The GOP Race Is On: Who Has the Best Shot Against President Obama?

For full disclosure, I should say before I continue that I work for a Democratic consulting firm. That said, the last few weeks in the 2012 Republican presidential primary has been, for a lack of a better term, turbulent. We have seen Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann win a narrow victory in the Ames Straw Poll on the same day that Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race. Within 24 hours, Ron Paul was crying foul at the lack of media attention to his narrow 2nd-place finish and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped from the race.

Now comes news from several polls that Perry has surged into the race’s frontrunner, commanding a double-digit lead on the former frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. How does one make sense of this primary and where does the race go from here?

Conventional wisdom says that the reason why Perry has surged so dramatically since his arrival on the scene is because of two very favorable combinations. The first is his support from many conservative activists, fueled by his often fiery rhetoric that started even before being a Tea Party member was cool in the Republican Party. Yet, his position as governor and his connections to the Republican National Committee give him credentials from the Republican establishment and the projects the image that he has authoritative executive experience. This is to the detriment of Bachmann who, while being well loved by Tea Party activists, is barely tolerated by the Republican establishment, and to a lesser extent, big Republican donors.

While that may explain Bachmann’s stagnation in the polls, what explains Romney’s dramatic fall from front runner? There are a number of reasons. First, Romney is seen as a moderate, with little love from conservative activists that vote more in the primary.

Second, Romney continues to fumble on health care. While his attempt to stick to his guns on the health insurance mandate is admirable, it is far too easy for other candidates to not only nail him on the newly-coined “Obomneycare,” but turn it into a cruxifiction.

Third, Perry took the wind out of Romney’s sails with a comparable claim of executive experience. Unless Romney can shift the campaign from a little less “anti-Obama” to a little more “economic turnaround,” it’s hard to see Romney competing very well in the end.

What about Ron Paul? Despite his strong second place showing from his very loyal followers, there is little room for him to grow. His views on drug policy and foreign policy are an anathema to most Republicans, especially the conservatives in the primary. He may be able to move Republicans to more pragmatic positions on those two issues, but it’s hard to see him winning.

That’s not to say that Paul or other second-tier candidates, like former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman or pizza mogul Herman Cain, can’t win or make a strong shot. After all, four years ago the frontrunners were then-Senator Hillary Clinton and former New York City Rudy Guiliani, for the Democratic and Republican Party primaries, respectively. We all know how that turned out. Nor is it guaranteed that Perry will run away with it. This time four years ago, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson was seen as the savior for the Republican Party. While Perry has far more positives going for him than Thompson, it is still months away from the first caucus votes in Iowa.

Perry’s announcement and subsequent campaigning also failed to crush further speculation of other potential candidates, like Representative Paul Ryan or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. There is continued chatter about other potential candidates, showing the many Republicans are still not satisfied with their options. Ryan would give some gravitas to Republicans on fiscal issues, as the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, and give the Republicans a bright, young star to be its face. Christie also has tough executive experience in a blue state like New Jersey, with none of the extreme rhetoric of Perry.

To say the field is settled at the moment is folly. Under the current circumstances, however, Perry is favored. He’ll bring conservative activists as well as many Republican establishment types in. If that were the case, the American public will face the option of voting for another conservative Texas governor with a penchant for outlandish statements or President Barack Obama, a matchup that odds-makers are giving to Obama at the moment.

For the record, my hope is that Huntsman wins. His impressive experience as Ambassador to China, less extreme rhetoric on social issues, and solid record as Governor of Utah make him a great candidate on paper that could, perhaps, heal the nation’s bitter partisan divide and lessen my worries if Obama were to lose. Of course, the first two will be the exact reasons why he’s so viewed with skepticism among conservative Republican primary voters.

Jon Wong is a UCI alumnus. He can be reached at jonwong87@gmail.com.