Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jonah Goldberg pares down the GOP presidential candidate list

And we whittle down his final five
Jonah Goldberg identifies 24 potential GOP presidential candidates: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, David Petraeus, Ron Paul, Jeb Bush, John Bolton, Bob McDonnell, Jim DeMint, Chris Christie, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Judd Gregg, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry.

After eliminating those who insist they are not running, or have other options which appear too attractive top pass up, Goldberg's list reduces to the names of Romney, Gingrich, Palin, Pawlenty, Santorum, Bolton, Daniels, Cain, Johnson, Paul and Thune. This sets up Goldberg's second round of eliminations:
Paul's issues -- gutting the Federal Reserve, shrinking government, foreign policy noninterventionism, drug legalization -- are the ripest they've ever been in the GOP. But, at 75, that's just about the only way "ripe" and "Ron Paul" can be used together in a sentence.

Thune will probably discover early that his Senate colleagues telling him to run isn't necessarily a compliment. In many respects, Thune is the GOP version of John Kerry: a candidate with very presidential hair who seems "electable" despite not having done much of anything.

Bolton, the famously mustachioed and gruff former U.N. ambassador (like Gingrich, a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, where I'm a visiting fellow), is a tireless and brilliant guy, but he's never run for federal office. Presumably he wants to highlight national security issues and, I hope, duke it out with Ron Paul.

Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, is a charismatic superstar on the Tea Party circuit and in many rank-and-file conservative circles. An African-American who likes to joke about his "dark-horse candidacy," he's a lot more than merely a sane Alan Keyes. But it's hard to imagine him amounting to more than an exciting also-ran.

Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and a keynoter at last weekend's KushCon II, will focus attention on pot legalization. Meanwhile, Santorum, a former senator, will focus attention on Rick Santorum.
That leaves five front-runners from the original field of 24. Romney has the organization in place, but the party's conservative base doesn't trust him. Daniels is the choice of policy wonks and the D.C. "eggheads," the latter of which will also probably hurt him with the base. Gov. Palin, according to Goldberg, "probably has the most devoted following among actual voters." He predicts that Gingrich will dominate the debates, but the former Speaker will carry his baggage into those same debates. Pawlenty, according to Goldberg, is the least disliked, but in our view he's also the least inspiring.

Despite his best efforts to portray himself as a conservative, Romney is the first alternative choice of Obama voters, which only demonstrates that he can't make the sale with the GOP's conservative base. Also, all that money he spent in the 2008 contest didn't help him knock McCain out of the race, even when the Arizonan was down and hard pressed for campaign cash. Pawlenty, Daniels and Romney are all well-liked by Republican elites, which only makes them less liked by the conservative base. That leaves Professor Gingrich and Gov. Palin as the only two candidates from the final five who have the kind of conservative credentials that appeal to the base. There are some things the GOP's conservatives might be willing to forgive for both of them.

Gingrich, having gotten religion and become a Catholic, may get forgiveness from many conservatives for past personal failings, but no so much for his political sins. Though he later admitted that it was a mistake, his endorsement of liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd Congressional District will not be forgotten nor likely forgiven. Also, Gingrich's timing on global warming couldn't have been worse. He dropped his skepticism on the issue just before a majority of Americans themselves became global warming skeptics. Finally, his willingness to side with Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton on a few issues may win him points with GOP moderates, but not with the party's base.

There are some conservatives on the Republican extreme who will never forgive Sarah Palin for her support of John McCain's reelection bid in Arizona, but most understand her reasons for doing so. Though there was no love for McCain there to lose with conservatives, her loyalty and consistency are character traits they admire in the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate. The vicious attacks on her from both party's elites and the media have only served to make her more appealing to Republican conservatives and Tea Party activists, including many with a libertarian streak. Social libertarians, including rabid Ron Paul supporters, still hate her, even though she endorsed Rep. Paul's son Rand early on in his campaign for the U.S. Senate, but these "Ronulans" are a relatively tiny minority among the base.

To win the Republican nomination in 2012, Gov. Palin has to build an organization, of course. But there's no compelling reason to believe she isn't capable of doing so. She will also have to perform well in the primary debates, and she has a record of doing just that in the 2005 Alaska gubernatorial race, and though Democrats won't publicly admit it, deep down even they know she got the better of old hand Joe Biden in the 2008 vice presidential debate. As Goldberg disclaims, all this is subject to change, of course. But if she wants her party's nomination, we don't see anyone who can beat Sarah Palin for it. It's a marathon, and she's a runner who doesn't like to lose.

- JP

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