The fight for the Republican presidential nomination may not be a heavyweight slugfest after all. A primary campaign that was expected to pit an eggshell frontrunner, Mitt Romney, against one or more powerful, well established opponents has suddenly been flipped. The former Massachusetts governor has built up a solid early lead and looks as strong as ever; now, the burden of closing that gap falls to a group of relatively untested, unknown rivals who have yet to prove themselves on the national stage.
The latest would-be Romney slayer enters the race Tuesday: former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose personal wealth and moderate politics make him an unpredictable player in the 2012 race.
Other candidates are already off and running. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann entered the race with a splash last week at the New Hampshire presidential debate. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty continues to grind away at the early presidential primary circuit while another contender, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, waits in the wings.
Any one of those Republicans could eventually take flight and give Romney a real challenge for the nomination. But Republicans have come to the conclusion that only a drawn-out fight will reverse Romney’s early momentum.
“He looks strong. Just like you had Gov. Bush looking strong” in 2000, said former South Carolina House Speaker David Wilkins, a prominent Republican fundraiser who has yet to back a 2012 candidate. “We always knew somebody would come out of the pack to challenge him and that ended up being Sen. McCain. There’ll be someone coming out to make a strong challenge, in addition to Gov. Romney, but the jury’s still out on who that might be.”
The absence of Govs. Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels has left the contest without an obvious vessel for anti-Romney sentiment. And the throng of candidates hoping to challenge Romney are placing dramatically different bets on where, exactly, the anti-Romney opening in the race is.
For Bachmann and a handful of other flame-throwing conservatives – businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – any path to the nomination would involve capturing the hearts of tea party voters and other grassroots activists.
That’s essentially the strategy Pat Buchanan used 20 years ago in his upstart presidential campaign, when he won New Hampshire in a right-wing primary challenge to President George H. W. Bush.
Pawlenty and Huntsman have a different route in mind, trying to court the hard-core right while anchoring their support among mainstream Republicans primarily concerned with jobs and spending. Huntsman especially is counting on the backing of independent voters who can vote in some states’ GOP primaries.
That path is closer to the one John McCain followed in 2000, when he briefly looked like he might block the second President Bush from claiming the GOP nomination.
Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen suggested that either political wager could pay off this year, but it’s too early to say which way the race will break.
“I don’t think the non-Romney vote will splinter in the end. I think one candidate will succeed in consolidating most of that vote,” Cullen said. “It’s unclear to me whether that candidate will come from the mainstream of the Republican Party – that would be a Pawlenty or a Huntsman – or whether that will come from an insurgent outsider, like a Michele Bachmann.”
Carl Forti, an adviser to Romney’s 2008 campaign who’s now the political director of American Crossroads, said what Romney’s opponents have in common is that they must show they’re ready to compete at the frontrunner’s level.
“It’s up to the other candidates to knock him off the top rung, and at this point the other candidates have shown an unwillingness to even really try,” Forti said, offering that Pawlenty had “whiffed big time at the last debate when presented a great opportunity.”
Forti pointed to the focus on economic issues as a driving force behind Romney’s rise. The former governor has also been helped as a string of nationally known opponents have dropped out of the race.
In January, Romney was tied for first place in the Republican primary with Mike Huckabee, each man drawing 19 percent of the vote in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. That survey also included Daniels, Barbour and South Dakota Sen. John Thune as potential candidates.
But one by one, those candidates took themselves out of the running, and in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll published last week Romney’s support had risen to 30 percent. His nearest opponents were Sarah Palin, who is not an announced candidate, at 14 percent; and Cain, at 12 percent. Everyone else was in the single digits, with Pawlenty, Bachmann and Huntsman all below 5 percent.
To dislodge Romney, one or more of those candidates will have to grow their support many times over. That’s an achievable feat, but it’s not an easy one – and it’s possible that none of Romney’s low-profile challengers will be up to the job.
Still, with a solid majority of primary voters either undecided or favoring someone else, Republicans watching the early presidential states remain convinced there’s plenty of time and space for an anti-Romney candidate to emerge.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, who’s considering a late entry into the race, said he doesn’t yet see anyone in the field becoming a runaway favorite.
“I think there’s a broad consensus that this president has failed America,” Pataki told POLITICO in a phone interview from Iowa, where he held an event Monday with his fiscal conservative group, No American Debt. “I haven’t heard people say that this particular candidate, this particular person, has a plan, has a detailed program and is the kind of person I could get behind.”
Pataki, who said he was “disappointed Mitch Daniels decided not to run, because he has a great record on the deficit,” speculated: “Someone might emerge who captures not just that issue, but the energy and enthusiasm in the party.”
Right now, polling suggests that Romney’s most difficult challenge would likely come from a credible conservative insurgent, though it’s not clear that anyone in the race fits that bill. In last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a half-dozen activist-friendly conservatives – Palin, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum and Bachmann – captured a combined 47 percent of the national primary vote.
A Gallup survey earlier this month showed a similar picture, though with more undecided voters. Romney claimed 24 percent of GOP primary voters, with Palin in second place at 16 percent. The six conservative candidates mentioned above added up to 42 percent of the vote.
That means almost half of Republican primary voters are gravitating toward an outspoken, ideological conservative – if only there were a candidate to unite them.
Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, who left the Gingrich campaign earlier this month, pointed to Perry as a high-profile conservative governor who could raise enough money to “balance the race” against Romney.
“Gov. Romney’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s going to have a formidable July FEC disclosure,” Dawson said. “Being able to buy TV time in South Carolina, Alabama and Florida is going to be pretty crucial. That’s what leaves the option open for somebody like Gov. Perry – somebody from a big state who can fund a presidential campaign.”
Perry, however, hasn’t decided whether to enter the race and some Republicans are skeptical that he’ll pull the trigger.
For now, that leaves Romney’s other opponents competing for attention with him, and with each other, in a race with only a few opportunities to stand out in front of a national audience.
With two debates in the rear-view mirror, the next chance to shake up the race may not come until the Iowa straw poll on August 13, an activist-driven contest that helped propel Mike Huckabee to his 2008 caucus victory.
Predicted Cullen: “Absent someone winning a big event, like Bachmann winning the Iowa straw poll or someone going up with broadcast TV in one of the early states, the candidates are kind of going to be dancing around.”