Friday, November 12, 2010

GOP Prexy Primary Primer.

At the starting line, we have three leading candidates: former governors Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Ms. Palin is formidable because she has an ardent, national base of support. Mr. Romney is formidable because he ran fairly well in 2008 (his first time around), he's a terrific fund-raiser and he has proven leadership skills (Bain Consulting, Bain Capital, Salt Lake City Olympics, Governor of Massachusetts). Mr. Huckabee is formidable because he too ran fairly well in 2008, winning Iowa and a number of southern states before bowing to the inevitable and endorsing Sen. John McCain.

These three are the "top tier" candidates in what will no doubt be a very crowded field of contenders for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination. (One veteran GOP operative was saying the other night that he thought 2012 would be 1980 all over again, with a weak Democratic incumbent attracting at least a dozen potential challengers vying for the GOP nod).

That being the (likely) case, the question is: what do all non-top tier candidates need to do over the course of the next twelve months, aside from the obvious (run serious campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire). Answer: (1) get rid of Romney, and (2) help Huckabee whenever and wherever possible.


Well, there are really two GOP presidential primaries taking place at the same time. They're semi-final brackets, if you will. One GOP presidential primary is about emerging as the champion of the "social conservative" wing of the party. The other is about emerging as the champion of the "suburban Republican" wing of the party.

The "social conservative" primary battle, for the moment and probably for the duration, pits former Gov. Palin against former Gov. Huckabee. Ms. Palin is the favorite in this match-up. If she dispatches with Huckabee quickly (by winning, say, Iowa decisively) then the race will immediately boil down to Palin versus Not Palin. On the other hand, the longer she tussles with Huckabee to emerge as the "social conservative" champion, the less "inevitable" she becomes. And if she loses to Huckabee early, she's done. So helping Huckabee compete with Palin is in everyone else's interest.

In the "suburban Republican" bracket, the clear front-runner (for the moment) is Mitt Romney. There are any number of candidates --from Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to Texas Governor Rick Perry -- who can't move up until Romney is out of the way. Over the course of the next six-to-nine months, getting rid of Romney will be the over-riding narrative for those seeking to emerge as Palin's (or Huckabee's) eventual challenger.

It didn't take long to get the narrative rolling. Texas Governor Rick "I'm not running for President" Perry launched the first missile this week, saying: “The health care plan out of Massachusetts, I would suggest to you, is too much the like the health care plan passed out of Washington."

There's no disputing that statement. President Obama's health care plan does indeed closely resemble the plan put forward and enacted into law by Massachusetts then-Governor Romney. Tying Romney to Obamacare (and Massachusetts) isn't unfair and it's very good GOP primary politics. It remains to be seen whether Romney can survive this line of attack. If he can, then he will hold his place as the leader of the "suburban Republican" wing of the party. If he can't, then the race on that side of the draw gets thrown wide open.

If all this seems like a lot of inside baseball, remember that after New Hampshire, virtually every past presidential primary race has boiled down to a head-to-head contest. News media economics simply do not allow for coverage of 6 or 7 candidates over many states in many time zones. It's too expensive. So only two campaigns get sustained coverage.

That being the case, who wins Iowa and New Hampshire is determinative. If Palin wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, that's it: it's Palin vs. Romney the rest of the way. If Romney loses New Hampshire, as he did in 2008, then he's basically done. Early winners survive. Early losers do not.

There's no room on the "social conservative" side for another candidate to emerge; Palin and Huckabee consume all that oxygen. So the race within the race that will drive coverage for the next year or so will be the one to dethrone Romney as the "suburban Republican" champion.

Rick Perry kicked off that campaign this week. The others will be joining him shortly.