State of Play: A Look at the 2012 Republican Field, So Far

Politics   |   Andrew Bair   |   May 24, 2011   |   2:48PM   |   Washington, DC

Unless you spent the entire day listening to the newly released Lady Gaga album, you probably noticed that pro-life former Gov. Tim Pawlenty formally entered the race to face off against President Obama in 2012. Pawlenty’s announcement further solidifies a quickly shrinking GOP field.

With Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour officially out of the race, Republican voters are looking at a field consisting of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul, former Gov. Gary Johnson and former Senator Rick Santorum.

The wild cards at this point are former Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann. Taking into account recent poll numbers and the status of Palin’s organization in early primary states, it looks increasingly unlikely Sarah will enter the race. Bachmann has hinted at a potential run, however many GOP voters remain skeptical she would be able to reach beyond her intensely loyal core group of supporters in the Tea Party movement. In addition, history is not on Bachmann’s side. Only one sitting member of the House of Representatives has ever been elected to the presidency. And that was James Garfield over a hundred years ago.

The three candidates with the most serious chance of winning the Republican nomination are Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and quite possibly, Newt Gingrich.

Romney is considered by many to be the frontrunner in the race. He enjoys excellent name recognition among Republican voters and strong financial backing. Since narrowly losing the GOP nomination to John McCain in 2008, Romney has meticulously calculated his every move to establish himself as the frontrunner.

Preventing Romney from clinching the nomination at this point is the health care reform he instituted as Governor of Massachusetts. Known as Romneycare, the plan looks remarkably similar to Obamacare. The Obama Administration, including the President himself, has applauded Romney for the plan, calling it a “great idea.” Former White House senior adviser David Axelrod called Romneycare a “template” for Obamacare, going as far as saying “That work inspired our own health care plan.”

Rather than distance himself from his Massachusetts health care reform, Romney has embraced it. For Romney, his plan was “for Massachusetts” but President Obama’s plan constitutes a “power grab by the federal government.” It is unclear if GOP primary voters will buy the federal versus state distinction but Romney, along with all of the other presidential candidates, has voiced support for repealing Obamacare.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is shaping up to be the viable alternative to Romney. With many Republicans not sold on Romney’s record or even his current stance on health care, Pawlenty may be the recipient of Huckabee and Daniels supporters’ votes. Pawlenty appeals to the social conservatives who supported Huckabee and the fiscal conservatives who would have liked to see Mitch Daniels in the race. Pawlenty has the potential to unite these two key components of the Republican Party in a way that no other candidate can.

Pro-life advocates are attracted to Pawlenty’s strong pro-life record as governor of Minnesota. Despite governing in a firmly blue state, the only state in the union to never give its electoral votes to Ronald Reagan, Pawlenty was able to move the state in a pro-life direction. Pawlenty signed into law the Women’s Right to Know Act, giving women information about abortion risks, alternatives and information on unborn development. In addition, he signed the Positive Alternatives to Abortion Act, making Minnesota one of only a handful of states that provide state funding for pro-life pregnancy resource centers.

As Pawlenty’s formal campaign begins unfolds and his name recognition continues to increase, it is not unimaginable to envision Pawlenty as a major player in the race. With a very palatable record for GOP voters and without significant political baggage, Pawlenty could very well win the nomination, especially if it comes down to a one-on-one match with Romney. Pawlenty’s task going forward will be overcoming a perception by some that he faces an enthusiasm gap.

Gingrich, who is regarded as a great thinker the Republican Party, may have sunk his own ship after a rough first week officially in the race. On Meet the Press, Gingrich appeared to express support the individual mandate in Obamacare, telling host David Gregory, “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care.” He continued, “I’ve said consistently, where there’s some requirement you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you’re going to be held accountable.”

The following day after universal conservative backlash, he unequivocally stated in a video that he opposed Obamacare’s individual mandate and pledged his support for the repeal of the entire law.

Gingrich further irked the Republican base by seemingly criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, calling it “right-wing social engineering.” Then once again, after conservative backlash, he worked quickly to undo his statements. Gingrich went on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show to assert his statement was not in reference to the Ryan plan and that he would have voted for the plan. Gingrich may be struggling to find his footing in the race but if history has taught us anything, it’s that we should never count him out.

Lower tier candidates like Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul enjoy intensely loyal bases of supporters but each lack broad appeal within the Republican Party. Many of them have a chance to pull off a win or a notable showing in one of the early primary states but their roads to the nomination are unmistakably uphill.