When Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) bowed out of the 2012 presidential race this week, he joined some powerful company. A parade of big-name Republicans has decided not to run — including Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Why are the GOP's heavy-hitters so reluctant to take on President Obama? Here, four theories:
1. Obama is just too strong
President Obama's approval ratings may have dipped below 50 percent, says Michael D. Shear at The New York Times, but "he remains personally popular." And if the economy improves between now and the election, even Mitt Romney, "one of the handful of very likely candidates" for the GOP nomination, has admitted the president will be tough to beat. Plus, Obama is expected to raise a gigantic $1 billion, which he'll aim directly at his almost surely underfunded challenger.
2. There's always 2016
The Oval Office will be open in 2016 — and Vice President Joe Biden almost certainly won't run for the nation's top job — so many candidates probably figure they'll have a better shot if they wait, says Shear. Taking on an incumbent president — even an unpopular one — is not an enviable task.
3. The GOP is just weeding out candidates early
Barbour, Pence, and the others didn't exactly opt out, says Jonathan Bernstein at A Plain Blog about Politics. They put their names out there, but wound up losers in the pre-campaign period known as the "invisible primary." Whether they were official candidates or not, many Republicans have "hired staff, sought endorsements, traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina — they contested the invisible primary." So the GOP field isn't really small — there are still plenty of names left in contention. It's just that "the winnowing has begun early."
4. In the year of the Tea Party, insiders are not eager to rush in
"With conservative voters and Tea Party activists sharply challenging the party's establishment," says John Whitesides at Reuters, strategists say candidates are biding their time so they won't "look like over-eager professional politicians." That explains why somebody like Barbour, a former RNC chairman himself, quickly realized 2012 wasn't going to be his year. But the slate of candidates is slowly becoming clear, with Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty already jumping in. And with Fox News holding a nationally televised forum on May 5, an even bigger rush could begin soon.