As the architect of America's overwhelming victory in the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush spent most of 1991 as a prohibitive favorite for reelection. But after the economy entered a short, sharp recession, Bush looked increasingly vulnerable, not least due to restlessness among Republicans. He caught a big break in December of 1991 when his most formidable potential challenger bowed out of the presidential race. Just weeks before the New Hampshire primary, New York's then-governor Mario Cuomo announced that he would not pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, thus leaving the field to a series of obscure has-beens and also-rans, including an Arkansas governor who would later go on to win the White House.
Given the staggering sums it now takes to run a serious campaign for a major party's presidential nomination, it's hard to imagine any candidate waiting until late December of 2011 to decide whether or not for president in 2012. Barack Obama announced his candidacy 21 months before election day, and he began gearing up his campaign organization months before. Other contenders, like Hillary Clinton, started even earlier.
With the essential caveat that it is still very, very early, and the added wrinkle that fundraising in the Internet era could give late entrants a better shot at running for the presidency, it's worth noting how gun-shy various Republican heavies have been about their plans for 2012. After stinging defeats in 2006 and 2008, Republicans face a serious enthusiasm gap, and the Democratic advantage in party identification is, according to Gallup, the largest it has been since 1983. That number actually underestimates the extent of the Democratic advantage, as there are far fewer Reagan-voting conservative Democrats in the ranks.
The possible GOP field begins with the vice presidential also-rans, the men who John McCain passed over in favor of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Mitt Romney has emerged as a favorite of diehard conservatives, including the young activists at CPAC who late last month made him the winner of their presidential straw poll for the third year in a row. Romney has also invested considerable resources in his Free and Strong America PAC, and he's made it clear that he intends to campaign aggressively for Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. Yet there are indications that Romney intends to sit out the 2012 presidential race. Right now, Romney is working on a wide-ranging book - not a conventional campaign memoir - that traces the rise and fall of various empires throughout history, with the intention of divining lessons for America's future. Romney could be positioning himself as a kind of Churchill figure, a wise elder statesman who will wait for the Obama era to end before he makes another bid for the presidency.
Bobby Jindal, often described as the Republican Obama, faces a rather more prosaic barrier to running for president. Having served less than half of his first term, Jindal is committed to running for reelection as governor of Louisiana in 2011. To win that race and then pivot to campaigning for president in Iowa just weeks later would be unseemly to say the least. Though Jindal hasn't ruled himself out of the 2012 race in Shermanesque fashion, he's come close.
Jindal does, however, have some strengths that could lead Republicans to come to him. Though widely seen as a flop, his recent response to President Obama's economic address to Congress has endeared him to conservative activists, most notably Rush Limbaugh, who condemned Jindal's Republican critics on-air. Moreover, Jindal has shrewder political instincts than you might expect from an aw-shucks Rhodes Scholar, as demonstrated when he asked not to be vetted for a McCain vice presidential slot - a no-win proposition that would have made him look disloyal to his home state. Assuming Jindal has a successful first term, he could run at the last minute as the conservative candidate and as the competence candidate. But this "strategy," if you can call it that, demands that Jindal lay low.
Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, seems genuinely torn over whether to focus on running for reelection in 2010 or to run for president in 2012. He has already built a small, informal network of advisors who could aid him in a national race, and he has critiqued President Obama's stimulus package with an eye towards impressing the GOP's national activist base. With his unpretentious style and blue-collar background, Pawlenty was seen as a formidable 2008 vice presidential prospect - indeed, in the days before Sarah Palin's candidacy was announced, Pawlenty was considered the odds-on favorite. It didn't hurt that Republican strategists were increasingly focused on the Upper Midwest, where pro-life Democrats seemed to tilt in a Republican direction this past November. Yet there remains a nagging sense among leading Minnesota Republicans that Pawlenty is not ready for prime-time, and that he'd be better served by burnishing his credentials with another gubernatorial term in St. Paul before running for president in 2016.
Sarah Palin has emerged as a polarizing figure in Republican circles. As a rule, conservatives remain enthusiastic about a Palin presidential run, while moderates are opposed. But so far, there is little indication that Palin is preparing the groundwork for a national campaign, with the exception of making campaign appearances in key races, including Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss's reelection run-off.
Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who ran an unconventional and surprisingly successful campaign in 2008, has, like Mitt Romney, formed a PAC to aid Republican congressional candidates. As the host of a variety show on Fox News, Huckabee has offered consistent, biting critiques of the Wall Street bailout, the auto industry bailout, and other measures he derides, in his trademark populist language, as little more than socialism for the rich. Of all the potential Republican candidates in 2012, Huckabee is by far the most interesting.
Then, of course, there is a wide array of conservative Southerners for Republicans to choose from. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison might be positioning herself for a presidential run by challenging current Texas Governor Rick Perry. The danger is that her moderately pro-choice position - she favors a number of abortion restrictions, including parental notification laws, but she is also in favor of Roe v. Wade - will undermine her candidacy. Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, is deeply familiar with the inner workings of the party and the fundraising demands of a presidential run. He has also positioned himself on the right of the party by adamantly opposing President Obama's stimulus package, and he gained a reputation for competence with his relatively successful handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet Barbour has also said that Republicans have an obligation to "squelch" their presidential ambitions until after 2010, and that gag order presumably applies to him as well.
Clearly Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, hasn't gotten the message. As a foot-solder in Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution, Sanford made his reputation as a committed porkbuster and skinflint, going so far as to sleep in his congressional office. During his contentious first term as governor, Sanford waged war against Republicans in the legislature over what he saw as their excessive spending. He also unsuccessfully backed a voucher-like program that garnered considerable enthusiasm among libertarian activists, many of whom consider Sanford one of their own. Interestingly enough, Sanford is the only mainstream Republican to have attracted the attention of Ron Paul's loyal grassroots army. And by forcefully opposing the stimulus package, on television and op-ed pages, Sanford has raised his national profile considerably. Like Bill Clinton, another wonky Southern governor, Sanford might wind up as a come-from-behind nominee.