By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Little more than four months into President Obama's first term, potential Republican rivals have begun to stir, taking preliminary steps toward 2012 presidential campaigns aimed at rejuvenating a party that has found itself at its lowest point in a generation.
Twice this week, the political community has seized on signs of activity among prospective GOP presidential candidates. On Monday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney delivered a speech at the Heritage Foundation, where he slammed Obama for having taken what he called a foreign "tour of apology" this year. Romney ran unsuccessfully for his party's nomination in 2008, and his speech was seen as a forceful expression of interest in another bid.
The next day, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced that he will not seek reelection next year, voluntarily leaving after his second term. Pawlenty was runner-up to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in Sen. John McCain's 2008 vice presidential sweepstakes, and his move was interpreted as a step toward a possible 2012 presidential run, freed from the responsibilities of managing a state while campaigning full time for more than two years.
A third Republican governor, Mississippi's Haley Barbour, has scheduled appearances in New Hampshire and Iowa for later this month. Barbour, a former party chairman, will help raise money for Republicans on his forays to the two states at the front of the presidential nomination calendar. But as one of the canniest politicians in the Republican Party, Barbour knows that landing in either of those states, let alone both, will stoke speculation about his interest in 2012 as well.
And when former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) tried yesterday to roll back his accusation that Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, was a racist, that, too, was taken as a sign of his desire to shed baggage should he decide to seek the nomination.
Presidential activity is as much illusory as real at this point, as much an opportunity to feed blog speculation and cable conversation as a sign of actual preparations for a presidential campaign. But at a time when the Republican Party is on its back, out of power in Congress and shut out of the White House, the search for prominent and popular leaders is underway and no better vehicle exists than the long process of selecting the party's next presidential nominee.
"This is a time when leaders in our party are trying to put forward a more compelling vision for voters," said Terry Nelson, a Republican strategist. "It's also a time when one group of leaders has exited the stage and a new group of leaders has to come onto the stage to effectively put forward that message."
That transition is underway, but it has been difficult. At times, the older generation of Republicans -- including former vice president Richard B. Cheney, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and one or another of the party's congressional leaders -- has dominated. But many Republicans see it as essential that a different group begins to emerge to help redefine the GOP, and that has raised speculation about potential Obama challengers.
The list of prospective Republican candidates is lengthy and lacks an obvious front-runner. A CNN poll released this week showed a virtual three-way tie among Palin, Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who also ran in 2008. All had about a fifth of the support of Republicans. Gingrich came in fourth, followed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose family name remains an impediment to any possible near-term presidential aspirations.
The list is elastic and likely to change in coming months. Others who are considered possible candidates include South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is another possible candidate, though his decision to run for the Senate in 2010 would make a presidential bid in 2012 more difficult.
Some Republicans see this presidential cycle starting more slowly than they expected, held back by voter fatigue after the long 2008 campaign, by the GOP's internal problems and by Obama's popularity. Voters "clearly have been intrigued by the persona of this new president and his family," said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire strategist. "There was no hunger to start a debate right away."
Others believe it is moving apace, as swiftly as in other recent cycles and out of necessity, given the demands that running for president now entail. "The last thing anybody wants to do is look back in late 2010 or early 2011 and say, 'I wish I could run. I can see how I might have a chance but I squandered all this time and I don't have anything to show,' " said GOP strategist John Weaver.
The 2008 campaign was one of the longest in history, but Republican strategists think the competition for their 2012 nomination will be as long or longer. They expect to see candidates beginning their campaigns immediately after the 2010 midterm elections, and to do that, they must spend much of the next 18 months getting ready.
Over that time, prospective candidates must gauge whether they have the political viability and the financial wherewithal to mount a successful campaign. If the last campaign is any guide, some of those now looking will conclude they have no realistic chance of winning and drop out before the campaign even begins.
"Most potential candidates are going to be looking at putting something into the field in early 2011, and you can't do that if you don't work hard for the next year and a half," Nelson said.