Inside Story

by Lesley Russell in Washington

By the elongated standards of American politics, the 2012 presidential election is looming. The first Republican debate is already over, the Iowa straw poll is less than three months off, and it's less than a year until the first primaries and caucuses. But despite thumping victories in the mid-term elections, Republicans seem oddly slow to start choosing a presidential candidate to run against President Obama.This time four years ago, eight Republicans and ten Democrats had already thrown their hats into the ring. John McCain had opened campaign offices around the country, had multiple consultants on retainer, and was just days away from the glitzy relaunch of the Straight Talk Express campaign bus. Fox News had already reported on Senator Barack Obama's connection to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. A debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in May 2007 had attracted ten Republican contenders, including John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

There is no shortage of Republicans who consider themselves presidential material, but their hesitancy to register officially as candidates is an indication of the peculiar dynamics of this race. The main thing holding Republicans back seems to be their doubts about whether President Barack Obama is beatable. The party talks boldly about taking back the White House, but realistically this is a daunting task. The extent to which the Republicans are beholden to the Tea Party seems to have paralysed their ability to develop and enact coherent policies that address voters' concerns and may also be a factor holding back those who dread the conservative litmus tests.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama's odds have clearly improved as a consequence of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the push by House Republicans to dismantle Medicare, although ultimately his re-election hinges on the state of the economy, the unemployment numbers, and his ability to get the voters out, especially Hispanics and African Americans.

There are currently just three declared candidates whose names anyone would recognise – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congressman Ron Paul and the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson. Four others – pizza chain owner Herman Cain, former governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum – have formed exploratory committees and look like contenders. There's a lot of media noise from Tea Party darlings Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, and a contest between these two rivals would be entertaining if not enlightening, but it's very unclear if they will run.

A few mooted contenders have already ruled themselves out of the race, including Jeb Bush, Senator John Thune, Congressman Mike Pence, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump. Some of these men are thought to be biding their time until 2016, when Obama, if re-elected, would have to step down, leaving no incumbent candidate.

Trump's self-aggrandisement campaign was more about improving ratings for his reality television show than a serious presidential run. He ignored policy and went straight for rumour-mongering. It's clear he didn't like being the butt of jokes on late-night television and zingers from the president, and he probably didn't much like the idea of having to produce his tax records for public scrutiny. Many suspect that Sarah Palin is working from the same playbook, stoking the endless speculation about her intentions simply to advance her lucrative career as a media pundit.

Mike Huckabee's withdrawal is interesting because it leaves the Christian right without a candidate, although perhaps Santorum or Cain could fill that spot. The conservative Christian voice is strong and candidates cannot ignore their agenda, even though their favoured nominees don't ultimately win.

There are two quieter contenders who may yet emerge as serious candidates. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is considering a run. He is seen as a very viable alternative to the current underwhelming field of candidates and would garner support from a number of Republican kingmakers. But whether or not he runs depends very much on his wife, who has been lobbied on the issue by former first lady Laura Bush.

Then there's Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah appointed by Obama to be ambassador to China. He has little name recognition and his moderate record on issues like cap-and-trade and civil unions for gay couples is not likely to sit well with the evangelical conservative voters, who will also be nervous about the fact that he is a Mormon. Huntsman will have to navigate the current debate over America's relationship with China, his role as a public servant of the Obama administration, and the fall-out from a poisonous feud between him and Romney.

Both Daniels and Huntsman have images as reasonable centre-right Republicans, not obsessed with cultural issues, conservative on economic issues, and pragmatic about working constructively across the aisle. But as candidates they will have to fight to get their points of view heard when the focus will be on Gingrich's marital infidelities and his opposition to House Republicans' Medicare proposals, Romney's inability to cast off Massachusetts healthcare reform as his biggest achievement, Pawlenty's need to apologise for his previous support of cap-and-trade, and Paul's unstinting hostility to the Federal Reserve.

The candidates sitting on the fence can use their political action committees to raise big donations from businesses and individuals which are not subject to the same scrutiny as campaign funds, but they cannot afford to dither indefinitely about getting into the race. A lower-than-expected showing in the Iowa straw poll can spell doom for a campaign, and skipping it altogether could be perilous for someone considered an early front-runner. The poll affects how the national media perceives the presidential race and can either help or hurt a candidate's fundraising efforts.

Indeed, the vaunted Republican fundraising network, long feared by Democrats, has been slow to commit itself to the 2012 presidential candidates. This engenders a chicken-and-egg dynamic: potential candidates have hesitated to get into the race without the assurance that they can raise the money necessary for a credible campaign; donors are waiting to see how the field develops before making decisions. Meanwhile the Obama team has set a fundraising goal of US$1 billion.

Republican pundits might also experience a reality check when they look at the polls. Nearly 60 per cent of Republicans are not enthusiastic about any of the current possible candidates. Ironically, only Huckabee and Palin are viewed favourably by more than half of the Republican electorate. More than 80 per cent of those polled said they did not know enough about candidates like Pawlenty, Huntsman, Daniels and Santorum to have an opinion about them. In head-to-head polling, Obama is up anywhere from 12 to 21 points over Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich, Daniels and Huntsman.

The inevitable conclusion is that there will soon be a mad rush to the starting gate, with a huge push on fundraising and competition for air time. We have already seen candidates at odds with each other, with Congressional Republicans and with their own previous commitments. There is much more internecine warfare to come before, inevitably, Republicans will need to put grievances aside and unite behind a single presidential challenger. In that time it's likely that Obama and Biden will have sewn up the election.