coming in fourth place in the Republican primary with only 19 percent of the vote.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Usually, a multiple loser would move on to practice law, or shuffleboard. But in the upwardly failing state of our politics, Moore believes his multiple defeats qualify him to be president — a ruling the Ten Commandments judge announced, appropriately enough, on the eve of Passover.

“I am forming an exploratory committee for the office of president of the United States,” he declared Monday on WHO, an AM radio station in Des Moines.

The radio host was not expecting this. “You just declared that you want to be president?” he asked.

“I just declared that I’m going to form an exploratory committee to investigate that proposition, yes,” the fallen judge said.

“Is this an announcement you just made here?” the interviewer asked, still puzzled.

“It’s the first time I’ve made it, yes,” the candidate answered.

“Eh, um, okay,” the host said.

It’s hard to imagine that somebody who fell short of 20 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial primary in Alabama could win in a nationwide general election. But the standard of viability is much lower in this cycle’s Republican presidential primary field.

The field is so fractured that there is little distance between the joke candidates and the supposed front-runners. In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, the top choice, Mitt Romney, got only 16 percent when Republican-leaning adults were asked to name their candidates. Donald Trump got 8 percent, Mike Huckabee 6 percent and Sarah Palin 5 percent. All the rest — including Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman — ranged from 2 percent to asterisks.

In other signs of disillusionment with the 2012 field, the “none of them” option scored 12 points, and 33 percent had no opinion — higher than 17 months ago even though the election is now much closer. Only 5 percent pronounced themselves “very satisfied” with the offerings. But it’s good news for the also-rans. If Pawlenty, a reputed front-runner, earned one percentage point, who’s to dismiss Moore as frivolous?

The Republicans’ gaggle of gadflies is the logical consequence of the narrowing of the primary electorate, now dominated more than ever by religious conservatives — including about 60 percent of caucus voters in all-important Iowa. More viable candidates — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels — have opted not to demean themselves by engaging these voters in an endless discussion of gays, abortion and, sometimes, Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

Trump, now basing his candidacy on the “birther” issue, has been particularly transparent in hitting the social conservatives’ buttons. A decade ago he favored abortion rights, gay rights, universal health care and a huge new tax on the wealthy. He spoke of the “lunatic fringe” of the Republican Party. “The Republicans, especially those in Congress, are captives of their right wing,” he wrote, explaining why he quit the GOP.

If a chunk of Republican primary voters can fall for such a phony, surely a few of them could find room in their hearts for Moore, whose conservative credentials are quite literally set in stone. And this year, a few percentage points put you in the middle of the pack.

Moore left no doubt about the quality of campaign he would wage. On his new exploratory committee Web site, roymoore2012.com, he has posted, under “qualifications,” a copy of his birth certificate — demonstrating him to be an authentic product of Gadsden, Ala., the son of a butcher and a housewife who lived in a public housing project.

He expanded on his platform in the Iowa radio interview. “A moral, economic and constitutional crisis. . . . Family is being destroyed. . . . An attack on marriage. . . . Open homosexuality in the military.” Moore wasn’t even convinced that “we have to have taxes at all.”

His message isn’t for everybody. When he addressed a Tea Party audience in a high school gymnasium in Ohio over the weekend, only a third of the seats were filled, the Mansfield News Journal reported.

But in this year’s Republican presidential field, a small following is all you need to be a contender.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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