There Can Be Only One

We’ve witnessed the opening salvos in the battle for the nomination.  The punditry has lined up to take shots at GOP candidates, including those not yet in the race.  Each declared candidate is scrambling to establish a niche with the primary electorate, and as they do, there exists not only a whispering dissatisfaction with the current choices, but also an increasing friction between them as they attempt to consolidate their support.  In the most recent polling, Governor Perry has the clear lead, at the moment, with Governor Romney tailing off.   More significantly, Michele Bachmann has fallen to fourth place behind an undeclared Sarah Palin. As the battle lines are drawn, we’re witnessing a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

Rick Perry is the present beneficiary of a largely unknown record outside his home state, Texas, but this too is beginning to change as more and more people are beginning to notice that apart from the swagger and bronc-busting style, Perry hasn’t always been a conservative, and it leads to some doubts about his sincerity.  Some have described him as a RINO with a drawl, but the truth is that he hasn’t been substantially vetted on the national stage, and as his record become more widely known, he’s likely to experience a decline when his record  as a lifelong politician with too many corporate friends becomes known.  This is the truth of what caused him to see a strong primary challenge from upstart Debra Medina in the 2010 Texas gubernatorial race.  While Medina never attained the name recognition, it’s important to remember that the main cause of her defeat was one self-destructive interview that caused her implosion.  This is instructive, and actually serves to demonstrate Perry’s true weakness among Texas conservatives and Tea Party members:  It’s not so much that he won in 2010, as it is the case that his primary opponent, whose entrance into the race already demonstrated Perry’s troubles, essentially disqualified herself.  This weakness of Perry’s is going to become more obvious as his record is examined.

Mitt Romney is the great establishment hope of the left-most edge of the GOP, and the current favorite of the establishment.  He’s been hurt by Perry’s entry precisely because some of his support didn’t see another strong conservative candidate in the race, and Romney isn’t interested in ideological consistency. Instead, the notion of “who can win,”  focusing on Independents and the swing vote has come to dominate his appeal.  For this reason, Romney has adopted the position of mostly ignoring the conservative base, and seems not only uninterested in courting Tea Party folks, but also in avoiding them in order to appeal to his niche.  Romney’s gamble is simple: If he can get the nomination, conservatives will vote for him anyway.  We may be seeing the first signs that Romney is abandoning this strategy, as he traveled to Texas on Monday.   Whether he shifts his approach, or sticks with his moderate positions is yet to be determined, but he ought to remember who he’s slighting in the hunt for the nomination, as it may come back to haunt him in the primary even if he succeeds.  Democrats slavishly vote for whomever their party puts up.  Conservatives are much more apt to stay home.  If this brings to mind images of another McCain or Dole style defeat, you’re probably on target.

Michele Bachmann is a fine candidate, but she’s fading fast for a number of reasons.  One is that her theoretical support from the Tea Party is based on a fallacious notion of substitution many of her supporters (and perhaps the candidate herself) wrongly believed:  She’s not Sarah Palin.  Slowly, grudgingly, some of her supporters are discovering this too.  It’s not to say Representative Bachmann has no appeal, but instead that her appeal has been largely augmented by the imaginings of her early supporters.  Her tendency to make gaffes of one sort or another is taking its toll, whether serious or largely manufactured or inflated by the media.  Some have discovered that she’s not quite so close to the average people as may have been thought, and it that factor is inflicting a cost too.  Lastly, many within her campaign, and frankly, within the media, bought the media-born notion that there’s only room in the campaign for one Republican woman, and while I reject that notion, it’s turning out that may be true in some sense, but sadly for her, Michele Bachmann isn’t that woman.

This leaves us to consider Sarah Palin.  Will she run?  Many observers think so, and to some, it’s clear that she’s already running in the sense that she’s largely conducting herself like a candidate, despite the lack of a campaign.  Others insist that she won’t run, but when you examine who they are, they tend to be supporters of another candidate.  That’s telling, given the assault from media pundits she recently endured over the matter of whether she would announce on September 3rd during her speech to the Tea Party of America in Indianola, Iowa.  Part of Palin’s strategy, if she’s to enter, may be to wait for the field to settle some.  We’re now seeing that begin, as all but Romney and Perry (as well as Palin) have fallen to single-digit support among Republicans.  At the same time, there’s still a wide body of undecided voters, many of whom are effectively waiting for the field to settle out before committing.   Perry’s numbers are likely to stabilize, and begin to trail off.  There’s some evidence that this has already begun.   If it continues, there’s a chance that Palin will be able to announce a campaign and emerge as a nearly instantaneous front-runner for the nomination.  If this happens, it will effectively close off Bachmann and those currently below her current standing at 9%.  This will also begin to shut down some of the less successful campaigns.  The real question becomes whether she holds off a bit longer, toward the end of September, not only to await the likely Perry decline, but also to close off later entries.

It’s clear that the politicos know this, which is why they’ve gone on with a flurry of rumor-mongering, trying to goad her into a Labor Day weekend entry, or dissuade her entry altogether.   Worse are the attempts to undermine her by suggesting that she’s not going to run, and will promptly endorse the preferred candidate of whichever person is speaking.  The thing to watch is how much Bachmann may be able to cut back into the Perry support, where she watched much of her own flee after his announcement.  If Palin enters, Bachmann is likely to begin her fall, as many of her supporters move on to the candidate some of them already quietly acknowledge as the “real deal.”  Still, between the three announced candidates among the leading four, they achieve only half of the party’s support.  This implies that the race is wide open for somebody else, and with 10% of the support already leaning to her despite the lack of an official campaign, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to notice that  Sarah Palin may well be that somebody.

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