Departures from GOP field stir a call to the undeclared

Discontent is high in recent party poll

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / May 20, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The early field of GOP presidential contenders has already lost three high-profile members, and with Newt Gingrich’s bid hanging by a thread, Republican activists are pressuring the unannounced to declare their intentions, in hopes of bolstering the party’s lineup.

“Come on guys!’’ urged Bobbie Kilberg, a longtime Republican operative and fund-raiser from Virginia. “Once you hit the summer everybody starts paying attention on other things. I think people ought to get with it. The president isn’t waiting, and we shouldn’t be waiting either.’’

An Associated Press poll this month indicated that 45 percent of GOP voters are dissatisfied with the Republican presidential field. GOP leaders worry the party will squander a chance to win the White House unless it has a candidate able to excite the Republican base and inspire grass-roots support and donations.

In the past two weeks, three prominent Republicans who had shown early interest in running — Governor Haley Barbour of , former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and real estate mogul Donald Trump — have opted out. Earlier, Senator John Thune of South Dakota said he would not run.

A few potential Republican candidates continue to draw out the suspense, such as Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

“It’s getting perilously close to the time you either fish or cut bait,’’ said political strategist Garry South. “If for no other reason than the money factor. It takes time to raise money.’’

President Obama drove home the importance of early money with two fund-raising events in the Boston area Wednesday.

The field of announced GOP candidates includes Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas. Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, and Mitt Romney, who governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, are expected to formally enter the race soon.

Gingrich — who announced he was running just nine days ago — is the subject of speculation that he will drop out in the wake of controversial remarks he made about House Republicans’ plan to change Medicare from an entitlement program to one that would provide seniors with a voucher to buy their own insurance.

His description of this as “right-wing social engineering’’ and “radical change’’ drew withering fire from party leaders, forcing him to apologize to the plan’s author, Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Grass-roots activists from different wings of the Republican Party are “disappointed, disillusioned, and discouraged’’ about the current GOP field, said Richard Viguerie, a conservative author and longtime political organizer. He said he has spoken to some 50 conservative activists in the past week.

“Not one of the candidates at the top tier — Pawlenty, Romney, Gingrich, etc., etc. — are seen as principled conservatives,’’ Viguerie said in an interview. “They’re more status-quo types.’’

Viguerie plans to organize a “draft Jim DeMint’’ campaign, to try to coax the South Carolina senator, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, into the presidential race.

To energize the primaries, conservative talk show giant Rush Limbaugh said this week, Governor Rick Perry of Texas should run. Perry says he’s not interested — not that it matters to his fans: A Republican state assemblyman from California, Dan Logue, has set up a “Draft Rick Perry 2012’’ website.

Logue, in an interview, declined to criticize the current field but said Perry has a better case to make against Obama on the issue of jobs.

Hand-wringing from partisan activists over the state of the field is nothing new, according to veteran GOP political consultant Charles Black, who said the Republicans already have several strong candidates who will grow more formidable. Part of the job of the primaries is to get the nominee battle-ready for the general election.

“Whoever gets the nomination looks a lot stronger when they lock it up than at this early stage,’’ Black said in an interview.

The recent defections by three big-name Republican contenders tell you “that running for president is an extraordinarily grueling, all-consuming process where most of the candidates lose,’’ said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist from Virginia who has been advising Huntsman. “A lot of smart people do a fairly simple cost-benefit analysis on the process and decide the costs are far greater than the benefits.’’

As Obama stands for reelection next year, history and the power of incumbency are on his side. Other than Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, no president in the last century was turned out of office just four years after taking the White House from the opposing party.

In dropping out of contention, Barbour, Huckabee, and Trump said their hearts just weren’t in it.

Barbour appears to have been the most serious of the three, having explored a presidential run for at least a year. But by mid-April, the gregarious Barbour started to send signals that he might not enter the field.

“I had just a funny feeling, and I begged him to please stay in this thing,’’ said Kilberg, who is friendly with Barbour and intended to support him.

Late last month, Barbour issued a statement confirming he would not run in 2012. He cited a lack of “absolute fire in the belly’’ that any candidate needs to pursue the presidency.

Barbour called Kilberg that afternoon to explain.

“In the end, Haley did not feel that he could run the full distance, not because of resources, not because of confidence, because he had both. But rather his internal self,’’ said Kilberg, who now is backing Romney.

In Huckabee’s case, the Fox News talk show host told his viewers last Saturday night: “My heart says no.’’

Ovide Lamontagne, a Republican activist in the key early primary state of New Hampshire, said he was not surprised: “You would have thought that for someone who draws his strength from the grass roots there would have been some activity here in New Hampshire, and I detected none whatsoever,’’ said Lamontagne, who has not yet chosen a candidate to support in 2012.

If a lack of activity in New Hampshire is predictive, then Palin may end up not running. The former Alaska governor has shown no presence in the state. “Not a trace,’’ Lamontagne said.

Opinions differ on how serious Trump was about running. The star of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice’’ climbed the GOP opinion polls by enthusiastically feeding into the “birther’’ movement questioning whether Obama was born in America. But Trump’s poll numbers collapsed after Obama arranged for his long-form birth certificate to be released by the state of Hawaii.

“I never took Donald Trump seriously at all,’’ said Ayres, the Virginia strategist. “I think it was all a publicity stunt to boost ratings on his program.’’

Some experts attribute GOP dropouts, and the hesitation by other potential candidates, to Obama’s improved standing in the polls since the assault that killed Osama bin Laden.

Republicans had hoped to paint Obama “as the second coming of Jimmy Carter,’’ said Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont. “The game plan was to say he’s weak on defense and can’t control the economy.’’

The bin Laden raid undermines the GOP narrative and strengthens Obama’s reelection prospects, Nelson said. “Who wants to be remembered as a losing presidential candidate?’’

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