Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No Republican Frontrunner

I didn't watch Monday night's Republican debate from New Hampshire, but I've been reading a lot about it.

And I have come to the same conclusion as Michael Barone in the Washington Examiner — there is no frontrunner yet.

How could there be? I mean, this is June. The party conventions won't be held for more than a year. Primary voters won't start going to the polls for another six or seven months.

The debate, as Barone observed, "was a New Hampshire debate, but it has serious ramifications for Iowa as well."

Beyond that?

Well, I guess it can also have important repercussions throughout the party, but right now it is one small piece of a still–emerging puzzle.

Immediately, I don't think it registered with many people. A lot can — and probably will — happen between now and the first primaries and caucuses of the 2012 election cycle. This is a time when voters traditionally (and mostly silently) take the candidates' measure. Debates and straw polls have little real meaning at this point.

What matters most right now — when there are no delegates to be won — is perception, and, as Barone suggests, Romney may have the edge in that department. His "behavior," as Barone put it, was that of a frontrunner, "one with confidence and sense of command and with the adroitness to step aside from two major issue challenges."

That could be what a party that is nostalgic for the days of Ronald Reagan needs.

As I recall, "confidence and sense of command" were mostly what Reagan had going for him as the 1980 campaign began. He had been vetted against Gerald Ford in the battle for the GOP's 1976 nomination. Prior to that, he had been governor of the largest state in the nation for eight years, and he had spent decades in front of motion picture and TV cameras.

There really wasn't much left that voters didn't know about him. His challenge was to project an image of strength that would serve him beyond the primaries — which had only begun to assume their prominent role in the nomination process.

When Reagan memorably protested that "I am paying for this microphone!" at a New Hampshire debate in February 1980, it solidified his status as frontrunner for his party's nomination, and he wrapped things up quite early.

No such line appears to have emerged from the June 2011 New Hampshire debate.

There may be no frontrunner yet, either, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't legitimate news coming from the debate. Michele Bachmann, who can be something of a loose cannon, announced that she will be a candidate for the nomination.

Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post that she stole the show with that "bombshell."

Jackie Kucinich of USA Today said that Bachmann "emerged from the pack" with her debate performance.

I think that perception derives mostly from the fact that she made her candidacy official. Most people already suspected that she was going to run, though — why participate in a presidential debate if you aren't planning to run? — so the announcement really didn't come as a surprise.

But neither did the announcement automatically confer upon her the title of frontrunner. That, it seems to me, is still up for grabs.

From what I have read, all the participants said things that should appeal to the Republican base — which strikes me as being decidedly more conservative than it was four years ago.

I mean, when I look at the 2012 field of GOP candidates, the class of '08 appears practically centrist by comparison. That suggests, to me, that politics in America has become more polarized, not less, in the last four years — and that whoever is elected will most likely be the survivor of a tug–o–war between political extremes unlike any we have witnessed.

Unless the congressional majorities with which that president must work are made up of like–minded individuals, that doesn't seem encouraging for the passage of landmark, historic legislation.

Compromise will be harder to achieve, and economic recovery will take much longer to accomplish.

That's a gloomy forecast, I know, but these are gloomy times.

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