Plenty of 2012 would-bes, but no GOP front-runners, yetby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — It's no secret the Republicans think President Obama is vulnerable in next year's election. They think he overreached on the health care overhaul, the economy is still sluggish and they're confident voters agree with them that the federal government spends too much.
A lot of possible contenders are acting like candidates, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, but so far no high profile Republicans have announced they're running, and some analysts say the party is having an unusually difficult time getting behind a candidate.
"I think it's the most wide open Republican presidential nominating contest since at least 1964 and maybe ever," said former Christian Coalition leader and Bush campaign adviser Ralph Reed.
He's been involved in Republican politics for a long time and said it's remarkable that Republicans don't know yet who's likely to be at the top of their ticket taking on President Obama next year.
Reed and others say more often than not in Republican presidential politics there's an heir-apparent for the nomination, but not this year.
"Historically Republicans have been royalists when it came to choosing their presidential nominees, it's who's been around the longest, whose turn is it, who's run before," he said. "I think people are really kicking the tires, they're looking around. I think particularly in the aftermath of Obama, they might want a fresh face."
Many polls give former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a lead, while others show Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in a virtual tie.
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs also thinks the nomination is wide open, in part because of Romney's perceived weaknesses.
"There's a fairly wide view among Republicans that Mitt Romney's got some fatal flaws, particularly the fact that he was the one that pushed through health reform in Massachusetts when he was governor and there are many similarities with the plan that Barack Obama signed into law of March 2010. Obviously that's going to be a real problem for some Republicans and he's a Mormon who, particularly for evangelicals, is a real irritant."
By this time in the 2008 cycle most of the big-name candidates on both sides had already formally launched their campaigns, including Republicans Romney and Huckabee and Democrats Hillary Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama.
This year some of the best-known Republicans like Palin and Huckabee seem more interested in careers as media celebrities than running for president. That's left a field of lesser known hopefuls working to garner attention and support.
Jacobs said those potential candidates are scrambling to secure early money and other support and the field is still sorting itself out.
"There are so many candidates in the Republican field and it's so wide open, that very few of the candidates are really in a position yet to announce a candidacy," he said. "If they came out with a candidacy, frankly there could be some pretty negative criticism of them for, 'How's this going to work? You don't have enough money, your staff's not in place yet.'"
Pawlenty has been trying to increase his national profile for more than a year, Even though Bachmann has been in the presidential mix for less than two months, a Gallup poll this week showed Bachmann 1 point ahead of Pawlenty.
Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier said Pawlenty could significantly boost his national standing by actually launching the presidential campaign almost everyone agrees he's already unofficially running.
"If Pawlenty declares early, he could become a de facto national Republican spokesperson and people will go to him for reactions to what Obama is saying and doing," he said. "And that would, I think, advantage his campaign considerably."
The wide field of potential GOP 2012 presidential candidates got a little bit smaller earlier this week when South Dakota Sen. John Thune announced he will not be running.
Some observers think that could help Pawlenty, because it means there will be one fewer Midwesterner in the race for the nomination.
- Morning Edition, 02/25/2011, 8:25 a.m.