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2012 Watch: Don't Count the 'Unknowns' Out

11:25 AM, Dec 30, 2010 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Jen Rubin makes the sensible case that, because all the potential GOP presidential candidates have weaknesses, a newcomer could have a real opening in the 2012 presidential election. Among others, Rubin suggests that Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and Mike Pence might have a chance.

2012 Watch: Don't Count the 'Unknowns' Out

It's the case now in politics that one can become famous very quickly. With cable TV, the Internet, and various other lightning fast means for exchanging information, it's not inconceivable that a candidate could start late, and still muster enough positive attention in a short amount of time to win a presidential primary. Consider the most recent -- and best -- example of this: Barack Obama. 

In 2006, which is the equivalent time out from the 2008 campaign as we are from the 2012 campaign, Obama was just a two-year senator with practically no legislative or political victories. In February 2007, Obama officially announced that he would be running for president. And although he had done much to lay the groundwork for his run, Obama was able to get popular, and become a household name, very quickly.

Rubin runs through the weaknesses of the most-talked about prospective Republican candidates and how they would probably defend themselves:

Mitt Romney's problems are two-fold -- an underlying sense that he lacks deeply held convictions and his authorship of RomneyCare. As to the first, he would be well advised to stop his reflexive pandering to the most conservative elements in the party (opposing the tax agreement, for example) and to concentrate on his strength -- projecting executive competence and explaining conservative economic principles. As for RomneyCare, it is not clear that simply declaring that he wouldn't impose the plan nationwide is going to cut it. Conservatives object to the fundamental elements that underlie it (most especially an individual mandate), and Romney's critics will point to its failure to control costs.

Mitch Daniels's biggest problem isn't his height. His weakness is also his strength -- a laser-like focus on fiscal reform. As a GOP candidate, he will be expected to opine and appeal to the base on social issues and to explain his national security vision. Conservatives fed up with Obama's reticence in projecting American values and refusal to challenge despotic regimes will want to hear an alternative conservative perspective. To the extent Daniels suggests that defense spending is simply an item in the budget or sounds neo-isolationist, he will not endear himself to a party that has largely embraced a Reagan-esque foreign policy and a devotion to democracy and human rights abroad.

Tim Pawlenty was a successful governor, is solid on mainstream conservative positions and has no obvious personal shortcomings. And yet in gatherings of conservatives, he's not a name that engenders enthusiasm. Too bland or too quiet? It is not clear what is missing there. But he will need to carve an identity in the presidential field that will distinguish him from other governors in the race.

Sarah Palin's faults are well known and her critics are numerous. I am still not convinced that she will risk her fame, fortune and iconic stature in the conservative movement by becoming just another candidate, and one unlikely to convince an electorate beyond core conservatives to vote for her. But if she does run, she surely would be helped by dumping the "lamestream media" act. She's not a victim of elites; she's played them like a fiddle. The public doesn't need to be convinced that Washington is lacking in common sense. They want to hear what her answers are to our domestic and international challenges and to be reassured she can implement her conservative values. She left the Alaska governorship, in large part, because she was hounded by ethics complaints and critics. Unless she shows a tougher skin and a more ebullient outlook, she's be in for a rough time.

Ryan, Christie, and Pence all have the advantage of being relative unknowns -- their weaknesses haven't been exposed over the last few years. There's a good chance that at least one of them could shoot for the trajectory Obama chose, though at this point it's safe to acknowledge that if one of these three decides to run, he'd be 3-6 months behind where Obama was.

But if last presidential election is any indication, it could work out very well.

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