Analysis: GOP race more about who's out than in

May 17, 2011 - 3:15 PM
GOP Race Not It Analysis

FILE - In this March 28, 2011 file photo, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee gestures as he addresses students at the business school at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss. Huckabee says he will not be making a run for the presidency. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Huck's out. So is The Donald. Haley pulled the plug a few weeks back, following John Thune and Mike Pence. These days it seems the race for the GOP presidential nomination is more about who isn't running than who is.

Is it the challenge of beating an incumbent president or the state of the Republican Party?

"What if they held an election and no one ran? That's kind of where we are right now," Curt Anderson, a veteran GOP pollster, says with a chuckle.

That's not to say there are no GOP candidates. Republicans who have taken steps toward running include former Gov Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who was a serious contender for the nomination in 2008, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is considering a run as well.

But with each I'm-not-running announcement comes a new round of questions within GOP circles: Will New Jersey's Chris Christie and Florida's Jeb Bush stay on the sidelines as they insist? What about Sarah Palin and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels? Is there anyone else who may emerge, say a late entry by Texas Gov. Rick Perry?

So far, it's a far smaller field than many GOP observers expected, and it's made up of candidates who aren't yet quenching the thirst of a primary electorate looking for the strongest Republican to challenge President Barack Obama as he seeks a second term.

"It does look like on the Republican side there is more demand than supply for potential nominees," says Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to President George W. Bush.

But he insisted: "Whoever emerges as the Republican nominee has a 50/50 shot at being the president."

Gillespie and other Republicans contend that Obama is not in as strong a position as it might seem after getting a bump in polls following the killing of al-Qaida terror leader Osama bin Laden. They point to an economy that's still sluggish, unemployment that's still high and the president's standing in some battleground states.

Typically, the Republicans who have recently declined to run have said they were confident a GOP candidate could win the presidency next fall. But it's hard to see how one maxim in presidential politics didn't contribute to their decisions: Americans don't usually like to fire their presidents.

It's happened three times since the end of World War II. Republican Gerald Ford, who was appointed not elected, lost in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 and Republican George H.W. Bush lost in 1992.

"That's probably a factor. The president deceivingly looks very strong right now, and there has to be a hesitancy to get into a race that's going to be a slugfest and could cost a candidate $1 billion. That might be giving some people pause," says Frank Donatelli, the chairman of GOPAC, an organization that trains Republicans to run for elective office. "It's a small field right now. But Obama is so vulnerable, that whoever emerges is going to be a credible challenger."

Others doubt that fear of losing to Obama is much of a consideration — if any at all — as Republicans weigh their options.

"It's more that people are just sizing up what it takes to run and deciding that they don't have it in them. These are personal decisions that people make," says Gillespie.

Still others say the lack of a crop of strong candidates with no flaws may have to do with growing pains within the GOP. They say terrible elections for Republicans in 2006 and 2008 robbed the party of its bench of up-and-coming contenders who would be ripe for a run this time, former Virginia Sen. George Allen among them.

Donatelli sums it up with this: "We have a shortage of candidates."

The argument goes that the GOP's rising stars and future candidates are governors and senators elected in the past two years in elections in which Republicans performed strongly, a junior varsity bench that will be ready for the big leagues in four years.

"We'll see the starting gates for 2016 be like the starting gates at Aqueduct," says Rich Galen, a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns who referenced the legendary horse track in Queens.

But first, the GOP must get through the 2012 elections. And the decisions by Republicans who have chosen not to run have created voids in the field, stirring talk anew of others to recruit into the race.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus victor, opted out last weekend. His absence means social conservative and evangelical Christians have no obvious candidate to rally around.

Days later, real estate developer Donald Trump chose to continue hosting "Celebrity Apprentice" instead of running for president. He never was a serious contender, but tea partyers gravitated toward a potential candidate who was fearless in lobbing no-holds-barred criticism at Obama.

The field now lacks a verbal bomb-thrower.

In April, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour bowed out at the last minute after putting everything necessary in place for a campaign, surprising even aides. He said he lacked the "fire in the belly" necessary to run.

His decision means no Southerner is running.

Earlier, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a Midwesterner with solid right-flank credentials, took a pass, choosing to take a leadership post in the Senate perhaps with an eye toward 2016. And Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a hero to social conservatives, decided to run for governor.

More decisions by Republicans considering bids, especially Indiana Gov. Daniels, will come shortly, further clarifying a GOP field that's only just starting to come into focus. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Rep. Ron Paul already are in the mix, and others could be soon.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.