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Oct 05 2011

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The GOP Field Solidifies

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Yep, This is it....

Ronald Reagan was fond of telling a story about a poor farmer and his young son as a parable for hope and optimism.

In the story, the boy asks his father for a pony for Christmas. The farmer, barely able to make ends meet, has no way to make his son’s wish come true. On Christmas morning, the boy charges out into the back yard to find his present.  The farmer follows him, and finds his son digging through a pile of manure used to fertilize the fields.

Momentarily taken aback, the farmer asks his son what he is doing.

The boy turns and smiles and says, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.”

And so it is with Republican primary voters and the field of candidates seeking the nomination.

Since the 2010 victory parties ended, the GOP has been looking for the conservative knight-on-white-horse who will deliver the nation from Barack Obama.

Mere mortals  joined the fray, but the Party faithful kept looking at the horizon, ultimately in vane.

Yesterday, the latest official trotted out to save the Party – Governor Chris Christie of NJ – dashed the hopes of many by declining impassioned pleas to run for president.

With the clock ticking down, and unruly state parties making things worse by jockeying to move up their primary dates, the door is all but closed to another, major candidate getting into the GOP race.

 Yes, there’s still Sarah Palin, but if polls are to be believed she would make things worse rather than better with more than 60% of Republicans opposed to her joining the fray.

So ladies and gentlemen, what you have is what you’ve got.

You can almost hear the air leaking out of the balloon.

We have Mitt Romney, whose skillful debate performances and newly flinty campaign have otherwise obscured his career of policy relativism. It remains an unnerving fact that having run for president almost non-stop since 2007, Romney, the nominal front runner, has yet to seal the deal with Republicans or connect with average voters.

We have Rick Perry, who jumped in, after a period of seemingly careful preparation, with a meaty record of executive experience in the service of conservative goals, and an enviable record of job creation.

But he has been done in by the worst debate performances since Reagan met Mondale for the first time in 1984.  In addition, the perception of an alarming void created in the debates, has been compounded by rookie mistakes by Perry’s campaign in defending Perry’s record, and the wholesale lack of preparation in dealing with a hostile, investigative press.

And these are the front runners.

Michele Bachmann saw her light shine brightly after the Ames straw poll, but she was almost immediately marginalized by Perry’s entrance into the race, and she has not gained any ground at Perry’s expense since.  Indeed, her attacks on Perry during the debates have diminished, not enhanced, her presidential standing.

Herman Cain has gone from asterisk to contender with terrific debate performances, honed by his years on talk radio, and a snappy economic plan “9-9-9.” He won the Florida straw poll, upsetting and embarrassing Rick Perry in the process.

But Cain’s rise has more to do with dissatisfaction at those leading the race than with inherent strength for Cain. His willingness to talk candidly and propose solutions speaks to a hunger in the Republican Party for leadership. But Cain is a loose cannon and has already made public statements that will haunt him should he vault to the first tier of candidates.

Newt Gingrich is still running. He knows more about Washington than anyone in the race, and he thinks big. His commitment to the race seems more certain now than when his campaign imploded as he took a Greek cruise, shortly after announcing his intentions. But there remains no clear path to the nomination.

He’s the radioactive ideas guy.

Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are still running.

Enough said.

Bringing up the rear is former Governor Jon Huntsman.

His announcement ceremony was a flop. His call for reduced partisanship was immediately at odds with the GOP grassroots and its demand for red meat. His service as President Obama’s ambassador to China made him suspect, reinforcing doubts about his conservativie bone fides, particularly on social issues. And then there was the campaign infighting. Despite very solid debate performances, Huntsman is stuck at 2% in most polls.

Ironically, the former two-term governor of Utah – the most conservative state in the Union – is now burdened with the equivalent of a Republican scarlet letter – he’s the squishy moderate.

Thus, as of today, it appears that the nomination is Romney’s to lose.

His fund-raising is respectable, if not stellar. While his stump speeches and debate performances are hardly inspired, he speaks in complete sentences and with coherence. His critique of Obama policies has tightened and sharpened, and he’s put his own detailed policy fixes on the table as an alternative.

More than any other candidate, Romney seems keenly aware of his own limitations, and he has demonstrated iron determination with message control and expectations management.

 He intends to win by not losing; by being the most acceptable among a cohort of less than ideal candidates. Strangely, and perhaps ironically, that is President Obama’s re-election strategy as well.

Perry was the greatest threat to Romney when the Texas governor entered the race, but the debates have altered that calculus. Whether Perry can recover in October what he lost in August-September and regain momentum, will be the key to determining the final make up of the race going into the Iowa Caucuses. A key precursor will be Perry’s fundraising prowess.  A solid number on par with Romney – or greater – will provide the means to a second chance.

 However, if the Perry challenge does collapse, someone will have to rise from the field of dwarves to offer an alternative to Romney, if only to give voice to the doubts about Romney’s fickle policy positions.

In that scenerio, Jon Huntsman may be someone to watch.

He recently moved his campaign to New Hampshire, obstensibly taking on the Romney juggernaut there. According to Real Clear Politics.com, Romney leads in New Hampshire with 38%, followed by Perry at 14%, Ron Paul at 13% and Huntsman at 6%.

If Perry were out of the race by New Hampshire, it is not obvious that his support would automatically go to Romney. Paul is not a viable alternative, thus Huntsman has a strategic opening, albeit very narrow.

And Romney knows the possibility exists.  He’s been to this horror show once before.

In October 2007, a New Hampshire poll had Romney on top with 27%, Rudy Guliani in second with 21% and John McCain in third at 17%. The “Rick Perry of 2007” Senator Fred Thompson, who had entered the race in August with excellent polling numbers, had by October fallen like a stone to 4th place, with 10%.

McCain, whose campaign had imploded earlier in 2007 came back to win New Hampshire and the nomination.

All of this is conjecture of course, dependent on events that have yet to unfold.

However this plays out, this we do know; 2012 will be a much longer primary season than in the past. The RNC has banned “winner-take-all” primaries before April 2012 to allow for greater competition and give candidates that come in second or even third in early contests, the ability to continue to compete.

In a hard fought campaign across the nation – a la Ford-Reagan in ’76, Republicans could go to Tampa deeply divided.

So, for you folks still digging through the fertilizer, there does remain one, last hope; a hard fought race that ends in a brokered convention where knight on the white horse can ride in and save the day from otherwise unappealing candidates…..

 

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