These are puzzling times for mainstream Republicans, the sort who vote in every presidential election, who are fearful of international chaos and wary of but not hostile to government. Their prime objective is to wrest the White House from Democrats, but they also believe experience and qualifications count for something. They are appalled at the prospect that Donald Trump or Ben Carson might be the nominee, if only because they know there would be a landslide of 1964 proportions. They dislike Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for his reckless conduct in the shutdown and incessant pandering to extreme elements in the party. They know they won’t vote for any of these three. But whom do they support?
It is not an unimportant or hypothetical question. It is precisely the question for a plurality of Republicans, the 30 to 40 percent of conservative or somewhat conservative voters who usually determine the party’s nominee. For these voters, for whom merit and experience matter in their personal and work lives, it is tempting but hard to rationalize voting for a freshman senator like Marco Rubio or businesswoman like Carly Fiorina. They may in the final analysis come down to one of them, but not before exhausting more conventional candidates.
The three moderates with gubernatorial credentials seem most likely to attract such voters. Each has pluses and minuses.
The mainstream Republicans liked and still like former president George W. Bush. They know, however, that many Americans do not. They have liked Jeb Bush as the wonkish governor and think he might be best equipped to be president. Still, they have not been assured by his performance to date. They need to be convinced that he is forceful enough to withstand the Democratic onslaught and that he has a clear identity compelling enough for voters to see him as more than another Bush. The jury is out.
Next there is John Kasich. Mainstream voters appreciate his successes as Ohio’s governor, know he has appeal beyond the GOP base and have no doubt that his 18 years on the Hill and tenure in a major industrial state qualify him for the presidency. And yet they are troubled by his Jack Kemp-on-caffeine, frenetic style. They look for a steady hand, clear and firm declarations of policy and someone entirely capable of staring down America’s enemies. Kasich does not as yet project that. Put his résumé on Carly Fiorina’s persona and they’d be happy, but alas, you cannot extract and combine the best of each contender.
Lastly, there is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Mainstream Republicans appreciate his tenure as governor in a blue state and have been assured that he has a forceful approach to foreign policy. His takedowns of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) convinced these voters that he would be a credible commander in chief. They were turned off by the bridge scandal allegations and his overbearing reaction at times to voters, but the bridge controversy never amounted to much. Compared with Trump, Christie seems like an introvert. They might be won over as the debate participants fall by the wayside. He has the most untapped potential of those remaining, and New Hampshire remains a critical race for him.
The quandary continues for these voters. Do they discount experience for Fiorina’s sense of command or Rubio’s eloquent, optimistic tone? The most qualified moderates are, like any candidate, far from ideal. Someone, however, will emerge from the mix as the most likely nominee, likely to go up against Trump or maybe Cruz. The next few months will be about finding the least flawed candidate acceptable to the party’s mainstream. That is how one becomes the GOP presidential nominee.