Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The next GOP frontrunners, or not

DO NOT adjust your calendar. If you watched NBC's “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend, you may have seen the first populist shot fired in the presidential campaign of 2016.

On the show’s “Weekend Update” segment, Seth Meyers did a “report” on how New Jersey was faring in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey shore and its people. And just in for a comment on how the Garden State’s faring — please welcome New Jersey Governor Chris Christie!

The reliably combustible Republican governor, who received generally high marks for his handling of the Sandy crisis in his state, availed himself of several targets of opportunity. Christie lambasted as “stupid” and “idiots” the state officials who failed to follow his evacuation orders, even as he thanked the Red Cross and first responders — and his wife for enduring “a husband who has smelled like a wet fleece for the last three weeks.” He ended with a recitation of the lyrics from “Atlantic City,” by Bruce Springsteen, son of New Jersey and lately Christie’s Best Friend for Now (if not Forever).

It was all light-hearted enough and, given what New Jersey’s been through since Oct. 31, probably a welcome break from a tragedy the state is only now beginning to recover from. But implicit in Christie’s benign appearance on a sketch comedy program is a message to the nation as a whole and the handicappers already lining up prospects for the 2016 race: Don’t fuggedabout the governor. He’s a national player now.

Christie is already on the short list of possibles for the Republican nomination; other names surfaced even as the Romney dreadnought sank beneath the waves in the days after the election. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio just took a trip to Iowa.

What possible senatorial business could a Florida senator have going on in Iowa, you ask? This trip was for a birthday party fundraiser for Gov. Terry Branstad, but considering Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses begin in three years and two months … well, for someone thought to be a White House contender in 2016, early beats hell out of late.

And Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor and lately an eager apostate from established GOP orthodoxy, has long been considered a 2016 likely suspect. In the wake of the Romney implosion, Jindal was among the first to offer postmortems for Mitt’s campaign and the Republican Party as a whole, with a bracing, willfully lacerating assessment of the GOP’s prospects in the wake of Hurricane Romney.

THESE ARE the most likely of the early frontrunners in name recognition only. Others — like New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez or Texas Rep. Ted Cruz — have gotten less press, but they make good sense given the GOP’s sorry outreach to Latino voters in recent years, and the virtual election-year vilification of Latinos by the state governments of Arizona and Texas. Cruz, a Tea Party stalwart, can’t be expected in the short term to offer any big departures from the political rhythms of that wing of the Republican Party. It’s Martinez who’d be maybe the biggest test of the GOP’s new Kum Ba Yah narrative.

The governor, 52, supports Medicare — something that puts her deeply at odds with the GOP meat-axe ethos of the Path to Prosperity budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan. “I believe in providing services to adults and children who can’t take care of themselves,” she told Newsweek in May. “Sometimes Republicans engage in number-crunching analysis that doesn’t always take the neediest into account. We have to factor them in before we start proposing these cuts.”

And she’s a voice of reason on immigration. “I absolutely advocate for comprehensive immigration reform,” Martinez said. “Republicans want to be tough and say, ‘Illegals, you’re gone.’ But the answer is a lot more complex than that.”

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Some other names have come up; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the nation’s youngest governor, was briefly bruited as a possible Romney running mate, and she’s also under the presidential microscope for 2016. There’s two challenges first. One is her own expected bid for re-election as governor in 2014, and how well that goes. The other is the deep strain of her own party’s multiple identities.

Jake Knotts, a South Carolina Republican state senator, proved that in June 2010, when he was a guest on “Pub Politics,” an Internet talk radio show, speaking off the cuff at a Palmetto State bar. Knotts expressed having issues with Haley, who was then running for governor. “We got a raghead in Washington,” Knotts said. “We don’t need a raghead in the statehouse.”

Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley is of Indian descent.

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IN ANY serious discussion of 2016 Republican hopefuls, you have to cherry-pick from the leavings of the primary season. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been flirting with the idea of flirting with the idea of a White House run. “2016 is a long way to trying to make any decisions about what you’re doing,” he told the Houston Chronicle, and other news outlets, back in August — this after telling NBC News that he’d “absolutely” consider a 2016 run. “There’s a long time until 2016 and a lot of good things can happen,” he said.

One of the good things that can happen, or not, is his own re-election as governor, a bid coming up in 2014.

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Don’t count Rick Santorum out. The former Pennsylvania senator was a hit during the primary season, employing a moving personal biography and a direct, accessible style of retail politics; all of it deeply connected with primary voters.

He won the Iowa caucuses, and swept the Colorado and Missouri caucuses and the Minnesota primary, and seemed to be gaining traction, but he later adopted an on-offense strategy, morphing into a culture warrior guise that alienated some voters and confused others.

All in all, though, not fatal lapses; his classy, principled exit from the race left people feeling he’d acquitted himself well during the bruising primaries. He didn’t stink up the joint, at least not much. And Santorum's primary-season warning about the dangers of nominating Romney could give Santorum the gravitas of a party oracle if he runs again. Pencil him in for ’16.

And do the same with Jon Huntsman, the polished, self-assured, comparatively centrist former Utah governor who was in some ways the best of the primary candidates. Kicked to the curb back in January, Huntsman has had the accidental good timing to be out of the picture for many months; his absence from the scene for almost all of this contentious year means that in 2014 or 2015, Huntsman could return as a relatively fresh face, untarnished by the ugliest aspects of the 2012 campaign.

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EARLY-FRONTRUNNER status may well be bestowed by the party kingmakers more than anyone else. The need for early hopefuls to establish bona fides with party poohbahs and mandarins, and the donors they court, is setting the stage for more of the infighting the GOP has lately shown a talent for.

Christie, for example, has run into considerable blowback from party elders over his effusive praise for President Obama’s personal response to Sandy’s devastation. The governor reportedly got the stinkeye at his recent visit to the Republican Governors’ Association — an expected, if not logical reaction to Romney’s defeat and their suspicions that Christie’s praise helped in that defeat.

For Patrick Murray, who heads the Monmouth University Polling Institute, it’s no B.F. Deal. “It was obvious to many people in New Jersey that he was putting his state ahead of his party,” Murray told The New York Times. “You always get points for leadership when you do that,” he said, predicting a boost for Christie’s poll numbers over time.

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And Christie has shown a way forward for the Republicans, or at least those willing to set aside the reflexive us-vs.-them that characterizes — or defines — American politics today. Never mind the presidency, first things first; Christie’s statements praising Obama put Christie squarely where he needs to be: in the politically center-right position that’s palatable to the people he’ll need before mounting any presidential bid in three years — the citizens of New Jersey, whom he’ll ask for a second term as governor next year.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” the saying goes, and Republicans would do well to pay attention. If the GOP hopefuls for the presidency face the harsh ideological litmus tests imposed by donors and party thought leaders in the past, the GOP is setting itself up for more of what happened on Nov. 6.

The Republicans have tacked as far to the right as they can go without sailing off the flat earth they’ve talked themselves into thinking the nation believes in. For any GOP candidates who hope to pursue the presidency, starting their campaigns somewhere to the left of that imperfect precipice isn’t just an option, it’s a necessity.

Image credits: Christie: “Saturday Night Live” (NBC/Broadway Video). Rubio: CPAC 2012, via YouTube. Martinez: Jesse Chehak for Newsweek. Santorum: CNN. Christie and Obama: via MSNBC.

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