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Scot Lehigh

2012: Yes, maybe, and unelectable

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / March 4, 2011

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THE PERIOD is upon us when politicians gaze in the mirror, see a potential president smiling back at them, and imagine that destiny is calling.

Thus it’s time for a (subjective) look at some of the Republican Party’s prospective 2012 candidates. If you start with the assumption that a candidate must have a plausible path to both the nomination and the presidency, the prospects of the might-be candidates fall into three categories: Believable, conceivable, and unachievable.

Let’s begin with Newt Gingrich, who bumbled his way toward launching a presidential exploratory effort this week. Gingrich has never won an election in anything bigger than a congressional district. His mid-1990s reign as speaker was marked by petulance, pugnacity, and backlash-begetting budgetary brinkmanship.

His personal conduct has been, um, Edwardsian. Meanwhile, consider this assertion from his latest book: “The secular-socialist machine’’ — by which Gingrich means the Obama administration and its allies — “represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.’’ If you overheard that on the street, you might well mistake it for the ravings of a lunatic. Let’s label Newt’s hopes: Unachievable.

He’s joined in that category by Sarah Palin. So far over her head in 2008 that some of John McCain’s own advisers fretted at the prospect of having her a septuagenarian heartbeat away from the presidency, Palin has hardly allayed doubts about herself since. If the GOP really wants a lighter-than-air disaster, why not just nominate the Hindenburg?

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is by no means a lightweight, but does anyone honestly think that a former tobacco lobbyist who sounds like Boss Hogg and has a history of dumb or dubious remarks related to race is going to be president? Add in former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, eccentric libertarian Ron Paul, and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann, and you have a hopeless half-dozen.

Mitt Romney tops the list of the believables. Yes, it’s true that when it comes to convictions, Mitt is more likely to be mistaken for a clipper ship running downwind than the Rock of Gibraltar. Still, he does have business, management, and mess-fixing expertise (plus, of course, creative canine-conveying skills).

His 2008 candidacy gave him a nationwide network, while his bottomless pockets ensure a well-financed multi-state campaign. His biggest hurdle, obviously, is RomneyCare, the model for ObamaCare, which wild-eyed types like Gingrich mistake for socialism. Still, in a race that lacks a clear leader, Romney’s latent strengths make him the default frontrunner.

He’s joined in the believable category by two-term Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Daniels’s business-boosting, budget-cutting, debt-decimating record has made him someone the PBR — Please Block Romney — crowd gazes hopefully toward. Five-foot-seven and balding, Daniels doesn’t look the part of a president, but the skills he has demonstrated in Indiana (if not as George W. Bush’s first budgeter) certainly match the moment.

Twice elected in deep-blue Minnesota, Pawlenty is a Republican with blue-collar roots, obvious political talent, and conservative governing success. Add in crossover appeal to Tea Party types and religious conservatives, and he’s someone to watch.

Finally, there are the conceivable, might-bes who can’t be dismissed out of hand, but whose prospects are problematic. Former Southern Baptist minister and erstwhile Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee usually polls well, and if Palin doesn’t run, he’d start as the social conservatives’ favorite. Still, he would have to broaden his reach — and as we saw in 2008, that’s a challenge. Further, the 2009 murders of four Washington police officers by a man made eligible for early parole because Huckabee commuted his sentence could dog him the way the Willie Horton issue did Michael Dukakis in his 1988 presidential campaign.

Then there’s former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has just resigned as ambassador to China to explore a presidential run. Some positions — like, say, a past willingness to credit the scientific consensus on global warming — would clearly run afoul of Republican purists, as would his service in President Obama’s administration. And yet the wealthy, charismatic, twice-elected Huntsman was considered an effective governor; further, he has foreign-policy experience, something few of the other hopefuls can claim. More moderate than doctrinaire, he’s the type of figure who just might gain a foothold in a field that found conservative allegiances split. Call him an intriguing question mark.

And that’s the way it looks from here — at least until the Conceivables become Believables.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.