Republican Primary Field Taking Shape

Mike Pence and Jim DeMint won’t run for president but Jon Huntsman might.

While most of the Republicans possibly in the race for their party’s presidential nomination will not announce their decision to run until later this month or even until the spring, the field is narrowing with several names dropping out.

Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana is a high-profile fiscal conservative who stepped down as chairman of the House Republican Conference days after November’s midterm congressional elections to consider “new opportunities to serve Indiana and our nation in the years ahead.” While some Republicans, including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who is now involved in the Tea Party movement, hoped Pence would run for president, he will likely seek the governorship of his home state instead.

Another Tea Party favorite, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, told CNN last week that he won’t run for the highest office.

DeMint is considered one of the most conservative members of the Senate, supportive of school prayer, opposed to abortion and adamantly opposed to legalizing gay marriage. His Tea Party appeal stems from his opposition to the bailing out of banks and automakers in the wake of the financial downturn in 2008 and his leading role in the Republican fight against health reform.

As governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour has displayed many of the virtues currently in vogue with conservatives. Without raising taxes, he managed to balance the state’s budget, largely by reducing Medicaid spending. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association last year, he helped many Republican governors win election across the country.

Unease about some of the governor’s remarks about Mississippi’s segregated past has left commentators to wonder whether he could be a viable candidate among independents however. Last week, in South Carolina, he promised a “serious” campaign in case he runs nevertheless.

Tim Pawlenty meanwhile has emerged as a more likely contender, promoting Sam’s Club Republicanism as a way to reconnect with working and lower middle-class voters.

The former Minnesota governor believes that he is uniquely qualified for the highest office, drawing from his experience in balancing the budget and selling conservative policy solutions in a traditionally liberal state.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, has been traveling about early primary states but he told the Columbus Dispatch last week that three of his potential rivals have a clear edge. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is “the frontrunner in fundraising,” he said; Sarah Palin in terms of “celebrity status” while Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, is leading in the polls. All three of them “should feel pretty good about where they’re positioned right now,” according to Gingrich.

A serious contestant to Romney especially could be Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and businessman who resigned as ambassador to China on Monday. While Romney, a fellow Mormon, is ahead in fundraising and organization, Huntsman has millions in family wealth that he could pour into a primary campaign.

Despite his staunch opposition to abortion, strong support for gun owners’ rights and free-market economics, Huntsman may be hampered by his moderate position on gay marriage and his work for the Obama Administration as ambassador to China.

Romney’s conservative credentials are tarnished by his support for a health-care plan in Massachusetts that was very similar to the reform effort enacted by the president last year. He hasn’t managed so far to redeem his criticism of Obamacare despite that history.

Romney and Huntsman will both in fact be hard pressed to convince Tea Party activists that they are the right candidate to run against Barack Obama in 2012 but they could appeal to centrists weary of the president’s leftist agenda and the lack of economic recovery.