Spotlight Looks for New GOP Presidential Hopefuls
Like the fireworks of July 4, the Republican Party has produced some spectacular blowups this summer.
Former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has suddenly quit as governor of Alaska, drawing an extraordinary in-state rebuke from the senior Alaska senator from her own party and raising fresh questions about Palin's plans and fitness for higher office.
Two other potential 2012 presidential contenders, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, have admitted to extramarital affairs, and are embroiled in messy post-admission controversies.
The meltdowns only compound leftover animosity toward former President George W. Bush and early rhetorical stumbles by new Republican National Chairman Michael Steele.
All the roiling also has an unintended consequence: It's brought the Republican 2012 presidential nominating contest into focus earlier than expected, even in an era of permanent campaigns. That's abnormal for a party whose nomination is traditionally more predictable and hierarchical, and less dramatic, than the Democrats. The GOP presidential field may now be open to people who weren't considering it six months ago.
"After each election since 1976, I've always had a reasonably good sense of who the next Republican nominee would be," said Peter Brown, director of the Quinnipiac University's political polls. "Today, I don't have a clue."
Brown on Saturday cautioned against making long-term predictions about the effect of the GOP soap opera. Recent history backs him up.
President Barack Obama was a back-bench senator in 2004 after Bush was re-elected president and Bush's adviser, Karl Rove, was publicly talking about a lasting GOP governing majority. Four years later, Obama won in a landslide and Democrats controlled Congress.
The biggest problem for Republicans may be that the recent PR debacles distract from what could be openings on important issues, especially the economy. Brown's polling shows that people once on the fence about the new president are now peeling away from Obama on spending and economic policies.
"It does not help Republicans any," Brown said of the recent controversies. "But I am not sure if it hurts them all that much, long-term. 2012 is going to be about Barack Obama, up or down."
Sanford is resisting calls to quit. Palin's decision to quit is prompting tough criticism.
"I am deeply disappointed the governor has decided to abandon the state and her constituents before her term has concluded," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
It was an extraordinary rebuke from a fellow Republican, but reflective of bad blood between Palin and Murkowski, whose father, Frank, was beaten by Palin in the 2006 governor's race.
In a cryptic statement Friday, Palin said she will step down to avoid "lame-duck" politics and pursue other unspecified interests.
Will she campaign for president full time, employing an anti-Washington, anti-media strategy that fueled her rocky vice presidential campaign, and her battles since with everyone from GOP national officials to comedian David Letterman?
Or is she going out of politics altogether?
"Obviously her decision to give up the governorship will cause some to consider her a quitter and give people pause to think about her as a possible presidential candidate," Brown said. But he also pointed out that campaigning from Alaska is almost impossible, given that the early primaries are thousands of miles away.
Palin may have realized she can't be governor and mend public perceptions of her. She is still relatively popular among conservatives, who make up the preponderance of GOP primary voters, but she is not well liked by independents or conservative Democrats whom Republicans need to win the White House.
Who could capitalize from the GOP turmoil?
2008 contender Mitt Romney could run again, but some consider the ex-Massachusetts governor an opportunist who changed positions on abortion only after he decided to run for president.
Some think the void could be filled by a Republican governor who has averted the hot lights while remaining relatively popular and effective at home.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been mentioned, but he has sworn off running for further office. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is showing up in early-test states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But as a Southerner, Barbour only enhances the image of a party that has lost heavily in the Northeast and Midwest in recent elections.
Brown thinks Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, could be a contender if she wins the Texas governorship next year, although some think she may not be sufficiently opposed to abortion to pass GOP primary muster.
If Gov. Charlie Crist wins a Florida Senate seat next year, he'd have won twice statewide in a pivotal swing state.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would fit the profile of everything the GOP might need to oppose Obama, Brown said, with one big exception.
"Jeb would be formidable if his last name were Cream Cheese or Jones or pick whatever name you want," Brown said.
Contact Chuck Raasch at craasch(AT)gannett.com