GOP Activists Hope for Surprise 2012 Candidate

GOP activists are hoping for a surprise candidate, but will a late entrant really be a savior?

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The economy is starting to make President Obama look vulnerable in 2012. The Tea Party movement continues to mobilize and energize conservatives. And yet, the GOP primary field still feels inert. Few of the candidates have ignited the passion of the Republican base, leading to continued hope that a big name will surprise everyone and shake up the race.

"Right now, it clearly is anybody's game," says Andrew Langer, president of the conservative Institute for Liberty. "As the polling numbers clearly show, nobody has captured the popular imagination of more than a handful of members of the traditional GOP constituency, and clearly the independent vote is up for grabs." Of the expected candidates, only Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has yet to formally declare a bid for the nomination, although former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin remains a puzzling wild card in the race. But as the primary season nears, several pols have suggested they might be looking into late bids, which could shake up the races. Is there a candidate out there with the right background to unite the Republican party? Or is this just a case of wishful thinking on the part of party activists? [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]

There are a number of factors causing some political heavyweights--from Texas Gov. Rick Perry to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani--to consider, or reconsider, bids for the presidency. After big names such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took themselves out of the running, there's a void in the primary field. Obama's poll numbers show him with an approval rating below 50 percent and even lower when it comes to the economy, as his post bin Laden bounce has dissipated. But even though the possible late entrants seem like saviors now, that is likely to change once one declares his or her candidacy. "The only coverage you get of them are from the people who are cheerleading them," says Erik Telford, online strategy director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group. "But all of them have stealth critics lurking in the shadows. Those stories will come to the forefront." Just like the current slate of candidates, most of the possible surprise candidates have weaknesses. [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

Perhaps the most likely candidate to shake up the race is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Fresh off his 2010 re-election win, which included a primary victory against Texas GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry initially took himself out of the running last year. Recently, however, rumors have surfaced that Perry is considering a run, and the governor told reporters last month that he'd think about a presidential run. A staunch conservative from the South, Perry could fill a void in the current field. Telford noted that what the field lacked is "somebody who can credibly bridge the gap between religious conservatives and economic conservatives, in a way that would suck up all the oxygen from the minor candidates." Perry would seem to fit that bill. But if he does change his mind about running, Perry would have some catching up to do, with most of his usual political team already working for other declared candidates. And his image is not without flaws. He'll likely be dogged by 2009 comments which seemed to suggest that the federal government's overreach could one day lead to Texas seceding from the union.

A pair of Republican pols from the Empire State are also toying with running, but each brings along his own set of issues. Former three-term Gov. George Pataki recently told NBC New York that he'd consider a GOP run if the other candidates don't provide serious deficit reduction plans. Pataki has even run ads New Hampshire, through his No American Debt group, attacking both parties for failing to take the budget concerns seriously. But if he does decide to run, Pataki would have significant hurdles to overcome, such as his moderate social views, which include support for abortion rights and gun control. He's also been out of the public eye since 2006. [Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?]