Wanted: a Republican leader for 2012

Shouldn’t GOP hopefuls be rushing into the race by now?

You would expect someone to have declared their intention to run for the 2012 Republican nomination by now. After all, in recent election cycles, the campaigning began shortly after the mid terms. For instance, Barack Obama announced in February 2007—and he wasn’t even the the first. It is strange that no one on the Republican side appears to be feeling the wind in his or her back in this cycle. With the economy recovering slowly and Obama’s approval ratings split nearly straight down the middle, shouldn’t Republicans be feeling like he is vulnerable? And if that’s not the case, then what, exactly, is happening?

It is true that an incumbent president enjoys a decided advantage: he can manipulate the levers of power; he has a greater capacity to fundraise; the road to his party’s nomination is clear; and the electorate has a historical penchant for the status quo. In the last century, only four elected presidents (Taft, Hoover, Carter, and Bush Sr.) failed to get reelected. That much seems to explain South Dakota’s John Thune’s decision to stay out of the race. But it doesn’t necessarily explain why so many others are making all the right sounds, but do not seem ready to take the plunge.

The first category of possible candidates consists of conventional, albeit prominent, Republicans—people like Mitt Romney. Romney would make a well-qualified contender and may arguably be the likely frontrunner at this stage, but his potential candidacy appears to have generated little enthusiasm among the Republican base. Meanwhile, Romney’s fellow contender for the 2008 Republican nomination, Fox News personality Mike Huckabee, is just recovering from a week of controversial statements and is sending mixed signals about running. It is far from certain that he intends to run in 2012 .

Former speaker Newt Gingrich, long considered the idea generator inside the GOP, is inching towards a declaration, but his personal life and his penchant for controversial statements have already made him a flawed candidate to establishment Republicans. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has talent, but his appeal may be too regional. Moreover, he is seen as a strong backroom operator rather than a national candidate capable of reaching out to new constituencies. Like Romney, Tim Pawlenty hasn’t generated much enthusiasm and comes across as too moderate. Finally, there is Congressman Ron Paul, who seems most likely to run as a statement candidate representing the libertarian wing of the party. But most Republicans would likely find his views too marginal to make him a viable candidate.

The next group of candidates fits more neatly into the category of celebrity than conventional politician. These include Donald Trump, who no one in the GOP seems to believe can win, and Sarah Palin. Palin, the biggest celebrity of all, has rising negative numbers and has been openly criticized by influential Republicans like Karl Rove and George Will. Meanwhile, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has the support of Tea Partiers, but seems to have alienated the party leadership with her decision to do a Tea Party response to Obama’s State of the Union speech. And just this weekend, she took heat for suggesting the American Revolution started in… New Hampshire.

Finally, there are the ‘promising hopefuls. They include the current U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. These potential candidates are playing a waiting game, possibly to see how the more prominent names fare in the coming months, or perhaps pinning their hopes on 2016.

To be fair, there is no absence of talent and it is still early, but it seems the rigours of a presidential campaign are weighing hard on many of those considering a run. Managing the Republican party in its current form, with its diversity of views coming from social and cultural conservatives, neo conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and Tea Party conservatives, may also be an overriding factor. Winning the presidency requires both a messenger and a message.

All this may explain the reluctance to declare this early. But the search will only get more complicated down the road.

[John Parisella is currently serving as Quebec Delegate-General in New York City]