Tim Pawlenty announcement: Should Republicans just give up on excitement?

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May 23 2011 1:11 PM

Awaiting the Rapture

The longer Republicans wait for an "exciting" candidate, the worse off they'll be.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Click image to expand.
Gov. Mitch Daniels

The Republican presidential narrative is taking shape, and it's the story of a child's birthday party when the magician doesn't show. The audience is glum. Now it's someone's frantic job to find entertainment from the limited resources at hand and then convince everyone they're having a good time.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana has decided not to enter his family into the freak show. This proves he may well be a sensible person. It is a paradox of the modern presidential campaign that we both demand our candidates to be likable yet also force them to submit to a process that bleaches all likable qualities out of them in order for them to be successful.

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Daniels now joins the long list of candidates who have decided not to run, making this GOP contest feel like the Democrats' in 1992. The number of candidates who decided not to run against then popular George H.W. Bush was so big Saturday Night Live ran a parody of a debate in which the candidates who didn't want to run—Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt, Lloyd Bentsen—boasted more extravagantly than the next why they were utterly unfit to hold office. Phil Hartman, playing Mario Cuomo, declared, "I have mob ties."

Some Republican wise men, like Ed Gillespie, would like fellow conservatives to turn from their fantasy-league GOP primary games and toward the actual race. "For all intents and purposes, the field is set," he wrote to Politico's Mike Allen. "The waiting is over. It's possible someone may get in later on, but Republican activists, officials and donors are going to begin picking a horse from the current field, and things are going to accelerate pretty quickly now. We have a field that will produce a nominee capable of beating Obama next November."

One downside to continuing to hope for a late savior to join the race, from a partisan perspective, is that it keeps the media and Republicans focused on the party's internal problems and not the vulnerable incumbent. But if the race is going to be a referendum on President Obama's handling of the economy, doesn't that mean there's still time to dally? The economy is not going to improve so much that a solid Republican will be unable to take advantage of Obama's low approval ratings.

Perhaps. But with each passing day it gets more difficult to imagine a just-add-water insta-candidate entering the race. Call it the Law of Diminishing Saviors: The later you wait to enter the race, the more stupendous your arrival must be.

First, any dream candidate arriving won't have an easy time of it. Running for president is hard. Your friends, columnists, and donors urge you to run, but when you get into the race, it never turns out the way they said it would. Running for president is also difficult to do flawlessly, especially the first time, which is what would be required. Obama, considered a pretty good candidate, had many ups and downs. Finally, there are whatever doubts, problems, and worries that have so far kept these candidates from announcing. The desperation of their party doesn't erase those problems.

The speculation about a new candidate won't end, however. The appetite for a better choice is high. Some 45 percent of Republicans say they are unhappy with the current GOP field, according to a recent Associated Press poll. That's up more than 10 points from two months ago. Daniels' decision will probably make the number of the dreary go up.

Tim Pawlenty would like everyone to listen to Gillespie. He's announcing his official candidacy Monday to be the anti-Romney. The group thinking in GOP political circles is that there will be two candidates in the end: Romney (because he has the money, following, and experience) and anti-Romney (because key evangelical voters are wary about him and conservatives don't like his health care plan; an April Gallup poll showed 26 percent of Republicans would not vote for Romney). *  Pawlenty is not disqualified from being the anti-Romney just because people have not warmed to him yet.

Pawlenty may be poised to have a moment like the one Lamar Alexander had in 1996. Republican voters were ambivalent about Bob Dole, and when Alexander beat expectations in Iowa, he became the flavor of the month. (Jon Huntsman may have this opportunity as well, though his campaign is starting later and without the "maybe he's our savior" feel.) The problem for Alexander, of course, was that he couldn't build on his moment fast enough to capitalize in New Hampshire and that he didn't have the money to finish strong.

The problem for Pawlenty and Romney and the other left-behind candidates is that it now becomes their dreary task to prove that they are really making Republican voters excited. Defeating Obama should excite conservatives enough, but while dislike for the current president is a strong motivator, it's not enough. Obama is not George H.W. Bush: He's a talented campaigner who will have a lot of money. This will cause each of the existing candidates to make claims for audience enthusiasm that will be overblown. Hillary Clinton tried to do this for a while when Obama was drawing crowds 10 times as large as hers. It did not make her campaign look formidable.

Once a nominee is chosen, it will be the party's job to prove that everyone is enthusiastic. That job will be harder, argue some Republicans, the longer the "savior candidate" story line continues. This ripple leads all the way to the vice presidential pick, and it can cause real havoc. A nominee who is not perceived to excite the base looks for that quality in a vice presidential pick. John McCain picked Sarah Palin to fit that bill. Bob Dole picked Jack Kemp. They were exciting in the way a downed power line can be. Lots of the energy those VP candidates contributed came in the form of chaos.

As the 1992 presidential race proved, a lot of things can happen to prove the fearful party wise men wrong. Perhaps the lesson for Republicans is that the first thing to do is to stop waiting for magic to arrive and start looking for it in the candidates already running.

Clarification, May 24, 2011: This article originally cited a Quinnipiac University poll, but the poll was among all voters, not Republican voters, which is a nearly useless measurement in a story about a party nominating fight. (Return to the modified sentence.)

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