Political Hay

The Unorthodox Frontrunner

Despite his many political liabilities, Mitt Romney is the candidate most likely to claim the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

By 11.18.10

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Viewed in isolation, Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential candidacy is doomed.

In 2008, Romney earned himself a reputation as a flip-flopper as he dramatically attempted to reshape himself as a stanch conservative despite having previously staked out liberal positions on abortion, guns, immigration and a litany of other issues.

This time around, Romney faces the additional burden of trying to explain away his most significant legislative accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts -- a big government health care plan that was a model for ObamaCare. In his last presidential bid he was largely able to get a pass, because health care wasn't as big of an issue. But this time around, Republican voters are clamoring for repeal of the national health care law while conservatives are cheering on constitutional challenges to its individual mandate to purchase health insurance -- a central element of MassCare that Romney defended during his first presidential run.

Despite these complicating factors, the reality is that Romney would not be seeking the GOP presidential nomination in a vacuum. In reality, if he's going to lose, some other candidate is going to have to beat him, and right now, all of the other prospective Republican candidates have their own set of weaknesses.

A Gallup poll released this week showed a wide-open Republican field. Romney led the pack at 19 percent, with Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee at 16 percent, Newt Gingrich at 13 percent, and all other candidates in the single digits.

While Palin remains the biggest GOP star and has a passionate following, when you get beyond her core supporters, voters are deeply skeptical of her ability to be president. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken last month found that even conservatives are divided -- with just 45 percent saying she's qualified to be the nation's top executive and 48 percent saying she isn't. Tea Party supporters are split 48 percent to 48 percent on the question. Meanwhile, among the public at large, just 27 percent view her as qualified compared with 67 percent who say she isn't. Were Palin to run, she'd have to prove that she could build a functioning national political operation and translate her celebrity into actual votes beyond her fan base.

When Huckabee ran the last time around, he built a strong campaign on a shoestring budget with little name recognition, but he had trouble competing in states that did not have a critical mass of evangelical voters. And national security and economic conservatives distrusted him. Were he to make a second bid for president, in addition to these obstacles, Huckabee's penchant for pardoning criminals as governor of Arkansas would come under added scrutiny given that he commuted the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, who in 2009 was suspected of killing four cops in Washington state.

Gingrich, who in the past has exploited speculation about his presidential ambitions to promote himself and his books, may actually decide to run this time. But while he's respected in some quarters for being a one man idea factory, he's rankled many grassroots conservatives for such decisions as recording a television ad with Nancy Pelosi demanding action on climate change and endorsing liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava over conservative Doug Hoffman in a well-publicized special election, allying himself with the GOP establishment. Should he run for president, he'll also carry a ton of personal baggage that he'll be seriously questioned about for the first time since the late 1990s.

The list goes on and on. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will enter the race with lower name recognition than his rivals and a sense that he's too boring to be president. His rightward shift over the past few years will also open him up to charges of being a flip flopper. Over the past several months, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has managed to anger key constituencies of the conservative movement by calling for a "truce" on social issues, saying that defense cuts had to be on the table, and flirting with a value added tax. At a time of unprecedented anti-Washington sentiment, it's hard to see Republicans rally around a lobbyist in Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Thus, despite his many flaws as a candidate that may appear fatal at first glance, Romney benefits from the nature of his competition. And despite his weaknesses as a candidate, he also brings a number of advantages. Romney would enter the race with far higher name recognition than he did his first time around and a broad national political organization that has been building up good will by helping Republican candidates in key states. He also enjoys a vast fundraising network. Furthermore, in 2012, the focus is likely to be on the economy, a subject on which he's much more comfortable talking about than social issues, immigration and Iraq, which dominated the conversation the last time he ran.

For better or worse, Republicans have a tendency to pick the person who is seen as the next in line for the nomination, which is one reason the GOP has ended up with lousy candidates such as Bob Dole and John McCain. And in 2012, this proclivity can benefit Romney.

While it will indeed be difficult to explain away RomneyCare, it should be noted that in the run up to the 2008 contest, many conservatives wrote off McCain's chances of winning the nomination given his apostasies on taxes, campaign finance reform, immigration and a number of other issues. Yet in the end, McCain was able to emerge from a weak field to become the nominee.

Assessing each candidate individually, you could come away believing that nobody can win the GOP nomination in 2012. But in reality, somebody has to win. Romney may not be a strong frontrunner, and the field is certainly wide open enough for another candidate to take him down. Yet as bizarre as it may seem, despite his numerous weaknesses, Romney appears to be the most likely to win the right to challenge President Obama.

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About the Author

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