Campaign Crawlers

The Race for Comparative Advantage

CPAC shows why there is no clear frontrunner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

By 2.14.11

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If the Conservative Political Action Conference were to give an award for the most candid assessment of the Republican presidential field by a likely candidate, then former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty would be the runaway winner.

During a meeting with bloggers last Friday, Hotair’s Ed Morrisey asked Pawlenty to respond to the criticism that he lacks the charisma to win a national campaign.

“Compared to who?” Pawlenty asked rhetorically. While conceding the charisma of “global celebrity” Sarah Palin, he continued, “But, really, compared to most of the other people who are serious about running? Are you serious? I won’t name names, but think about it.”

Pawlenty’s response could easily be generalized. Viewed individually, each of the possible Republican candidates has what might be considered a fatal flaw. Yet when compared to each other, it suddenly isn't so fatal.

During the last presidential election cycle, most candidates had already announced they were running by the time CPAC 2007 rolled around, and the conference had an intense campaign flair. While things weren't as heated this year given the slower start to the race, it was still interesting to keep tabs on how those who are often touted as potential candidates decided to position themselves.

Several of the possible candidates gave pretty standard conservative speeches, filled with attacks on President Obama, one liners and lots of red meat.

“This year, the President talked a lot about supporting ‘clean energy,’” Thune said, recalling Obama’s State of the Union address. “And he started by recycling his speech from last year.”

Mitt “I will never apologize for America” Romney’s speech was less notable for what he said than what he left out. Though he launched a long attack on Obama’s economic and domestic policies, he neglected to talk about the president’s signature legislative achievement -- national health care. Given his record of spearheading a similar plan as governor of Massachusetts, it isn’t surprising that Romney decided to avoid the issue for now. But ObamaCare is kind of a big deal for GOP primary voters, and in the general election, hammering the overwhelmingly unpopular law will be a key to Republican chances to retaking the White House. Imagine if, in 2004, the Democrats chose to nominate a candidate who voted for the Iraq War to run against President Bush. Oh, wait. That actually happened.

While Pawlenty declined to criticize RomneyCare directly when I asked him about it at the bloggers’ meeting, he seemed to be taking an indirect swipe during his speech to the conference several hours later.

“The individual mandate in ObamaCare is a page right out of the Jimmy Carter playbook,” Pawlenty said, singling out the provision of the national health care law that is most often associated with Romney’s plan.

The best argument for why Romney could win the nomination is his strong fundraising and organization apparatus coupled with the Republican tendency to reward candidates who are seen as having paid their dues and are presumed to be next in line (see: Dole, Bob and McCain, John). But should Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour enter the race, that argument would go out the window.

As a white guy from the deep South and a former powerful lobbyist, Barbour has obvious obstacles to winning the nomination. Yet, as demonstrated by his time at the helm of the Republican National Committee in 1994 and the Republican Governor’s Association in 2010, he knows how to raise money and build tight political organizations. His decades of service to the party have made him one of the most well-connected (if not the most well-connected) Republican in the nation, and he has plenty of favors to cash in. He also has a successful governing career of his own. If he were to enter the race, it would undercut a lot of the rationale for Beltway pundits to anoint Romney the early frontrunner. And this weekend, Barbour gave every indication he was running.

The clearest signal he sent came when he went out of his way to tout his pro-life record as governor of Mississippi. Earlier in the week, former Sen. Rick Santorum, hoping to launch a bid of his own, had criticized Barbour for making statements that echoed Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ call for a “truce” on social issues while confronting the emergency of the fiscal crisis.

At Friday night’s banquet, Daniels delivered the most serious and thoughtful speech of the possible presidential candidates. He steered clear of easy applause lines and focused on the existential threat to the republic posed by our mounting debt. Yet at the same time, he didn’t take the opportunity to backtrack on his “truce” comments -- if anything, he reiterated them.

“Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers,” Daniels said. “King Pyrrhus is remembered, but his nation disappeared. Winston Churchill set aside his lifetime loathing of Communism in order to fight World War II. Challenged as a hypocrite, he said that when the safety of Britain was at stake, his ‘conscience became a good girl.’ We are at such a moment. I for one have no interest in standing in the wreckage of our Republic saying ‘I told you so’ or ‘You should’ve done it my way.’”

Not surprisingly, Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll at CPAC, with his Campaign for Liberty having paid for young supporters to come to the conference to vote for him. But while Paul has the most enthusiastic (and often obnoxious) supporters, Donald Trump had it right when he told them in a bizarre CPAC appearance that Paul had “zero” chance of becoming president. After much fanfare in 2008, Paul came in fifth place in New Hampshire, with less than 8 percent of the vote in a state that theoretically should have been receptive to his libertarian message.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who hopes to inherit Paul’s support should he decline to run, came in a distant third in the poll, behind Paul and then Romney. Yet Johnson’s 6 percent showing was still double that of the absent former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who had just 3 percent of the vote even though she’s often assumed to be the favorite of the conservative base.

Those optimistic about this year’s GOP field often emphasize that back in 1980, people had their doubts about Ronald Reagan, and polls showed him far behind Jimmy Carter in a hypothetical matchup.

Yet when I had a chance to speak to Barbour at a reception, I asked him whether, whatever doubts existed about his electability, Reagan would still have been the obvious favorite at any similar gathering of conservatives back then. He told me that there was no doubt among conservatives that Reagan was their guy, and that it had been that way since his famous speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964.

If CPAC 2011 reinforced anything, it’s that no similar consensus exists this time around.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein