Should the GOP pin hopes on 2016? Some contenders wait to jump in

The GOP presidential field has weakened in recent weeks as Republicans seem to conclude they’d stand a better chance of winning the White House in 2016.

Several strategists and observers say the potential candidates are weighing their options and deciding it’s best to wait until the next cycle, when President Obama is ineligible to run and Vice President Biden, who will turn 74 that November, isn't expected to seek the Democratic nomination.

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The downside to waiting, of course, is that the 2016 Republican primary could be more competitive on account of the openness of the race.

“It’s tough fighting an incumbent president,” said Republican strategist Tyler Harber. “The people who make significant runs for office wait for when it’s an open seat.”

In recent weeks, several Republicans who were seen as strong presidential contenders have opted not to run in 2012.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have ruled themselves out of the race, citing bad timing, a lack of desire and home-state commitments.

The reluctance of some of these candidates to put themselves forward may stem from having a field that’s expected to be packed with candidates who ran in 2008.

Former Govs. Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee “are so far ahead in organization and ability to raise money,” said Harber. He described a potential candidate’s thinking as, “Why get out there and mix it up with these guys who are going to potentially clean my clock?”

Another consideration: Senators who have unsuccessfully run for the presidency in the past have ended up with tougher-than-usual reelection races in their next cycle. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Dick Lugar (R- Ind.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) all made runs for the White House, only to wind up in trouble back home.

The reluctance of these candidates stands in contrast to the bravado with which Republicans have talked about defeating Obama. Still, those still in the mix for the nomination insist there isn’t an unwillingness to take on the incumbent commander in chief.

"I don't think he's unbeatable; I think he should be beaten," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said during an appearance on Fox News Wednesday. "I think he's not done a very good job as president. He doesn't deserve reelection.

"So I can't speak to what other people may think about the race, but I think the future of America is at stake.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made a similar declaration.

“Here's the reality: I think he can be beat,” he said recently on Fox. “I, frankly, think that I would be in a very good position to do it, because I believe that standing head to head with him, articulating the very clear, decisive difference between our positions, would be a great contrast. But it's the process of getting to that nomination that's tough."

In the latter half of the 20th century, only two presidents have suffered defeat while seeking a second term. So the odds of winning the GOP nomination and unseating the president are slim, despite some difficult poll numbers for Obama.

The president’s popularity dropped by double digits during the past year in a number of key states he won in 2008, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Minnesota and Florida, according to new data from Gallup. In all of those states, Obama's approval rating is below 50 percent. But even Republican pollsters admit those numbers are just part of the story.

GOP pollster Glen Bolger said the president’s political fortunes are really tied to the economy, which could rebound by next year.

“Politicians tend to be rational actors; they decide when their best chance might be,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “I think a lot of these folks are thinking maybe now’s not the right time.”

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer noted the presence of the weak GOP field a few weeks ago, before Thune announced he wasn’t a presidential candidate.

“They have a weak field,” Krauthammer said on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

He went on to say of the younger GOP candidates who were ruling out bids that “none of them is really mature enough or at least in the game long enough to be a serious presidential candidate in 2012. And that is the problem. Because the remaining candidates, the established candidates, all have a lot of political baggage, and they're going to be running against an incumbent president. It's not easy to do.”

— Shane D'Aprile, Michael O'Brien and Christian Heinze contributed.