The Republican candidates have been overshadowed for most of the summer by the tense debt-ceiling debate in Washington, fears of a U.S. default and growing worries about the U.S. and global economies. Now, with the first votes in the nomination battle less than six months away, the candidates will feel growing pressure not only to demonstrate their vote-getting appeal but also to spell out how they would grapple with the huge problems the next president will face.
“We are fast approaching act two of the primary cycle,” said Todd Harris, a GOP strategist not currently aligned with any candidate. “The next couple weeks will be revealing in terms of who has what it takes to have a second act and who doesn’t.”
Romney’s front-runner status seems secure for the time being, given his overall strength in the polls, his financial advantage, his New Hampshire base and the discipline with which he has run his campaign to date. But his vulnerabilities intensify the competition to become his principal challenger.
The race has been marked by two realities — the lack of enthusiasm for Romney as the potential GOP standard-bearer and the inability of any of the other candidates to take advantage of that perceived weakness. Instead, the GOP campaign has been more a story of those who have tried and so far failed, as well as those who chose not even to try.
The list of non-starters includes several potentially formidable candidates — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — and a flamboyant wild card named Donald Trump. Add Sarah Palin to that list, unless she suddenly shows real interest in running.
The list of those who have fallen short of early expectations includes two former state executives, Pawlenty and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Of all those, Pawlenty has the most at risk over the next week. His path to the nomination depends on victory in the Iowa caucuses next winter. But he has remained in single digits in polls there and nationally. In the past two months, he has been eclipsed by fellow Minnesotan Bachmann, who entered the race in June and leapt to the top of the polls in Iowa.
Bachmann is as dependent as Pawlenty on a winter victory in Iowa, and the two are now on a collision course as they head toward Saturday’s straw poll in Ames. Given the history of the poll, it’s not likely that both can claim a victory next weekend, though both may try.