Meanwhile, the focus of the media, and the political pundits is on the race for the GOP nomination. They are transfixed on the struggle among the candidates to win the support of GOP primary voters who are far more conservative than the mainstream electorate who will determine the winner of the 2012 presidential election.
Democrats realize that Obama can’t run a successful re-election campaign based on his deeply flawed first term performance as president. Instead, they have been hoping that the Republican primary process will produce a candidate who can be labeled as a right wing “Tea Party” extremist, allowing them to try to divert attention away from Obama’s dismal record.
That is why the Obama campaign has quietly targeted Romney, whom they view as the most mainstream of the 3 leading GOP candidates, He would likely strike most independent and centrist voters in the general election as the most credible alternative to Obama as president.
Romney has been the consensus GOP frontrunner in the race for some time, based upon a number of factors. First, he was one of the strongest candidates in the 2008 GOP presidential primary field, and has learned many valuable political lessons from that experience.
Second, in an era characterized by widespread voter disgust with Washington politics, Romney’s political experience is as the former governor of Massachusetts. There he was forced, as a Republican governor in a heavily Democrat state, to work with the opposition to reach practical consensus on legislative policy. Thus, he can credibly argue that, unlike Obama, as president, he will be able to create a viable governing consensus, rather than pushing a highly partisan and polarizing political agenda.
Third, Romney has extensive business experience turning around failed companies, which is perfect training for a president whose main task will be to revive a sputtering American economy. This has already had an impact. Campaign financial reports indicate that 67 Wall Street executives who who contributed to Obama’s campaign in 2008 are giving to Romney in this campaign cycle. One of these former Obama supporters said, “Everybody I speak to is on the same boat – disappointment,” with Obama’s policies. He particularly took exception to Obama’s class warfare rhetoric attacking the wealthy, while simultaneous asking the same wealthy to donate $35,800 to his reelection campaign.
Finally, Romney looks more “presidential” than any of his GOP rivals. His more serious bearing and consistent policy message is perhaps the greatest benefit he derived from his 2008 run.
Some of Romney’s advantages in a general election work to his disadvantage in the primary campaign. His centrist positions on social issues as governor of Massachusetts, as well as his controversial health care plan, have brought criticism from Republican opponents. They contend that he is not conservative enough to represent the party. They also claim that Romney would not be in a good position to attack Obamacare, because of its similarities to his own plan, which the Obama campaign has deliberately played up in order to embarrass him.
None of his GOP opponents has publicly mentioned Romney’s Mormon faith as an issue, but there can be no doubt that it makes many on the Christian right nervous.
But despite all that, Romney remains the clear front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination, because the two leading candidates to his right are seen as flawed in other ways.
BACHMANN’S IOWA VICTORY
Bachmann has proved herself to be an effective campaigner, scoring an impressive victory in the Ames Iowa straw poll herd on August 13th. Historically, the straw poll has not been a reliable indicator of the outcome of the national primary race, or even an accurate predictor of the winner in the Iowa caucuses. It is, in fact, designed as a party fundraiser, requiring a contribution in order to cast a vote, so it is not necessarily representative of general voter feeling.
Nevertheless, because it is the first semblance of a vote for the candidates in the primary campaign, the straw poll is seen as an indication of the sentiments and preferences of the party activists in Iowa. Since those activists tend to be ideological conservatives, it is not surprising that the most right wing candidates in the field tend to do best in the straw poll. This year, their choice was Michelle Bachman, who captured 29 percent of the almost 17,000 votes cast. She was closely followed by Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, an extreme ideological conservative, even by Republican standards. He won 28 percent of the straw poll vote, even though most consider him to be a fringe candidate.
PAWLENTY’S LAST CHANCE
The straw poll was seen as the last chance for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to establish himself in the race. He had been running for the nomination for a long time, but his campaign never seemed to gain any traction. He finished a disappointing third, received 14 percent of the vote, after spending more time and money in Iowa than any other candidate.
Pawlenty saw Bachmann as his main opponent in the race, and attacked her in the debates which preceded the straw poll. The fact that Pawlenty was able to attract only half as many votes as Bachmann was the most telling result of the voting. Pawlenty, who was once considered to be a very promising candidate, concluded realistically that his campaign was no longer viable and shut it down.
Two other conservative Republican candidates, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and businessman Herman Cain, finished fourth and fifth with about 10 percent, signaling that they must be considered at this point to be “dark horse” candidates at best.
Perry was not on the straw vote ballot in Ames. In fact, he did not formally enter the race until the day of the straw poll. However, his supporters ran an energetic write-in operation, which enabled Perry to finish sixth, just ahead of Romney.
Romney did not mount any campaign to win the Iowa straw poll. He tried that in the 2008 campaign and failed to win, damaging his credibility. Therefore, he avoided the race this time, effectively conceding the race to the conservatives, and finished seventh in the poll overall.
GINGRICH BRINGS UP THE REAR
The rest of the field was rounded out by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished eighth, followed by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Congressman Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan.
Gingrich is, by far, the most interesting and intellectually brilliant of the candidates in the GOP field. However, he has proven once again in this campaign that he is unelectable, both because of his tendency to shoot from the lip, and because of his long and often bitter political history. Even his own professional campaign staff has given up on his candidacy. He is carrying on in the race virtually alone.
Gingrich’s future in the party is as a political strategist and policy analyst. Even his political enemies concede his brilliance in those rolls, but it is clear that he has no future as a candidate for national elective office.
PERRY STEALS THE SPOTLIGHT
While Bachmann’s victory in the straw poll went a long way to validate her candidacy, Perry’s formal entry into the race gave her little time to bask in the spotlight. She is also relatively new to the race, having announced her candidacy only two months ago. But in that short time, she has established a passionate following with a message based on her claim that she has fought harder than almost any other elected Republican against Obama’s policies.
Bachmann has proven to be very effective on the campaign trail. This has prompted Democrat strategists to try to paint her as an ill-informed extremist, in much the same way that they demonized Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential campaign. Liberal commentators have spent a lot of time and effort trying to pick apart her position statements, and challenging the factual accuracy of her statements.
BACHMANN PROVES HERSELF VIABLE
However, Bachmann has stood up much better to harsh media scrutiny than Palin did. Bachmann has defended her positions convincingly in interviews and debates, and managed to stay on message rather than allowing herself to become distracted by her media critics.
She has made effective use of her personal background. She spent eleven years as a working mother, part of that time as a tax lawyer for the IRS, and raised a family of five children before she entered elective politics in 1999. She is a fundamentalist Christian who worked as a volunteer on an Israeli kibbutz after she graduated high school in 1974. She has remained an outspoken supporter of Israel ever since.
During the recent Washington debate over raising the debt ceiling, all of the major GOP candidates opposed the compromise deal that was ultimately struck by party leaders with Obama. However, Bachmann spoke out more strongly than any other GOP candidate against any increase in the debt ceiling, under any conditions. Liberal critics ridiculed her for taking such a stand, which they said was out of touch with fiscal reality. Nevertheless, it served a useful purpose for Bachmann, by demonstrating the paramount importance she assigns to balancing the federal budget by cutting wasteful government spending.
PERRY’S SELF INFLICTED INJURY
Perry’s entry into the race immediately eclipsed Bachmann’s straw poll victory, but just a few days later, he stirred up a controversy with what some saw as unnecessarily extreme criticism of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his policies to boost the economy.
In answer to a question about Federal Reserve policy at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Perry said of Bernanke: “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don’t know what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.”
The attack was unusual in several respects. First of all, the Federal Reserve and its chairman are supposed to be above political partisanship, although one could argue that Bernanke has been managing its policies in a very aggressive and controversial way since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Second, Bernanke was originally appointed as Fed chairman by President George W. Bush, which means that by criticizing Bernanke, Perry was questioning the judgment of his GOP predecessor as Texas governor.
Perry’s comments about Bernanke drew stinging rebukes from many Democrats and some prominent Republicans, who said that they had damaged his credibility. Bush’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove, said, “Governor Perry is going to have to fight the impression that he’s a cowboy from Texas. This [statement] simply added to [the problem].”
Despite the criticism, Perry refused to back down from his initial criticism of Bernanke. “I’m just passionate about the issue, and we stand by what we said,” he told reporters who asked him about it at a later campaign event.
PERRY AND BACHMANN COMPETING FOR CONSERVATIVES
Perry will now have to compete with Bachmann for the support of the party base’s fiscal and social conservatives, while Romney already has the support of most of the remaining moderates in the GOP. Arguably, Perry has more experience for the White House than Bachmann. He can point to his record as Texas’ governor for the past 10 years, while Bachman has only been a member of Congress since 2007.
Perry claims that his leadership of Texas is a model for national economic growth, by emphasizing low taxes, minimal regulation and limited government services.
Texas has no income tax, ranks 46th overall for the taxes it collects per capita and has the strongest job growth in the country. The state has accounted for more than 30 percent of the new jobs created in this country over the past two years.
Perry has also taken the lead in resisting Obama’s expansion of government intervention in health care, education and the environment. He once went so far as to suggest that if the federal government continues to expand, he would support a move by Texas to secede from the union.
Perry said in an interview with Time magazine, “If you want to just get down to the pure epicenter, the nucleus of the problem in Washington, D.C., is they’re spending too much money.” He said that the Texas alternative is to “have a tax structure that’s fair, and as low as you can have it, and still deliver the services that the people require.”
PERRY PLAYING CATCH UP
Perry announced his candidacy with a speech in South Carolina in which he criticized Obama’s and declared, “I will not sit back and accept the path that America is on because a great country requires a better direction, because a renewed nation needs a new president.”
Perry is a latecomer to the presidential race, and will now have to catch up with the Romney and Bachmann campaigns which are very well organized at this point. On the plus side, he enters the race with solid conservative credentials, the support of both tea party activists and social conservatives, and an impressive record as a political candidate.
But Perry is untested on the national stage and his credibility as a presidential candidate will not stand for many more gaffes like his attack on Bernanke.
A 3-WAY GOP RACE
The Republican race is now basically a three-way contest. Romney is seen as the establishment candidate, campaigning as a former businessman who understands how to create jobs, and as the candidate who the polls say has the best chance of defeating Obama next year.
Perry will campaign on an anti-Washington message and challenge Romney on economic policy. He also is regarded as the candidate who can best stir the passions of the party’s conservative base, and is also expected to compete with Romney within the GOP establishment for money and endorsements. On the other hand, Perry will face his own challenge in competing with Bachmann, who has impressed initially skeptical mainstream Republicans with the energy she has brought to the race, while vigorously supporting the favorite issues of the Tea Party activists.
Bachmann has taken on the role as the insurgent outsider in the race, for which her political style is well suited. In defense of her limited years in Washington, she will campaign as the candidate who has fought Obama’s legislative agenda harder than anyone else.
OBAMA IS BEATABLE
As outspoken ideological conservatives, both Perry and Bachman will face the challenge of winning the GOP nomination without, at the same time, defining themselves as too extreme to appeal to independent and moderate voters who are the key to victory in the general election.
The latest national Gallup poll shows that Obama will have his hands full facing any of the three leading Republicans. His job approval ratings are now at the lowest level of any point of his presidency, generally below 40%. They are expected to get worse if there are no signs of significant economic improvement soon.
This leads to the conclusion that the greatest danger for the three leading Republican candidates would be for them to lose their focus on beating Obama by criticizing his record. To win the presidency, Perry and Bachmann, in particular, must guard against playing into the hands of Democrats and the liberal media, which are already trying to portray them as conservative Tea Party extremists.
If the economy does not recover significantly before then, any good, qualified Republican candidate could easily beat Obama in the general election, but only if that candidate can keep the focus of the electorate on Obama’s record rather than their own.
Republicans must therefore heed the classic warning: “never let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” This country doesn’t need a perfect GOP presidential candidate. Any one of three current frontrunners who can win next year’s election will do just fine.