The Republican Party—and indeed much of the media establishment—is living in a fantasy world when it comes to 2012. To hear most of the pundits and soothsayers tell it, the presidential nominating contest is still a long way off. The GOP heavies we’ve been talking about since 2008, such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Tim Pawlenty, are all terribly flawed: Mitt’s got his RomneyCare; Newt has been a national pariah; Huck has money problems; Palin is toxic outside her base; and T-Paw induces narcolepsy. But the entire presidential field will change, we are told, when a white knight (possibly handsome, possibly not), comes riding in to save the day. Everything will be different when Mitch Daniels enters the race, the argument goes. You’ll stop scoffing when Mike Pence gets here!
To which I say, look at the calendar. The truth is that if the Republicans’ Galahad is going to save the day, he needs to announce before midnight, and midnight is fast approaching. As Dave Weigel recently pointed out, at this point four years ago, 15 would-be presidents (eight Republicans, seven Democrats) had launched exploratory committees or announced candidacies. And eight years ago, by this time, five Democrats—all of the major candidates other than Wesley Clark—had at least formed exploratory committees, and two had formally announced. Today, in contrast, only the radio talk-show host Herman Cain has launched an exploratory committee. All of the other potential candidacies remain notional and virtual, built around leadership PACs, buzz-generating book tours, and flashy travel announcements.
The simple fact is that, for a white-knight candidate to actually win the nomination, this kind of virtual campaign is not enough. Consider the hurdles that a real, substantive presidential bid must surmount. The first contest of the election takes place on March 11, when the Iowa branch of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition holds a candidate “forum,” which is another word for “debate.” And the first major event in the 2012 cycle—the Ames, Iowa, Republican Straw Poll—is scheduled for August 13, 2011, less than eight months from now. It is not what you’d rightly call an optional event for anyone who wants to win or place in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. The straw poll is this election cycle’s major fundraiser for the Iowa GOP, and its sponsors are making it abundantly clear that anyone who skips Ames might as well skip the Caucuses. This event requires either a big operation that will bus eager Republicans to Ames, or the kind of passionate team support that Mike Huckabee had in Iowa in 2008. It cannot be dialed in.
Right now, only four putative candidates can afford to ignore this ticking clock: Romney, Huckabee, Gingrich, and Palin. Each has enough name ID, or prior experience on the presidential campaign trail, that they won’t be hurt by waiting until just prior to the straw poll, or even later, before going official. And there are currently two others, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum, who are already spending enough time in Iowa to prepare for the first contest. (Another possible candidate, Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, will soon dip her toes into the Iowa waters, buoyed by a personal connection to Iowa’s own fire-breather, Representative Steve King. Particularly if Palin takes a pass on 2012, Bachmann could be quite formidable.) For everyone else, time is a-wasting. It’s hard to imagine any of the potential white knights—John Thune, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, Haley Barbour—becoming credible, much less formidable, unless they take the plunge very soon.
It’s not just about Iowa: New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney has a big early lead in polls; and South Carolina, where two of the big dogs of Tea Party-era conservatism, Jim DeMint and Nikki Haley, could have a big impact via endorsements, require early attention too. Despite all the changes the Republican Party has undergone, its nomination contest remains a state-by-state slog in which a few key victories are dispositive. Just ask Rudy Giuliani, whose failed 2008 candidacy vividly demonstrated once again how futile it is to pretend you can ignore the early states altogether, or ask Fred Thompson, a powerful on-paper candidate who couldn’t overcome his own unwillingness to campaign like a wolverine in heat.
Barbour, Daniels, Thune, and Pence may walk tall in Washington, and they can raise money quickly, but they are not particularly well known to the rank-and-file outside their own states. Barbour has to spend time overcoming the poor impression made by his recent clumsy defense of civil-rights-era Mississippi. Daniels has infuriated social conservatives—who dominate the Iowa Caucuses, and who are obsessed with overturning the state’s gay marriage law—by calling for a “truce in the culture wars.” If he is to have any chance at all, he needs to decamp to Des Moines immediately and spend the next several months begging them for forgiveness. Thune has to work to show he’s something other than handsome and inoffensive. And Pence may or may not be running for governor of Indiana. If any of them wants to score a win on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, he will have to confront these p.r. problems and begin campaigning seriously more or less now. Otherwise, we should all admit that the field of legitimate contenders for the Republican nomination looks like this: Romney, Huckabee, Gingrich, Palin (or Bachmann in her absence), and Pawlenty. Talk about anyone else is just a sign of denial.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.