No one vying for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination stood out this weekend at CPAC. The (potential) candidates who showed up — Governors Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Gary Johnson and Mitt Romney, Senators John Thune and Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ambassador John Bolton, Donald Trump, and former Godfather’s CEO Herman Cain — all improved their stocks, but to no avail.
Every single GOP candidate has a fatal flaw among conservative primary voters, especially the ones with the most name recognition. None of these candidates have alleviated the base’s concerns.
For Johnson, Thune, Santorum, Bolton, and Cain, their main problem is name recognition, and at this point, none of them are serious contenders. Trump is slightly more serious and significantly more entertaining but has tons of questions to answer about his political past before anyone buys in. And Ron Paul is Ron Paul.
The five serious contenders have chinks — well, major dents — in their armor, but some of them have hope. Starting with the most chinked, here’s an examination and recommendation for each top candidate:
Gov. Mitt Romney
Romneycare. While he may have come in second (to Ron Paul) in the CPAC straw poll, conservatives see MassCare as a deadly sin, ironically much more than his Mormonism. Everyone following the news has heard it, but the media has missed the fundamental causality of this angst.
Yes, Romneycare is a mirror image of Obamacare. But that’s not it. Just like Obamacare, Romneycare introduced significant price controls into the medical market. If Romney claims to be the economic conservative — the man who supposedly understands free markets — the biggest question he must answer is why he installed Soviet-style, shortage-causing price controls in Massachusetts.
Frankly, he cannot explain that, but he can apologize. And, better yet, he can turn the tables on Obama by asking: Why didn’t you learn from my mistake?
If states are the testing ground for possible national programs, this test failed. Romney should admit that, and use his experience with his program to target Obamacare. He should say, “I tried it. It didn’t work. Real leaders learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others.”
Gov. Haley Barbour
Barbour’s got the Washington connections. And that’s just one of his problems.
Back in his days in Washington, Barbour was a powerful lobbyist. No one likes lobbyists; they probably poll lower than lawyers. And in the GOP primary, the anti-establishment Tea Partiers won’t like it either.
Barbour’s overtly southern appearance has also been criticized, but it wouldn’t be an issue if he didn’t have the gaffes to match the stereotype.
To win, Barbour needs to convince voters how his insider’s perspective can actually be helpful in dismantling the current big-government establishment. Just like Romney, he ought to turn his weakness into a strength.
Hon. Newt Gingrich
The former House speaker has one of the most gifted minds in the movement, with one of the most well-known lists of personal skeletons. To beat the skeletons, he ought not focus on them, but instead focus on his stellar record as speaker.
Besides using an awesome campaign slogan, “Out with the old, in with the Newt,” Gingrich will do well in debates and bring a predictable list of popular proposals. But we’ll see whether voters forgive him for his past indiscretions.
Gov. Mitch Daniels
Daniels first attracted attention because of his well-documented record of successful conservative governance in Indiana. Indiana survived the recession better than any other Midwestern state and has been a haven for jobs and growth.
Besides being short, balding, and soft-spoken, his biggest issue is with social conservatives. They don’t like his proposed “truce” on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Daniels contextualized his remarks at CPAC, but he could close the deal by reframing the issue with a Tea Party approach.
Tea Partiers, along with most Americans, love the Constitution and constitutional principles. Federalism — the separation of powers between the federal and state governments — leaves social issues to the states. He should argue for the federal government to get out of funding abortion and encourage people to vigorously support life and traditional marriage at the state level.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Pawlenty’s biggest problem among conservatives is that he is a Minnesotan — that is, his state of mind is way too friendly and boring. The base is looking for someone to contrast strongly with President Obama, not put him to sleep.
The Cato Institute gave Pawlenty a 100 percent rating, so he’s got the credentials. He just needs some swagger. To continue the analogy, his armor is not so much dented as it is dull. His civility can be enjoyable, but, in order to grab Tea Party attention, it must be mixed with some punchy, principled rhetoric.
What about Palin and Christie?
She likes the money. The media’s favorite conservative is only staying on the presidential contenders list in order to stay in the spotlight. It’s brilliant, really. The media ogle over her, and she racks in millions. Look out for her to challenge Democrat Senator Mark Begich in 2014.
Gov. Chris Christie would easily walk away with the primary were he to run in 2012. He’s playing hard to get, and conservatives love it. Christie is the anti-politician, constantly speaking his mind and denying higher office. Conservatives, especially at CPAC, pray that he caves to their pressure.
But until then, one of the five foregoing candidates has an opportunity to step up their game and take the GOP nomination. Expect a lot of mud-slinging, especially directed at Romney. The question is: Which candidate can take their mud and mold it into a statue of Ronald Reagan.
Ron Meyer is a senior at Principia College. He hosts “We the People” Internet radio show and is a contributor to the Daily Caller. He’s appeared on Fox News, and his articles have been featured by RealClearPolitics, Yahoo! News, AOL News, and Human Events. Mitt Romney can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.