Just when the GOP ’12 field started to feel like it might be gelling at last week’s New Hampshire debate, we were treated to a weekend of speculation about Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), who is checking things out in Iowa, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) who may be reconsidering his earlier no-go decision, and of course Ambassador John Huntsman, who seems intent on the longest possible ‘hello’ before actually campaigning in early states.
Some of this can be written off to the endless jockeying among pols who see a President in the mirror every morning. But some other part of it has to be a yearning for . . . more than what is on the menu. The RLC meeting in New Orleans over the weekend highlighted the desire for a firebrand advocate who will tear into Obama, but still tow the conservative line and please the most ideologically pure Republicans. (See this piece at Slate for more on the RLC gathering: http://www.slate.com/id/2297004/?from=rss).
What’s driving the desire for additional candidates? The cynical opposition party answer would be this is a weak field and Republicans know none of them can beat Obama. Actually, with a wobbly enough economy, many of the declared candidates could win.
So what’s at work is a little more subtle, and very important to the selection process. Republicans traditionally go with the candidate who’s next in line (Dole ’96) or best reflects their values (Goldwater ’64) rather than a poll-tested majority-maker. In this cycle, though, that traditional analysis doesn’t yield an obvious nominee.
Reagan’s 11th Commandment about not speaking ill of another Republican makes it hard for candidates to clash directly. This, in turn, creates a difficult environment for the party’s most dedicated activists as they air concerns about specific candidates. Democrats are a little more used to publicly flogging one another in the primaries before finally making up and then working hard for a nominee. (“I dated Dean but married Kerry” is an overused refrain from ’04.)
It seems like Republicans, in their own buttoned-up Marquess of Queensberry Rules fashion, are trying to have a conversation about “electability,” which means nominating the candidate who can best broaden the base and reach independent voters without turning them off.
When you face an Obama electoral coalition that produced more electoral votes than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, it is not just smart but imperative to unify and even broaden GOP appeal. Right now Cain supporters are different from Romney supporters who are different from Paul supporters. The lack of unity is not a good recipe for the general election, so lots of Republicans are still on the hunt for a “uniter, not a divider.”
We’ll see if anyone in the party can corral all the factions for ’12.