With Mitch Daniels having taken himself out of the GOP nomination battle, the field has come into sharp focus, and the view is not good for President Obama and the Democrats.
If one were only to read commentary and analysis from the mainstream media, this would surely come as quite a shock, as the GOP field is usually portrayed as uninspiring and lackluster. But then again the MSM is often behind the curve when it comes to the Republican party, seeing as how most journalists and pundits do not identify with it or the modern conservative movement that animates it. Most are politically aligned with Obama, and so unsurprisingly they think his would-be Republican challengers are second-raters.
My position over the last three months has been that Republicans need to evaluate each contender along three key metrics: general election competitiveness, legislative skill, and party stewardship. Conservatives who are worried about the field are almost entirely concerned about the party stewardship metric--the notion that the main contenders would do a relatively poor job of promoting the party's core values once in office. I think conservatives have legitimate concerns about the field, although it's also worth waiting to see whether the main contenders can address this issue to the right's satisfaction.
Today, I want to look at things strictly from the competitiveness metric, and here I think the main contenders -- Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney -- all score very, very well. I see four reasons for drawing this conclusion.
1. Crossover appeal. Huntsman, Pawlenty, and Romney all won statewide elections by performing better than the party normally does in each state. In 2008 Jon Huntsman won 64 percent of the gubernatorial vote in Utah (an improvement on his performance relative to 2004), while John McCain won 62 percent of the presidential vote that same year. Tim Pawlenty won reelection in Minnesota in 2006 narrowly, but this was still an impressive feat considering that Minnesota retains a blue tilt and 2006 was a terrible year for Republicans in general. T-Paw won about 100,000 more votes that the Republican candidates in the 8 Minnesota House districts that year, and 200,000 more votes than Mark Kennedy, the GOP candidate for the open Senate seat. In 2002, Mitt Romney won a comfortable, five point victory in Massachusetts, despite the fact that his party is so weak in the Bay State that it ran just 4 candidates in the 10 House districts that year.
In other words, all three have demonstrated an ability to pull in voters who have previously backed Democrats, which is a requirement if the GOP is going to win the presidency back next year.
2. Records as governors. All three of these candidates earned a national reputation as governors, which will give them all an opportunity to point to their executive records in contrast to President Obama's. This is preferable to coming up through the ranks via the House and Senate, where people don't really "run" anything. And, as we saw with Bob Dole, John Kerry, John McCain, and even Hillary Clinton, Senate candidates often have that strange dialect known as "Senate-ese," wherein they talk about their experience on this or that subcommittee, their support for this or that amendment, or their vital role in this or that part of the inscrutable appropriations process. Put simply, Huntsman, Pawlenty, and Romney can present themselves as men of action, rather than men of deliberation -- and action is what the country wants.
3. No "gotcha votes." There's a second advantage that comes from not having been in Congress. When you're in the House or the Senate, you end up having to vote on pretty much every divisive issue that the country deals with. Many of these votes are irrelevant -- having to do with the legislative process or being for/against bills that have literally no chance of becoming law. Even so, the congressional record is a great place for campaign researchers go when they're looking to smear the opposition. They can take some otherwise irrelevant vote on, say, abortion, taxes, Medicare, whatever, and turn it into a crime against all decency. Governors don't have that problem, at least not nearly to the same degree. While some laws with controversial items might get signed or vetoed, the state legislature regularly works as a buffer for governors. And furthermore state governments do not have to deal with nearly as many divisive subjects as the U.S. Congress does.
4. No bloodbath. I've been pointing out for a while that it's unlikely that the GOP will have to go through the kind of war that nearly destroyed the Democrats in 2008 -- in large part because the Republican party is much more homogenous. If this is the final field (and it might not be), the chances of an extended and bloody primary fight are now even smaller. In fact, there is a growing chance that the nominee could be set by mid- or even early February. The three top candidates are very similar to each other in terms of their background and the nature of their appeal, being as they all are center-right governors who plan to emphasize their abilities to get things done. There's really no need for an extended primary season to see which one is the preferred candidate.
In conclusion, let me say this. On paper, it would be hard to come up with a GOP field that looks as electable as this one does. Here are three results-oriented, center-right governors who have out-performed a generic Republican at one point or another. Two of them won elections in blue states and the third had enough of a reputation to be named ambassador to China, now the second largest economy in the world.
Sure, they don't have the pizzazz that Obama had in 2008, but so what? The election next year is not going to be won or lost based on which candidate is more exciting or inspiring. Instead, it's going to be determined by the public's judgment as to whether Obama deserves another term, or whether the GOP alternative is the better bet. In these highly uncertain times, I think Republicans should actually prefer a candidate who strikes the middle of the electorate as a sober, capable defender of the national interest -- rather than one who drums up intense affection from one side (and intense dislike from the other). Let Obama have the legions of weepy sycophants chanting his name at every campaign stop he makes. The GOP doesn't need that kind of candidate to win. It can win in 2012 the same way Nixon did in 1968 and 1972 -- by appealing to that "silent majority" that doesn't attend political rallies and doesn't get excited by politicians making over-the-top promises, but that just wants somebody who is up to the job.
Over the next eight months, the task of Republicans everywhere will be to see which one of these candidates works not just on paper but on the actual campaign trail, which one looks to be the most promising manager of the legislative process, and which one will make for the best caretaker of the Grand Old Party over the next four years. President Obama and the Democrats should be worried about these contenders, and they should be doubly concerned by the fact that Republican voters often choose the pick of the litter.