The Reluctant Republican Can'tidates

May 10, 2011

Where are all the gung-ho Republican candidates for the 2012 presidential election?

The last time the racetrack looked like this and the GOP was up against an incumbent Democrat, it was 1995. Bill Clinton was in the White House. But by this mid-May point in the election cycle, a roster of Republicans was already champing at the bit to run against him. And eight of them had announced their intentions to run — Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Arlen Specter, Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan, Richard Lugar, Bob Dornan and Alan Keyes.

Yet this time around the serious contenders are acting timid and head shy. A few bigtimers are whinnying and shivering in the stables. Ron Paul has formed an exploratory committee. So has Tim Pawlenty. Mitch Daniels is exploring the possibilities with his wife. Donald Trump has been hoofing it around New Hampshire — and other places — in his exploratory jet. But most of them do not appear ready to stop exploring and start racing.

Newt Gingrich may make an announcement by Twitter on Wednesday.

This would seem to be a solid gold opportunity for Republicans to re-capture the White House. Obama's approval ratings dropped rather precipitously during his first year in office, and until last week's killing of Osama bin Laden the president has struggled to recover his election-time popularity.

And Republicans are likely to have a chance to gain an upper hand in Congress. They overwhelmed Democrats in the midterm elections to take over the House. And while Democrats barely kept their grip on the Senate, it looks like they will be forced to defend 23 seats in 2012, compared to the 10 seats that Republicans that will be forced to defend.

Still, this is the year of the reluctant Republicans. The field is full of half-hearted hopefuls who just can't seem to make up their minds. Call them the can'tidates. And for some reason, they are reticent to run against Obama.

Can Anyone Beat Obama?

For one thing, many of the Republican Party's tout-sheet favorites, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio just don't seem saddle-ready. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says that perhaps these and some other big Republican hosses have decided that 2016 looks like a more promising year. "The timing isn't right for some of them," Sabato says. "A Bush can't be elected so soon after George W., some new governors and senators don't have enough experience, etcetera."

Yet underneath it all, Sabato says, there is "a suspicion" that no one will be able to beat Obama in 2012. "By the way," he adds, "'that assumption may be wrong. If the economy is weak enough, Obama can lose to a respectable Republican like Daniels, Pawlenty or [Mitt] Romney. Most GOP politicians may be calculating that the economy is likely to get better — enough so that Obama can grab his second term." Plus incumbents do have an edge.

But that doesn't fully explain the reluctance. Is there something about either the anti-government mood or dealing with the Tea Party faction or the difficulties the next administration will face in budgeting and war that is leading to a real hesitance? Could it be that the Republicans are just skittish about battling Obama? The president is proving to be a masterful politician — leaning right or left as necessary. And to many Americans, his recent handling of the attack on Osama bin Laden was considered heroic and affirmatively presidential.

Diana Banister is a political consultant whose firm, Shirley & Banister, has worked for several Republican presidential candidates, including Buchanan, Steve Forbes and John McCain. She doesn't believe that Republicans are afraid of Obama in 2012. After all, she says, "his policies have not been well received by the American people. In fact, after the slight bump he may receive from the ordering of the Osama bin Laden strike, I suspect his policies on foreign policy, energy, immigration, health care and a host of other issues will be more thoroughly exposed by these candidates whether they are officially in or not."

The reason many Thoroughbred Republicans have not entered the race, Banister says, "is that this is a very long and arduous process. For anyone who's been involved in a presidential campaign, the toll it takes on the person and their family is great. Once they declare, their lives are changed dramatically — non-stop fundraising and events in key primary states, not to mention the tremendous media scrutiny makes the decision to run difficult."

Potential candidates have to assess all these factors before making the decision, she says. "They and their families have to be all in."

Her message: Hold your horses. "This is a long process," Banister says. "The primaries aren't until next January. Instead of front loading the primary season, it should be spread out further into the year. But, there is plenty of time for these candidates to get in and make their case to the American people."

Romney is "acting like a front-runner", she says, even though he has not officially joined the fray. And even though four years ago he formally declared in mid-February. Plus, "a lot rests on the decisions by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, as they would be front-runners especially in Iowa."

'Fringe Candidates'

After watching the recent Fox News-sponsored GOP presidential candidates debate in South Carolina — featuring Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Gary Johnson — Sabato says, "this was one of the oddest discussions ever, with most of the candidates showing clearly why they'll never be president."

The preponderance of "fringe candidates" makes for a confusing field, Sabato says. "Strange things happen, but not strange enough to see Herman Cain, Buddy Roemer, Ron Paul, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, or Michele Bachmann elected president. A slightly better case can be made for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, but only slightly."

So is it too late already for a serious Republican to become a contender? Not really. In American history, Sabato says, there have been a fair number of late-blooming candidates who have been nominated by the parties. Wendell Willkie in 1940, for example.

In recent decades, though, most serious candidates announce fairly early in the process — "since conventions have ceased to be the point of decision," Sabato says.

There is one notable exception. Bill Clinton waited until October 1991 to announce his intention to run in the 1992 election, Sabato says, "but he had been running for some time before he formalized it. The Democratic field was weak that year, with Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt staying out, wrongly assuming George H.W. Bush wouldn't be beaten."

To Sabato, that 1992 cycle may be the best modern example of a party being unable to field a strong team for the nomination battle. "Viewed another way, the 1992 cycle could give Republicans hope, assuming the economy stays weak and the GOP picks one of the adults in the field as its nominee. Both of these assumptions may be faulty, of course."

Given the general party dissatisfaction with the candidate choices so far, Sabato adds, "I wouldn't rule out the possibility that someone like Chris Christie could surprise us and jump in come fall. Maybe Donald Trump is a kind of placeholder for the dissatisfied Republican. The nominee certainly won't be Trump, but his 15-20 percent is up for grabs, for starters. Again, I wouldn't bet on this scenario. Still, it is enough of a possibility to fire the imagination of the political community." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit