GOP Dark Horse Dreams: Can Someone Pull a Goldwater?

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The political
axiom is familiar today. Republicans nominate the next in line.
So it’s been from Richard Nixon to John McCain.

The next presidential
cycle could prove otherwise. The GOP establishment no longer rides
herd over today’s elephants. Conservative activists are both exceptionally
galvanized and autonomous. It’s a unique mix unseen in decades.
And critically, the establishment’s early favorite has an Achilles
heel.

Mitt Romney
should be the next Republican nominee. No less than 81 percent of
Republican "insiders" say that Romney is the "most
likely" to challenge Barack Obama in 2012, according to a January
National Journal poll.

"If you
look at our tradition in the party, our frontrunner should be Mitt
Romney," said Charlie Black, who has advised candidates from
Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to McCain. "But I truly believe
it’s way too early to tell."

Romney’s vulnerability
is one reason it’s too early to tell. Half of all Republicans are
"angry" about the healthcare overhaul. Most other Republicans
are "displeased," according to a late March CNN poll.
And therein lies Romney’s problem.

Romney signed
a universal health care plan as the Massachusetts governor. It too
mandated coverage (a central focal point of conservative anger today).
Romney has managed flip-flops before. He nearly won the GOP nomination
despite his past support for abortion and gay rights. But this is
another matter. Romney took trailblazing action on the same issue
that most-rallies today’s conservative grassroots. In 2008, John
McCain’s primary campaign ran an ad that declared: "Mitt Romney’s
state health-care plan is a big-government mandate." GOP rivals
will offer that message on steroids in 2012. Politico aptly compared
Romney’s problem to Hillary Clinton’s 2002 Iraq
war vote.

But if not
Romney, then who? The survey of Beltway insiders offered one early
picture. Tim Pawlenty placed a distant second (46%). Followed by
John Thune (38%) and Haley Barbour (28%). Tied for fifth were Mitch
Daniels and Sarah Palin (25%). Of the group, only Palin is widely
known by the public. But Palin
remains a long shot in 2012
. The field is open. And many other
Republican dark horses stir.

The senior
man has, however, taken the GOP race since 1968. The "new Nixon"
is remembered for his remarkable comeback. But Nixon commanded the
field by election year. In spring, among Republicans, Gallup placed
Nixon ahead of Nelson Rockefeller by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
He was the former vice president and almost-was president. But Nixon’s
nomination also heralded the new emerging GOP establishment – more
southern, more western, less blue blooded and more blue collar.

Thereafter,
the GOP establishment got their man. The seniority rule became more
settled (perhaps ironically) with the advent of the first contested,
and modern, GOP primary race in 1976. There were setbacks – Reagan
losing in Iowa or George W. Bush losing in New Hampshire. But from
Gerald Ford to George W. Bush, as Harvard political scientist William
Mayer tracked, the Republican who led the final Gallup national
poll before the primaries won the nomination.

The rule dulled
with McCain but endured. McCain followed the path of Reagan, H.W.
Bush and Bob Dole. He was the once-thwarted candidate who earned
his turn. And McCain worked for that turn. He was among Bush’s most
effective advocates during the 2004 campaign. Then he went from
2006 frontrunner to late-2007 long shot. Mike Huckabee narrowly
led McCain in the final national polls before the Iowa caucuses.
But McCain soon regained his frontrunner status and won despite
the vocal opposition of conservative activists like Rush Limbaugh.

Romney attempted
to follow this same game plan. He dropped out in 2008 and soon became
a strong advocate for McCain. He is currently campaigning and raising
money for 2010 Republican candidates.

The seniority
system might still work out for Romney. The GOP establishment still
reigns, despite its wounded authority. The Republican Party refused
to seriously consider a conservative "purity test" early
this year. The result would have excluded moderates from RNC support.

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the rest of the article

April
30, 2010

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