It's All Politics
3:10 pm
Wed June 22, 2011

The Republican Presidential Field: Why Are They All Running?

Underwhelmed by Tuesday's formal announcement of candidacy by Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., some may ask why he's running for president.

Those asking might include people who had not heard of Huntsman heretofore, or who read a glowing magazine profile of him and expected more from his Statue of Liberty speech on Tuesday. Note to future candidates: If you kick off your campaign from a spot famously used by Ronald Reagan, be prepared to be compared – and not favorably.

It takes imagination to discern a path to the nomination for Huntsman, especially given his refusal to seek one in Iowa. The curtain-raiser caucuses in that state have elevated other hopefuls with personal charm and helped them break from the pack. It's not clear where else Huntsman hopes to make that kind of move in 2012, which makes many wonder if he's really got his eye on 2016.

But why ask why of Huntsman alone? It's a fair question for the rest of the field as well.

Why is Herman Cain running? Does the Godfathers Pizza magnate expect to be on the ticket or does he expect to enhance the marketability of his motivational speaking and talk show career?

The same question seems increasingly apropos for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who bid goodbye to a brace of key fundraisers this week after parting ways with 16 key staffers last week.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was once thought a plausible candidate for higher office, before losing his Senate seat by 17 points in 2006. Now he seems to be auditioning for a job in a future Republican administration. The same might be said of Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, whose libertarian credentials are in good order but who has yet to make much of a splash among Republicans.

That other libertarian fellow, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, won yet another straw poll last weekend at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. But his larger, realistic goal remains the dissemination and legitimizing of his views.

In the earliest months of the campaign, many believed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a fully serious contender for the nomination. But at the first New Hampshire debate he suddenly switched focus to making friends with the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, who might choose him as a running mate. Pawlenty refused to press a prior charge that Romney's health care plan was the same as President Obama's, and looked very vice-presidential doing it.

At this moment, "TPaw" and his bid for attention from the Tea Party are being eclipsed by a home-state rival, Rep. Michele Bachmann. Once thought a placeholder for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Bachmann is now established as the woman in the field and the favorite of the insurgents.

She may well beat Pawlenty in the "Minnesota primary" shaping up for the straw poll and caucuses across the stateline in Iowa, where she was born and his deep roots.

Bachmann stands to gain more from this process than anyone other than Romney. And Romney could make that happen by choosing her as his Number Two at the convention in Tampa 14 months from now.

The overarching reality of 2012 right now is that the economy makes President Obama vulnerable to a Republican. But it remains difficult to see him being vulnerable to any of these Republicans in particular.

The one exception is Romney. He is the one candidate in the field whose only goal or agenda is to claim the nomination. There was never any real doubt he would run. He leads in the polls and in fundraising.

A previous tour of the track four years ago gives him a seasoned look, a smile of amused confidence familiar on the faces of upperclassmen watching the freshmen arrive.

Of course, Romney also remains at risk of embarrassment. He is stuck defending a health care law he enacted in Massachusetts that President Obama himself embraced. He inhabits a relatively moderate space on climate change and even abortion. He is a Mormon, which may cost him the votes of some in the primaries. He often appears stiff and contrived in public interactions.

Still, with Romney as with no other Republican in this field, the answer to the why question is obvious.

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