The GOP’s search for a presidential candidate

The leading contenders for the nomination are Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman, but many Republicans are concerned over their lack of star quality.

What happened

The field of front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination came into sharper focus this week, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced he would not seek the presidency. Daniels was the third Republican in eight days to announce that he wouldn’t run, leaving three former governors as the leading contenders for the nomination: Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Jon Huntsman of Utah. The others to drop out were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a favorite of Christian conservatives, and real estate magnate Donald Trump, who briefly led in polls. “The waiting is over,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. “Things are going to accelerate pretty quickly now.”

But many Republican Party officials and conservative activists expressed concern over the remaining candidates’ lack of star quality. The party’s most popular figures, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have repeatedly insisted they will not run. Sarah Palin’s popularity has plunged, and insiders doubt she’ll enter the race. Some conservatives were hopeful that another candidate would jump into the race, while others predicted that the current field would grow in stature now that they have the country’s attention. “Everybody is waiting for Superman,” said Fred V. Malek, a Republican adviser, “and soon they will learn that Superman is already in the race.”

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What the editorials said

It’s not just Republican insiders holding out for a hero, said The Economist. Neither Tea Party activists nor the Christian Right yet have an “anointed candidate” to call their own. Their current favorite, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, is “too fire-breathing” to win mainstream support, while the presidential candidacies of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are already dead in the water.

That leaves a trio of establishment candidates with no true conservative credentials, said Investor’s Business Daily. Mitt Romney introduced a health-care mandate in Massachusetts that “many consider ObamaCare lite”; Pawlenty has supported cap-and-trade environmental policies in his state; and Huntsman was appointed ambassador to China by Obama himself. No wonder “some are looking beyond the field for a champion in this most critical of elections.”

What the columnists said

The GOP’s best candidates are all “sitting on the sidelines,” said Rich Lowry in As Republicans realize they’ll have to choose between Romney, a candidate-by-default in the tradition of John McCain and Bob Dole, and the “mild-mannered” Pawlenty, they’re feeling emotions ranging from “disappointment to panic.” The party is desperate for “surprises and dark horses.” Patience—our prayers will be answered, said William Kristol in The Weekly Standard. The first primaries are eight months away, which leaves plenty of time for dynamic figures like Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to jump into the race.

Keep praying, said John Dickerson in Each passing day makes it more difficult to imagine a “just-add-water insta-candidate” appearing to mount a credible challenge to an incumbent president. The longer challengers wait to join the race, the more spectacular their arrivals must be—and the less time they have to raise funds and build momentum. Perhaps Republicans ought to “stop waiting for magic to arrive and start looking for it in the candidates already running.”

When they do, they might just like what they find, said Carl M. Cannon in As former governors, Romney, Huntsman, and Pawlenty all have solid experience with balancing budgets and winning elections. Four of the six previous presidents were ex-governors, and one of them, Bill Clinton, rose from a field “widely characterized as unimpressive” to unseat an incumbent president in 1992. Critics say the remaining GOP candidates lack charisma, but look at Jimmy Carter in 1975 or George W. Bush in 1999. It takes time to be perceived as “presidential.’’

This election will mostly be a referendum on Obama anyway, said Steve Kornacki in If the economy continues to improve, “then it really doesn’t matter whom the Republicans nominate—they’ll lose.” If unemployment remains high, the recovery stalls, and the public is restless enough to dump the incumbent, “‘generic’ will be enough for the Republicans to win.’’

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