Anyone who claims to know at this point what is going to happen in the Republican presidential nominating contest doesn’t know what they are talking about.
This is not just because it is early in the race and early polls are a poor predictor of the eventual outcome. It’s that the field is incomplete.
In addition to the candidates who have already announced—U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, and—as of Monday—former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to the Peoples’ Republic of China Jon Huntsman—there are several others upon whom the party waits to make a decision.
The first is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom the media and the professional consultancy class have talked up in earnest for several weeks, despite his having already taken his name out of the race once. [Vote now: Should Rick Perry Run for the 2012 GOP nomination?]
Perry is an impressive figure. Governor of a large state, he’s a tax cutter who has balanced budgets and had to deal with many of the hard national questions already. Most people consider him a solid conservative who would have strong national appeal and would be able to raise a lot of money. His entry into the race, even at this comparatively late date, would be a game changer. So would his decision to stay out of it.
The people “pining for Perry” would, of necessity, have to take another look at the candidates already in the race and choose from among them if he decides against running. If the media analysis is to be believed, and that’s a pretty big if, this is a potentially large and financially lucrative voter bloc that could, if it moved as a unit, give a turbo boost to the efforts of the candidate it got behind. [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]
Next up is former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose poor showing in his 2008 run for the nomination does not preclude him from making a bid this time.
Giuliani is tough; moreover, he is perceived by the voters as being so. Which lends him credibility on the issue that Ronald Reagan used to unify the so-called Reagan Coalition: national security.
Under the national security umbrella, Reagan united with economic and social conservatives—who did not see eye to eye on every issue—making it a powerful electoral force that won him two terms in the White House by landslides. As perhaps the only candidates whom the voters see as having national security experience, a perception arising from the strong leadership he exhibited on 9/11 and in the days and weeks after, Giuliani is in a position to build a similar coalition, one that is based on areas of agreement among conservatives, rather than areas of disagreement. It’s a winning plan.
The third, but possibly not the last, candidate the GOP is waiting is former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party’s nominee for vice president in 2008.
Palin is a formidable political force with an intensely loyal and active following. In this, she too resembles Reagan, who built his political machine and eventually won the GOP presidential nomination by going outside the Republican Party, bringing new people to the table. Even a cursory examination of what Palin has been doing suggests she is capable of the same kind of coalition building. [See photos from Palin's "One Nation" bus tour.]
Her entry into the race, which becomes more and more doubtful as the days go by, would be the ultimate game-changer. It would blow apart existing political alliances and bring thousands if not tens of thousands of new political activists into the race. She has an energy about her that is magnetic, something with which even her critics agree.
Of course none of this may happen. Perry, Giuliani, Palin, and every other Republican not currently in the race may decide not to enter it. Until they do decide, one way or another, all the polling and all the debating is a lot like baseball during spring training: You may see a good game once in a while, but it really doesn’t matter very much.