Handicapping the 2012 Republican field

Senator John Ensign of Nevada is coming to northwest Iowa today for stops at Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center and the famous ice cream shop in Le Mars before he delivers a speech in Sioux City.

The American Future Fund invited Ensign as part of a lecture series, and American Future Fund spokesman Tim Albrecht spoke to Radio Iowa about him:

Albrecht describes the 51-year-old Ensign as a “strong” conservative.

“I think that Senator Ensign will be able to introduce himself to a group of active conservatives who are thirsty for a new voice, a new person, to really pick up the banner and carry it on their behalf,” Albrecht says.

Are conservatives “thirsty for a new voice,” as in someone who hasn’t already run for president? The Republican Party has a history of nominating presidential candidates on their second or third try: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain.

Ensign looks like a fairly generic Republican to me. He would need to do something to distinguish himself in the next few years to avoid becoming the Sam Brownback or Tommy Thompson of 2012.

UPDATE: Ensign gave Iowa Politics an interview:

“I’m not running for president,” said Ensign, who’s chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “What I’m doing is raising my profile. I believe we need new voices and fresh voices in the Republican Party who can articulate a message of our core Republican principles.”

More thoughts on likely Republican presidential candidates are after the jump.

Mitt Romney gave a foreign policy speech today at the U.S. Navy memorial. Click the link to read the full prepared text at The Heritage Foundation’s blog. Last week Ben Smith of Politico asserted,

My instinct on the 2012 Republican field, with its crop of half-in-half-out governors, is that the people who are unambiguously angling for the job – at this point, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee – have a certain advantage.

And Romney, in particular, is continuing to do what you do if you’re running for president: avoid cable overexposure and build an intellectual and policy infrastructure to lean on later.

Although I think Romney might have performed better against Barack Obama than McCain did, I find it hard to see a path to the 2012 nomination for him. I don’t expect him to win Iowa, and he might not even compete seriously here. His 2008 Iowa campaign chairman, Doug Gross, predicted last November,

“We’ve gone so far to the social right, particularly in caucus attendees, that unless you meet certain litmus tests you have a very difficult time competing in Iowa,” said Doug Gross, the party’s 2002 gubernatorial nominee. “I think you’ll have some candidates who won’t compete here unless they perceive that’s somehow changed.”

David Roederer, who headed John McCain’s Iowa campaign, agreed.”I would not encourage a moderate to come right now and participate in the caucuses,” Roederer said. “It is a danger for the party, and it is a danger for the future of the caucuses.”

Gross expressed his concern somewhat differently during a May 22 appearance on Iowa Public Television:

if just a handful of social conservatives dominate our caucuses there will be candidates who skip Iowa, that will not be good for the Iowa caucuses and I’m hopeful that won’t happen.

If Romney couldn’t win the Iowa caucuses in 2008 as a prohibitive favorite for most of the previous year, I don’t see him coming from behind to win in 2012. He could try skipping Iowa, but he didn’t win the New Hampshire primary in 2008 either.

Mike Huckabee is keeping up his national profile with a weekly show on the Fox network. He’s also keeping up his contacts in Iowa and will headline a June 10 fundraiser for 2010 gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats in Spirit Lake. I’ll be interested to see how many of his 2008 caucus supporters stick with him if he runs again.

Huckabee continues to advocate for the “Fair Tax” that would replace income and other taxes with a 30 percent sales tax (yes, 30 percent, not the 23 percent figure used by supporters). If he remains the only candidate in the Republican field to support the Fair Tax, that will help him in the conservative grassroots.

However, I think the business wing of the Republican Party will make sure Huckabee never wins a presidential nomination. A blogger supporting Mitt Romney compiled this incredibly long list of prominent conservatives who opposed Huckabee in late 2007. I don’t think many on that list would come around to supporting Huckabee by 2011. This document from the Club for Growth lays out the corporate Republican case against Huckabee. I’m not surprised they can’t stand the guy.

The business wing of the GOP might not always get its favorite presidential candidate, but I believe they will have the power to stop their least favorite. Which is to say that I don’t see strong prospects for Huckabee.

I’m inclined to agree with Jonathan Singer, who expects “some strong late-breaking entrants” in the GOP field. Who might that be?

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is coming to Iowa on June 25 for a Republican Party fundraiser. I can’t imagine him ever gaining traction in a presidential race.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says he’s not running. Even if he changes his mind, it will be hard for him to juggle running for re-election as governor in 2011 with a presidential candidacy.

I haven’t heard much lately about Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s plans for 2012. She drew big crowds during her Iowa stops in the fall of 2008. I would expect her and Huckabee to be competing for the same type of Republican voters.

Newt Gingrich has admitted he’s thinking about running in 2012. He has a huge fundraising operation at his American Solutions organization and has kept a high profile on national news and analytical programs. Gingrich has been loudly calling Judge Sotomayor a racist, probably to bolster his credentials with the conservative base; Senate Republicans will almost certainly fail to stop her from being confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The policy agenda Gingrich pushes through American Solutions suggests that he would keep a strong focus on economic (not social) issues as a presidential candidate. It’s just as well, since I don’t think a man who’s dumped two wives would get far campaigning on morality. But I’m skeptical that the Republican base, especially in Iowa, is ready for a presidential candidate who downplays social issues.

What did I get wrong, and who did I leave out? Step right up and post your own comments and speculation.

LATE UPDATE on June 3: I should also have mentioned Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is not running for re-election in 2010. That will leave him plenty of time to run for president. I see him ending up like Tommy Thompson.

Some commenters at other sites thought I should mention South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford as well. If the shrinking Republican Party wants to nominate a southern governor, that’s fine by me. I don’t think it would easy for him to win the nomination, since his candidacy would take the South Carolina primary off the table. I don’t know where his power base would be in other early primary and caucus states.  

  • Matching 2012 candidates with 2008 candidates

    Since it’s so early, I’ll just pick a 2008 candidate who I think best matches a 2012 candidate thus far.

    Mitt Romney 2012 = John McCain 2008

    By rights, it’s Romney’s turn. John Deeth laid this theory out a few years ago that the Republicans always gravitate toward the one who’s “turn” it is to run for President–and in 2012 that’ll be Romney. So Romney has a major advantage thus far.

    John Ensign 2012 = Mitt Romney 2008

    I think Ensign is kind of a dark horse so far, much as Romney started out as in 2008. (Remember when the race looked to be a Giuliani lock?) He’s got the look and he’s young but not too young, so he could be angling to get the 2016 turn. He’s the “vanilla” candidate: alright, but nobody’s favorite.

    Mike Huckabee 2012 = Mike Huckabee 2008

    I really don’t see where Huckabee has changed any. I mean, he’s got the fundies, but he’s always had the fundies. That’s all he’s really got, and you don’t win with just the fundies. He’ll win Iowa, then lose New Hampshire and get written off. All he’s missing this time around is a Chuck Norris ad.

    Haley Barbour 2012 = Tommy Thompson 2008

    They even look alike. No chance.

    I disagree with Singer. I see there being “strong late-breaking entrants” in the same sense as Fred Thompson was a “strong late-breaking entrant”. The main players are already in the mix.

    Also, I don’t think Newt will run. I see him more angling for a Rove style position. He’ll latch on to a sort of spineless candidate like Romney or Ensign and act as hatchet man. He knows it’s too late for him to be king, but he still wants to play kingmaker.

    • for the record

      I never thought for a second that the GOP would nominate pro-choice Guiliani.

      I chuckle when I drive by the strip mall in Clive where the big RUDY sign still hangs over the unrented space.

    • you should write a diary on this

      sometime when you have some free time.

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