Republican Presidential Primary Race Matures

The Republican primary field narrowed considerably in recent weeks. Real estate mogul Donald Trump’s departure from the race heralded the end of what some had dubbed the “silly season” while both Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee announced that they would not seek the nomination. The remaining high profile contenders should nearly all be able to appeal to the political center which does leave social conservatives without a favorite.

Barbour and Huckabee enjoyed support respectively among Southern voters and evangelicals who make up the backbone of the modern Republican Party. Barbour’s departure could benefit Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in terms of fundraising while former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is now the most outspoken social conservative among the half dozen candidates that have a chance at securing the nomination.

With the exception of longtime Texas congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian who is popular among Tea Party activists, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the likely frontrunners all have executive experience. Daniels and Pawlenty have the strongest records on fiscal responsibility, probably the most important issue of the 2012 election as the federal government is projected to face multitrillion dollar shortfalls for several years to come.

In Indiana, Mitch Daniels faced a $600 million deficit in 2004. He slashed $1.5 billion in spending from his state’s $27 billion budget by laying off public-sector employees, limiting their collective bargaining rights and cutting education funding. This year, he enacted comprehensive school reform legislation that gradually introduces vouchers for all Hoosiers — an experiment that many professional conservatives would like to see extended to the national level.

Indiana is one of few states in the union with a budget surplus and leading in private-sector job growth thanks to the governor’s tax cuts and regulatory reforms. Daniels has been criticized by social conservatives for proposing a “truce” on cultural issues however, including abortion and gay marriage, telling The Weekly Standard last year, “We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” at least until the nation’s fiscal woes are resolved.

Quietly evangelical but rather less dismissive of the issues that matter to many committed Republicans, especially in the early primary states of Iowa and South Carolina, is Tim Pawlenty. He too managed to balance his state’s budget without raising taxes and champions as a “Sam’s Club Republicanism” that speaks to blue collar voters. His perceived lack of charisma could make it difficult for Pawlenty to compete with Barack Obama in 2012 however.

Probably more charismatic but far less conservative is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who served as President Obama’s ambassador to China between August 2009 and last April and previously as ambassador to Singapore for President George H.W. Bush.

Despite his opposition to abortion, strong support for gun owners’ rights and lowering tax rates, Huntsman may be hampered by his moderate positions on climate change and gay marriage. Unlike the other contenders, he has the foreign policy credentials to take on a president who is blamed for projecting weakness abroad by the political right. Huntsman speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien and spent many years in the Far East. He left office as governor with an approval rating of more than 80 percent.

Huntsman has millions in family wealth that he could pour into a primary campaign but fellow Mormon Mitt Romney is still ahead in fundraising and organization. His support for a health reform scheme in the state of Massachusetts that was eerily similar to what conservatives refer to as “Obamacare” remains a matter of contention that Romney has yet to come to terms with. While he favors repealing the president’s health care law, the former governor defended his own record by claiming that the states should be America’s “laboratories of democracy” while the federal government has no mandate to force all people to buy insurance.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich begged to differ on NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend where he said to support an individual insurance mandate despite its unpopularity among Republicans. He further distanced himself from his party by characterizing attempts to privatize Medicare, an entitlement program that finances health care for seniors, as “radical.”

Gingrich is probably the most populist of viable Republican candidates but former Alaska governor Sarah Palin hasn’t ruled out a run yet. She is resented by independents and Democrats however while her popularity even among conservatives is fading. Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, is running on a social conservative platform but his opinions about homosexuality and creationism are so peculiar that he couldn’t possibly win a general election.

Despite the country’s lackluster economic recovery and deplorable state finances, it may in fact be difficult for any Republican to decisively beat Obama in 2012.

In 2008, the president won 359 electoral votes, including a lone elector in the state of Nebraska. Even if he loses Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, many of which are traditional battleground states where the impact of the recession has been severe, Obama would still win exactly the 270 votes needed to win. If he also loses his one vote from Nebraska, the race would be tied.

The two states that the president can’t afford to lose are Florida and Pennsylvania. The former was won by George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004 while the latter went for the Democratic candidate in those election cycles. Each time though, the margins of victory were slim in both states and they trended Republican during the congressional midterms of 2010. Between them, Florida and Pennsylvania wield forty-nine electoral votes.