“Any first-tier candidate or candidate who aspires to be in that first tier is a beneficiary,” said Republican strategist Brian Jones, who worked for GOP nominee John McCain in 2008.
For starters, the resolution of one of the biggest questions about the race could draw in donors and activists who have been sitting on the sidelines. It also could help shift the public’s attention from the candidates’ backstage deliberations to their messages.
“The field is set,” senior Romney adviser Stuart Stevens said. “The economy is the dominant issue. So now we start to focus on who is the best on [the] economy.”
But for all of Romney’s assets, including fundraising firepower demonstrated earlier this month by a phone bank that raised more than $10 million in a single day, his uneven performance in his unsuccessful 2008 bid has left many Republicans doubtful that he has the political skills it will take to beat President Obama.
That is why the search for an alternative has, by some measures, made this the most wide-open nominating contest in half a century or more.
With Daniels’s decision, “it opens up some more airspace,” said Phil Musser, a senior adviser to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who declared in a video Sunday night that he is running for president and will make his formal announcement Monday. The first caucus in Iowa is crucial to Pawlenty’s viability, and Daniels could have presented formidable competition for the regional loyalties of Midwesterners.
Another camp buoyed by Daniels’s announcement was that of the freshest face in the field, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., a potential candidate who will wrap up a five-day swing through New Hampshire on Monday. Like Pawlenty, he is trying to sell himself as someone who has crossover appeal outside the GOP base.
“For all the talk that the field is still unsettled, it really isn’t,” said John Weaver, a former McCain strategist who is the top adviser to Huntsman. “I think it leaves only one credible fiscal conservative who has the ability to win both the primary and the general election.”
Daniels’s decision came at the end of a week that saw enormous upheaval in the race.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, announced that he would not be a candidate, as did reality-TV star and real estate developer Donald Trump. Last month, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced that he would not run, after making several swings through the early primary states.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich’s candidacy got off to a rocky start. The former House speaker spent most of his first week as an official candidate trying to clean up the damage from comments he made on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Among the most inflammatory was his suggestion that a GOP effort to revamp the Medicare program — which nearly every House Republican is on record as voting for — amounts to “right-wing social engineering.”
On Sunday, Gingrich attempted a do-over on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” telling host Bob Schieffer, “I probably used unfortunate language about social engineering.”
For all the Republican hand-wringing over the state of the race, there is one place where the strength of the potential field is not being discounted: the Obama White House.
Strategists there note the country is so divided that any credible contender is likely to emerge from the nominating contest with a strong, energized base of support and adequate financial resources.
Said one adviser to the Obama reelection campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity: “Through the process of winning that nomination, they will achieve stature, and by the reality of having won that nomination, they will be competitive with the president at fundraising.”
Added another: “Unless it’s Palin or Gingrich, we expect a very close race no matter who emerges.”