The muddy, muddy field of conservative candidates

With four months until the Ames Straw Poll and still 10 months until the Iowa Caucuses, political pundits and amateur political-nerds alike are chomping at the bit to make sense of the Republican primary field. Being a junkie of the political variety myself, it’s a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve. And though recent news cycles have been stuffed with “expert opinions,” I don’t think anyone knows how this is going to pan out.

A lot can happen between now and the primaries. My feeling is that the candidate won’t be any of the politicians  talked about in the mainstream media today: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, or Tim Pawlenty.

Sarah Palin has certainly done a fantastic job of maintaining a national profile since the 2008 election. She’s written best-selling books, gotten her gig on FOX News, and even start her own short-lived reality show. But I have major doubts about her presidential ambition. I think all of her “politicking” is really performance art — a way for her to keep selling books. If I’m correct, she’s a lot more savvy than anyone gives her credit for, and those who are most critical of her are only playing into her hand. Every time she is attacked, her support is galvanized.

And then there’s Michele Bachmann, the “poor man’s Sarah Palin.” I don’t think any member of Congress has done quite as much as she has to promote the popular caricature of conservatives as nothing more than a group of ignorant Bible thumpers. She regularly exaggerates figures, fabricates history, and is up in arms over a government tax deduction for women purchasing breast pumps: “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies. You wanna talk about the nanny state?” Bachmann would probably be better off taking a page out of Sarah Palin’s playbook and pitching a show to TLC.

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Mitt Romney definitely brings more substance to the table. But, with the Republicans desire to repeal last year’s health care reform, Romney’s record as Governor of Massachusetts — which was problematic for him in previous presidential bids — is only going to weigh him down. With all their talk of limiting federal power so that states can serve as microcosmic experiments into good government policy, the GOP should feasibly give him a pass on this one. But, alas, I fear it is the final nail in his coffin.

Mike Huckabee, who surprised everyone with his performance in the last election, is similarly strained by his political record. However, now that he is considered a major possibility, you can bet your bottom dollar that his opposition is examining his record as Governor of Arkansas. In that state, he raised more taxes than Bill Clinton ever did — an unpalatable offense for any potential Republican candidate. It seems he’s largely earned his criticism as a “pro-life, pro-gun liberal.”

As for Haley Barbour, let’s face it: The only reason he is considering running is because he’s been term-limited out of his current position as Governor of Alabama and will only benefit from a presidential campaign, even if it’s a losing one.

By increasing his political profile, he can charge more for his speaking engagements in his upcoming retirement. The former Chair of the RNC is politically brilliant, but his former career as one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington won’t play well in this climate.

Tim Pawlenty is another politically astute candidate who recently threw his hat into the ring. But when he left office as Governor of Minnesota in 2010, his favorability ratings were at an all time low. Furthermore, as he becomes more visible nation-wide, the rest of the country doesn’t seem too enamored with him either.

In a nutshell, he just isn’t a very likeable guy. Unfortunately, we now live in a nation where “wonkiness” is a pejorative term when discussing presidential candidates. Look for him to be a strong contender for the VP spot.

The previous paragraphs make me feel like somewhat of a misanthrope. One would hope that presidential candidates wouldn’t be chosen by a process of elimination, but that we support nominees for the qualities they have rather than the defects they lack.

But the current field leaves something to be desired, to say the least. While it’s unlikely any of the candidates would lead me to vote for Obama, I could be persuaded to vote for whoever the Libertarians scrape up.

On the other hand, I hope that my cynical take on the perceived GOP frontrunners can be a lesson to some of my less politically aware classmates: The Republican Party is not a homogeneous entity.

I, a registered member of the party and a primary voter since I turned 18, honestly find a few of our candidates to be ridiculous. But despite the popular narrative, it’s a diverse party.

Going into 2012, our candidate will need to be someone with the ability to unite a highly fragmented party — someone with the right combination of substance à la Mitt Romney plus the “relatability” of Sarah Palin.

Jon Huntsman would make the best candidate. His combination of experiences, from running a multi-billion dollar company to serving as Governor of Utah, make him a formidable contender. Furthermore, Huntsman played in a rock band called Wizard in the 1970s. The band played some original songs as well as (what I hear were) epic REO Speedwagon covers. Surely that will earn him some votes with those looking for a drinking buddy for president.

Nationally, he suffers from low name-recognition, but look for that to change if he does decide to run. His current term as Ambassador to China will end April 30, and he has plans to speak in South Carolina and New Hampshire in April.

While one would think bipartisanship is something to strive for, purists within the establishment have already started criticizing him for “working for Obama.” I would remind those individuals working as an Ambassador isn’t exactly the same as holding a cabinet position. Huntsman was not enforcing any liberal policies — he has, however, worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush and proved to be a strong critic of China’s human rights violations.

Others have called him “too moderate” for his support of civil unions. I earnestly hope that his credentials as a fiscal conservative will be a trump card and that common sense will triumph over the single-issue voters and social conservatives that have become the squeaky wheel getting all of the attention in the party.

Or at the very least, Bachmann and Huckabee will split their votes, allowing a candidate to emerge (like McCain in the last primary) who would be electable in the general. As a fresh face in the fray with huge donors and a network of political operatives at the ready, Jon Huntsman is absolutely a person to watch for in 2012.