Do you guys really want to beat Obama?

The Republican Party was riding high in late 2010. They were just one month removed from sweeping changes in the midterm elections, including a gain of 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the largest change in any midterm since 1938. In December, President Barack Obama’s disapproval rating was at 54-percent, 12 points higher than his approval rating.

Obama’s numbers had rebounded some in January, when the new legislative class was sworn in, but the mission for the GOP was already clear: Make him a one-term president. Jimmy Carter v2.0.

And that mission is hardly a long shot. Real Clear Politics sets Obama’s job approval rating today at 52-percent. Hardly ironclad. This should be a slam dunk, right? Not if you’re playing ball like the Washington Generals.

The early rollout for the 2012 GOP field has been less than stellar. There is a large group of potential candidates that has not only lacked a clear frontrunner, but has also already seen a couple of popular candidates bail.

Huckabee

First to exit was Mike Huckabee, a well-known Republican who challenged for the GOP nom in ’08. The former governor of Arkansas had been polling well early, grabbing 20-percent of the votes in a Pew Research poll in early March (1 point back of Mitt Romney). Huckabee, on his TV show, called the decision a spiritual one. “All the factors say go, but my heart says no.”

He was followed out the door by Donald Trump, who – ironically – made a taped appearance on that very Huckabee show, saying:

“This might be considered by some people, not necessarily me, bad news because he is a terrific guy — and frankly I think he would be a terrific president. But a lot of people are very happy that he will not be running, especially other candidates.”

Trump

Trump is not one of those other candidates. He dropped out of the race just two days later, still convinced that he could win it all, but unwilling to give up the fantastic money he’s making in the business world.

Those actually in the race aren’t faring much better. Perennial field-filler Rick Santorum has already stepped in it, following up an average performance at the South Carolina GOP Debate with this epically ignorant statement about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and torture:

“And so this idea that we didn’t ask that question while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was being waterboarded, he (McCain) doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works. I mean, you break somebody, and after they’re broken, they become cooperative. And that’s when we got this information. And one thing led to another, and led to another, and that’s how we ended up with bin Laden.”

Santorum

Santorum was responding to McCain’s speech from the Senate floor, where he made the factually-based, but GOP-unpopular, argument that torture did not lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden. So you can make the argument that Santorum is wrong on his biggest point. But that’s not the most asinine thing he said. “He doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works.” Not only does McCain understand how it works, he was an active participant in the process, on the receiving end, while he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for 5 years. As his daughter, Meghan, tweeted: “Rick Santorum telling my father doesn’t know about torture is like Carrot Top telling Lebron James he doesn’t know about basketball.”

McCain may have been broken by the Viet Cong, but he never gave up valuable information about his fellow U.S. soldiers. He made one anti-American propaganda “confession,” but suffered even more torture – two to three beatings weekly – because he wouldn’t sign additional statements.

John McCain doesn’t understand the nature of enhanced interrogation? Good luck walking this one back, Rick.

But I don’t think anybody’s had a more disastrous week than Newt Gingrich. Walking proof that everything old is new again, Gingrich announced his candidacy just over a week ago, then immediately began destroying it. His first mistake was seeming to compare the Medicare reform plan set forth by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to “right-wing social engineering,” a comment that drew immediate backlash from seemingly every corner of the Republican party.

Gingrich

Gingrich, acting nothing like the veteran politician he is, tried to smooth it over, but succeeded only in making himself look worse. He claimed he wasn’t referring to Ryan’s plan, then proceeded to call the Representative and apologize anyway. He also warned any future opponents against using that quote in a commercial, saying “…any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood. Because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate and I’m prepared to stand up…”

GOP voters don’t appear to be buying it, as evidenced by this exchange with a citizen in Iowa:

Oh, it gets better. Gingrich was later accosted by a gay-rights activist at a book signing in Minnesota, who encouraged him to “feel the rainbow.”

And then there’s this: The man who wants to be the nominee of the party of fiscal responsibility once owed, or may still owe, between $200 and $500K to luxury jeweler Tiffany’s. Gingrich has said he won’t address the issue, calling it “Trivial Pursuit.” Wouldn’t it be nice if all of our candidates could get away with that? And money is certainly on Gingrich’s mind now, as it seems there’s concern his donors are now backing off.

So to recap: Huckabee and Trump are out, Santorum and Gingrich are Keystone Kopping it all over the place. That leaves Romney the GOP frontrunner, with 16.6-percent of the vote according to RCP. Huckabee and Trump are still running second and third, despite the fact they’re not running at all, with Palin – who hasn’t even announced if she’s running or not – sitting fourth, at 10.6-percent, nearly three points ahead of Gingrich.

RCP has even worse news for the Republican party: Obama leads the “Generic GOP Candidate” 42.8-37.8 on average (the Republican candidate is up 2 points according to Rasmussen, but behind 15 points according to NBC and 10 points according to Pew).

All of that said, Obama still isn’t a lock for a second term. We’re sitting just under 18 months away from Election Day 2012, an eternity in the world of politics. I get the sense that there’s a good chance that the eventual GOP nominee isn’t even a blip on the radar right now. As The Daily Show with Jon Stewart pointed out, it was looking like Rudy Guliani v. Hillary Clinton at this point in 2007, while Joe Lieberman was the Democrat frontrunner in the early stages of the 2004 race, leading eventual nom Jon Kerry 23-17.

President Cuomo?

Even more incredible? In May of 1991, Bill Clinton was polling at 0 and 1-percent in California and Florida respectively, trailing both Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson. Nearly nine years later the former Arkansas governor walked out of the White House with a 60-percent approval rating after two terms in office.

And he got into that White House by unseating a president who had squandered a bump in popularity after a successful military operation in the Middle East because of a weak economy.

Sound familiar? The Republicans can find themselves on the other side of history, but there’s still a lot of work for them to do.

–qcfm

2012 race starts with a “Meh”

Image courtesy Today's News NJ

The South Carolina GOP Debate, where "Who's who" meets "Who's that?"

As far as JV games go, it was pretty typical. The first debate in the 2012 race for the White House, hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party, featured a couple of guys who looked like they were ready to elevate themselves to varsity status, one who seemed comfortable where he is, and one dude who might enjoy finding another extracurricular activity…art or music, maybe?

The debate, hosted live by Fox News, was watched by a Frank Luntz focus group. That group scored former radio talk show host/pizza chain CEO Herman Cain the runaway winner. I didn’t see it quite like that. Here’s my scorecard from the less-than-thrilling evening.

1. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) – T-Paw needed a good night, and he got one. This was his chance to prove he was ready to play on the same court with the big boys, to shed the “nice, but boring” image. He’s still not the most exciting guy on the dais, but he did have a little more fire than normal. He painted himself as well-traveled and in touch with the problems and, most importantly, didn’t dodge the questions. The most telling exchange came when he was asked about changing his position on “cap-and-trade.” He had this to say:

What i concluded subsequently is it is really a bad idea. Not in the last six months. I sent a letter congress I think about two years ago. And other times have said, I was wrong, I was a mistake and I’m sorry. It is ham fisted, it is going to be harmful to the economy.

Pawlenty admitted the mistake and showed how, with new information, he changed course. That’s a respectable stand that most politicians won’t make, because admitting you made a mistake is a fantastic way to not get re-elected. The audience seemed cool with it, though. T-Paw was also willing to give props to Pres. Obama on getting bin Laden, something that has been difficult for Republicans to do.

Let’s be frank…T-Paw didn’t create a lot of buzz for himself with this performance, but I think it’s the kind of consistent performance that could help him in the long run.

2. Herman Cain (GA) – This man captured the buzz in a way Pawlenty can only dream of. Cain is a big presence in any room, with a stern glare and booming voice. He is well polished, too, thanks in part to the fact he hosted his own talk radio show in Atlanta (it ended in February of this year). The buzz came with plenty of buzzwords to surround his performance. The Luntz Bunch said things like “a breath of fresh air,” “common sense,” and “clear and concise.”

But while I put Cain second in performance, I’m still not sold on his staying power. Most of his bullet-point answers came with three points – and as S.E. Cupp pointed out hilariously, he only got to three points of a four-point answer – and while he’s good with a quip, it’s not clear yet (because he’s so new on the scene) if there’s any depth behind them. As one member of the Luntz Bunch described him, “Talking points, no real solutions.”

This is not to say Cain can’t win. I’m only pointing out that for a man who has never run a successful political campaign, the 18-month run-up to November 2012 is going to present a lot of challenges. His ability to solve those challenges will prove if he’s capable of winning the nomination.

3. Rep. Ron Paul (TX) – It was a very Ron Paul-ian performance by the Texas Libertarian. He brought the house down with his discussion of the legalization of heroin and prostitution, a stance that seemed to irk the South Carolina GOP (unfortunately I’ve lost the link to that story). Paul drew several rounds of applause, including for advocating for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Paul is an interesting voice in the GOP race. He helps drive the discussion in ways that are important if uncomfortable for the Republicans. This current batch of GOPers advocate for getting government out of the way and out of our personal lives, but they only seem to mean it when it comes to the financials. Paul is willing to take it much farther, advocating for not only heroin and hookers, but also for allowing gays and lesbians to marry. If the Republicans hope to snare independents and moderates who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, Paul is the man who can help them do it. Paul’s views are seen by many as eccentric and “out there,” leaving him unlikely to win. But maybe he doesn’t have to. Maybe it’s enough to drive the debate in different directions.

4. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) – Santorum is, as The Root contributor David Swerdlick says, what a GOP candidate would look like if you had to “concoct the stereotypical Republican candidate in a science lab.” T-Paw gets the knock for being boring only because of the distaste Santorum’s conservative social views have stirred up (if you have a really, really strong stomach, Google the word “Santorum” to see the sexual neologism created after he went on record comparing homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia). Santorum was as plastic as can be expected in the SC GOP debate, landing no wild haymakers but drawing nice rounds of applause for being, well, Rick Santorum. The JV game suits Santorum well. He’s not ready for the varsity game, though.

5. Gov. Gary Johnson (NM) – Poor Gary. He seems like a nice enough guy, but he was clearly out of his comfort zone in this debate. His elbows were pinned to his ribs and his hands spent most of the night nervously rubbing against things. Those tics made it hard for me to hear his message, which I understand is the “far out” right (he’s made no secrets of marijuana use). The only other thing I’ll remember about Johnson is line, delivered early on in the proceedings:

“Hey, there’s been like nine questions for these guys and none for me.”

Sorry, Gary. You weren’t doing much with the opportunities anyway.

The next chance for the Republican field to create some Cain-esque buzz – and for Cain to keep it rolling – is just about a month away. CNN and WMUR are co-sponsoring a debate June 13. It will air at 7 p.m. (Central) on CNN.

–QCFM

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