The GOP presidential field, post-Daniels

First, an excerpt from my last prediction on this zany 2012 election season, over a year ago:

The big players: Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich and possibly Tim Pawlenty and Bobby Jindal. Huckabee and Palin will be active, but few people take them seriously as presidential material. Much of the election will hinge on the VPs. A likable and informed Republican Vice Presidential candidate up against Biden is going to win the GOP major points. I think Romney has potential to win it, but he gives a lot of people the heebeegeebees. Daniels has a much more comfortable feel, and a solid record. Gingrich will be counted out due to his political baggage,…

For most part, that’s about how things have turned out, with the exception of Jindal’s no-show and a few odd additions to the field like Donald Trump and Herman Cain, neither of whom have any political experience. For most of the last year I’ve been increasingly hopeful that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels would run—even after his supposed support of a VAT. Yesterday, that hope was dissolved with the announcement that he is out.

In my opinion, that leaves Mitt Romney as the clear frontrunner, but there’s one major problem: his support in the Republican Party is tepid, and independents aren’t so thrilled either. He comes off as a archetypical wealthy politician who says and does whatever necessary to get elected, and not for some greater cause, but to fulfill a personal aspiration. Perhaps the perception is false, and if he can overcome it, he’s got a good shot at the presidency.

Beyond Mitt, I see two possible alternatives. It won’t be Gingrich—too much bad blood. It won’t be Pawlenty—too dull. And none of the real “rock stars” are planning to jump in. The two scenarios I presume could lead a Dark Horse candidate involve either Herman Cain or Jon Huntsman.

Yes, I said Cain was an odd addition, but he is a respected leader and business man who has been active in politics (though not in elected office) since around 1996. As an African-American, born and raised in MLK’s hometown, he would take the “race card” out of the game, and given a national platform, his message to black voters could result in a change of party loyalties for millions of Americans. Cain is a very articulate and energetic speaker, and though his demeanor is more like that of a drill sergeant than a president, I think people would get over it. His bigger problem is that he will be seen as the fringe “tea party” candidate, too risky and too inexperienced in global affairs.

John Huntsman—the guy that no one knows but soon will—is also a successful businessman, but he also served for five successful years as Governor of Utah, and has plenty of foreign policy experience. In fact, the very reason for his late entry to the scene is that he spent the last two years as U.S. Ambassador to China, where he learned a great deal about the country that will undoubtedly become America’s primary foreign policy concern in the coming decades. He was appointed to that position by none other that Barack Obama, making it more difficult for the president to criticize him. Huntsman is fluent in three languages, received his Bachelors in International Politics, and served in every Republican administration since Reagan.

Huntsman’s strength is in fiscal and international issues, which should make him a formidable candidate against Obama, likely gaining much of the independent vote and perhaps some from Democrats. The Republican base would be split: he is a Mormon with mixed positions on social issues, so conservatives who weigh them heavily might be disappointed. Recruiting a strong social conservative like Huckabee as VP could help, but as much as the GOP base despises Obama, they’re likely to vote for whomever his opponent happens to be.

To sum it up: If Mitt Romney can fix his plastic image, he’s got a decent shot against Obama, but if Jon Huntsman can get things moving quickly, he’s got a much better one. Either way, Republicans are likely to have a Mormon nominee unless somehow Herman Cain fever starts to catch on. But more likely, he’ll end up joining the side stage with Tim Pawlenty and Ron Paul.

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