Republican Primary Race: A Governors’ Game

The party’s potential presidential candidates are almost all incumbent or former governors.

Mitt Romney went to speech in the early primary state of New Hampshire this weekend. Mike Huckabee has been touting his latest book, A Simple Government. Newt Gingrich launched a website and continued to think “very seriously” about running.

The Republican primary field has been taking shape, with some potential contesters dropping out and at least one, former Utah governor and current ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, added to the mix. But no one has formally announced a candidacy yet.

Nearly all of the Republicans routinely managed as potential contenders have one thing in common. With the exception of Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, they each either govern or once governed a state.

Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana are both in a good position to run against President Barack Obama if the elections would be dominated by fiscal issues. They both managed to rein in spending in their states and were not afraid to touch popular entitlement programs. “You can save money on entitlements,” Barbour told the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. “You just gotta have the will to do it.”

With $14 trillion in debt and several trillions more in deficit spending projected for the rest of the decade, the country cannot regain fiscal balance without reforming pension and health support programs.

Daniels, at the same event, criticized the president for his fiscal irresponsibility, casting the national debt as a new “red menace” and attacking the “regulatory rainforest through which our enterprises must hack their way.”

Since he became governor, Indiana paid down some 40 percent of its debt while other states plunged in the red. Without raising taxes, Daniels managed to balance Indiana’s budget and attract businesses. His support for a “truce” on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage, is unpopular with social conservatives but could win him support from centrists during a general election.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has hinted at a presidential run in the past but always backed away from actually becoming a candidate which would jeopardize his lucrative involvement in a variety of political action groups. He was nevertheless suspended from Fox News as a contributor along with Santorum — the clearest sign yet of them possibly running.

Former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, of Massachusetts and Minnesota respectively, have both appeared to be serious about seeking the nomination. They have each made several national talk show appearances and visited early primary states.

Romney, who lost the nomination against John McCain for the 2008 election, has an Achilles’ heel: his support for a health reform scheme in the state of Massachusetts that was eerily similar to President Obama’s health effort.

While he has called for the repeal of “Obamacare,” 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.

In New Hampshire last week, Romney admitted that Massachusetts’s health program “wasn’t perfect” and promised to never “usurp the constitutional power of states with a one size fits all federal takeover.” He may have to reiterate that promise many times if he is to persuade small-government conservatives united in the Tea Party.

The former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, who was also in the race for the nomination three years ago, has trashed the Massachusetts health effort as “socialized medicine,” claiming in his book that it increased costs and reduced the quality of care. He told Fox News Sunday last week that he would make the decision whether to run or not depending on the response to his book.

Huckabee has scored well among conservatives but lacked broad appeal. When he said that President Obama grew up in Kenya instead of Indonesia recently, it drew a fierce rebuke from the left, even after the former governor recognized his mistake on television.

Huckabee and Alaska’s Sarah Palin also had contracts with Fox News which were not suspended. Palin has not appeared very enthusiastic about running, saying she will if there are no better candidates. Her approval rating among likely Republican primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina, vital states for securing the nomination, dropped in recent months. Among independents and Democrats, she has never been popular.