GOP lacks ’12 front runner

Asked a Republican lately who their choice is for president? Their eyes dart elsewhere, their shoulders slump and they struggle for words. Ask them this week, post-Conservative Political Action Conference, and there are flushed cheeks and flared nostrils. CPAC is not what it used to be, they fume; Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) won the straw poll because it has been infiltrated by libertarians who aren’t representative of the Republican Party or the nominating process for president.

True, all true. But the big news out of CPAC isn’t that Paul keeps winning the poll, but that there is no one likely to run who unites the party. The overwhelming majority of Republicans not on the payroll of, or related by blood to, the current wannabes want Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) or Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) to run. And since those three are likely waiting until 2016, 2012 is looking like a bust.

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Heading into CPAC,  the conventional wisdom was that the default front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney just needed not to harm himself. He succeeded, but not without Ann Coulter telling attendees at the conference that the party will lose if it nominates him.

Romney is followed by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as those who have laid the most groundwork. But Republicans are no more excited by Pawlenty than they are by Romney. Yes, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is a powerhouse who commands much attention, but just look to the polls to see how many Republican primary voters believe she is presidential timber.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has raised a lot of money, but two divorces and infidelity are great obstacles to winning social conservatives. Sen. John Thune (S.D.) has put a Senate term behind him — more than President Obama could say in 2008 — but handicappers say Thune isn’t getting enough traction in the money race and is likely to put off running.

Conservatives write former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman off as a moderate. Popular as he is, and in many GOP polls the most popular, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also doesn’t have an obvious path to raising the necessary funds, and despite frequent trips to Israel — the new Iowa — he doesn’t seem to be making any tangible plans to run. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) has done serious work to run but isn’t taken seriously.

Should political campaigns work as they once did, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour would be hard to beat. As a former Republican National Committee and current Republican Governors Association chairman, Barbour has done more for the party than anyone in recent memory, and Republicans everywhere owe him big. But this is 2011, when the Tea Party has split the establishment, and Barbour’s blasé comments about segregation and racism could disqualify him.

Another would-be heavyweight, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, can be considered the poster child for Republican division. A popular two-term governor in a Midwestern state, a budget expert who has balanced the books in Indiana, Daniels is an “establishment” candidate. For many Tea Party types, Daniels’s deficit complicity as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush makes his long record less appealing than the shorter, purer one of an unstained outsider like Christie.
President Obama unites Republicans. But they can’t beat him without a candidate who does.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error in last week’s column, a quotation on the difficulty of making budget cuts was inaccurately attributed to Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.