The GOP field: Too far to the right?

The danger for Republicans is that Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann will scare away moderate, independent voters in swing states.

The 2012 election “is the Republican Party’s to lose,” said Charlie Cook in The Atlantic. So why is the GOP trying to blow it? President Obama’s approval ratings have dipped below a dismal 40 percent, and with the economy in tatters, he looks very beatable in 2012. But presidential elections are decided by moderate, independent voters in swing states—and the GOP seems hell-bent on scaring them away with a “far-right” nominee. Texas Gov. Rick Perry certainly meets that definition, said Bill Schneider in Perry, who quickly surged to the top of polls after his recent, splashy entry into the race, is an evangelical Christian who scoffs at the separation of church and state, calls evolution “a theory that’s out there,” and derides climate change as a hoax. The swaggering Perry brags of carrying a concealed gun, and has a “mean streak” that led him, last week, to call Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke a traitor who might get treated “pretty ugly” should he step foot in Texas. His rival for the party base’s affections is Rep. Michele Bachmann, another evangelical, who has contended that homosexuality is a form of “personal enslavement” and wants to abolish the Department of Education, the IRS, and the progressive tax code. With the party base feeling lukewarm about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, “the Republican establishment is very nervous,” and begging other candidates to get into the race.

Republicans still have time to find an electable candidate, said Jennifer Rubin in, and they’d better go outside the current field. Perry and Bachmann appeal to the party’s “energized Tea Party and social-conservative wings,” but conservatives need to remember that most American voters don’t think “like the right-wing blogosphere.”

Reasonable Republicans do exist, said GOP pollster Mark McKinnon in It was refreshing to see the eminently reasonable former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman this week criticize his fellow candidates “for appealing to the fringes.” It isn’t too late for Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Rudy Giuliani, or Jeb Bush to throw their hats in the ring. Gentlemen? “Your party needs you.”

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But “do Republican voters really want moderation?” said Brian Montopoli in Huntsman is trailing the pack of potential nominees, while former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another moderate, had to quit the race last week. Romney is still polling well, it’s true, but he’s disavowed his centrist stances of the past and now parrots the Tea Party line, “having apparently concluded that moderation is not a winning strategy”—at least not in the primaries. The danger now, said Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Timse, is that the more beatable Obama starts to look, “the more comfortable the conservative rank and file feel moving as far rightward as possible.” But a Bachmann or Perry candidacy could backfire disastrously, just as Goldwater’s did in 1964.

That’s the vision keeping Karl Rove and other members of the GOP establishment up nights, said John Heilemann in New York. But Perry’s emergence as Romney’s chief rival brings to the race “a welcome clarity,” as the GOP figures out its modern identity. “Is it now fully in the thrall of its populist, insurgent forces?” Or does something remain of the more pragmatic, cautious, literally “conservative” GOP of yesteryear? Perry, Bachmann, and Romney offer very distinct options. “How the Republican electorate ultimately judges them will tell us everything we need to know about the party.”

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