News Column

Republicans Fret Over Election

May 20, 2011

Jeff Zeleny, Jim Rutenberg

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney

With few candidates declared for the 2012 race for president, Republicans are worried their party may appear tentative about their prospects against President Obama.

Republican leaders, activists and donors, anxious that the party's initial presidential field could squander a chance to capture grass-roots energy and build a strong case against Obama at the outset of the 2012 race, are stepping up appeals for additional candidates to jump in, starting with Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana.

"I'm getting letters from all over the damn country, and some of them are pretty moving," Daniels said last week in Indianapolis, where his friends believe he is inching closer to exploring a candidacy. He added, "It can't help but affect you."

The first contests of the primary are about eight months away, and most of the candidates have yet to fully open their campaigns. But some party leaders worry that Republicans are making a bad first impression by appearing tentative about their prospects against Obama and allowing Donald Trump, the New York real estate mogul and television host, to grab headlines with his often-rebutted allegations that Obama might not be an American citizen.

"The race needs more responsible adults who can actually do the job," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who leads many polls despite taking few steps to organize a campaign, is quietly asking supporters to be patient. And Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a former governor of Utah and a relative moderate in a party that has moved to the right, has just returned from his post as ambassador to China to decide whether to join a campaign-in-waiting built by Republicans who see an opening for him.

The wish list among Republicans is wide and varied. Sarah Palin, a former governor of Alaska, retains a devoted following. But activists also express a longing for others to step off the sidelines, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, whose budget-cutting plan has drawn controversy but also keen attention.

The first debate of the nominating contest is Thursday on Fox News, and party officials believe that the presidential field will be all but set by June, giving urgency to the call for more candidates.

Parties facing an incumbent president often have trouble establishing the stature of their candidates in the early going. But the challenge for Republicans this time is especially striking given Obama's vulnerabilities and the passion of the grass-roots conservative movement that helped propel the party to big gains in Congress and state houses in 2010.

The party lacks the establishment-anointed candidate that has led it into every presidential cycle for decades. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, may come closest to that role -- he was second in total Republican delegates when he suspended his campaign in 2008 -- but he has kept a relatively low profile to avoid becoming a target.

Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, is well-known but has political and personal liabilities. Newer faces like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota are barely known to most voters.

One young Republican who has drawn close attention made clear on Sunday that he has no interest in being on his party's 2012 ticket. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who at 39 has emerged as a Tea Party favorite but seems to have appeal beyond that group, flatly told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he would not seek the presidency or vice presidency at this point.

Still, the Republicans on the sidelines seem to be getting almost as much attention as those clearly in the race. Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said last week that he expected other candidates to join the race.

The loudest and most persistent entreaties are directed toward Daniels, who for two terms as Indiana governor has shown that fiscal conservatism and political popularity can go hand in hand.

Daniels, who says Republicans should be more focused on addressing the country's fiscal condition, worked in the Reagan administration and as budget director for President George W. Bush. An alumni network of those administrations, ranging from top contributors to field operatives, has elevated a whisper campaign into a forceful effort to enlist him.

The decision last week by another establishment favorite, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, not to pursue a presidential bid has increased pressure on Daniels, who drew national attention Friday for saying he would sign a bill that cuts off Medicaid financing for Planned Parenthood in Indiana. His allies have started mapping out a campaign structure that could be fully in place this month.

"What sets Mitch apart from the other candidates who are currently running -- he is very, very direct and very open about what needs to be done," said Al Hubbard, a director of the National Economic Council. "I'm disappointed that the other candidates who are currently talking about running are reluctant to do that."

The call for new candidates is hardly universal. Some Republicans point to the 1992 Democratic field, initially derided as uninspiring, that produced President Clinton.

But there has been an undercurrent of concern in the party for months. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has called the field "split and weak."

Peter Wehner, a former adviser to Bush, credited a "lack of fizz" in the field with letting Mr. Trump gain attention as a potential Republican candidate despite his previous contributions to Democrats and even a suggestion that the country examine a single- payer health-care system, anathema to many conservatives.

"At this point, there appears to be a flatness to the field," said Wehner, who has been highly critical of Trump. "There's a void right now, and even clowns can fill voids."

Source: (c) 2011 International Herald Tribune.

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