What Obama's Team Thinks of the Republican Field

Why they consider Romney the most formidable and are relieved Daniels won't run

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Gov. Mitch Daniels is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to President Obama's political team, the Hoosier was the most credible Republican spokesperson on economic recovery, the man whose results as Indiana governor would compare most favorably to the man in office. Now that he's not running, the Republican field lacks a credible Obama antithesis.

The killing of Osama bin Laden takes the issue of competence and terrorism off the table (at least for now), but at the same time, the sluggish economic recovery is more conspicuous. If Republicans can't question whether Obama is fighting above his weight class--the jibe had been that he's "in over his head"--they'll bash him with facts and figures about personal income growth and employment rates. Democrats would want voters to associate Daniels with the deficits of the Bush era, but Daniels could probably escape that trap. Many of his ideas--he's told Republicans to "pass the brandy and get to work"--have (surprise?) made their way into law via the Obama administration.

So, no Daniels. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, can make a credible case that, so far as the economy is concerned, his policies turn 180 degrees from Obama's. But Paul's libertarian support seems to have a ceiling. And though some of his predictions about the economy have proven prescient, the media elite remains unconvinced about his ability to bring younger libertarians into the party at a fast enough clip to be a credible delegate-gatherer.

And the race, after all, is about delegates. Since activist tea party Republicans are not new to the party, the delegate makeup make not be as different as it appears. Though the caucus and primary calendar isn't fixed, one thing that is that the delegates prior to March 1, 2012, will be proportionally apportioned. That gives lesser-known candidates a way to stay in the race longer--and well-known candidates the impetus to invest heavily in races outside the core fourearly states--Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has proven she can raise a significant amount of money, but her burn rate is prodigious. Out of $16 million she accumulated last quarter, she spent $14.5 of it. That means she's investing heavily in direct mail, buying lists, and building a large network of small donors that can be tapped again and again, provided she gives them a reason to donate. If she's competitive in Iowa, she'll have plenty of money to be competitive elsewhere.  

Jon Huntsman, Jr. is in a pickle. The former Utah governor will have the money to stay in the race as long as he wants and he's taking positions on economic and health care issues that should leave him in good standing with Republicans, assuming they can handle his being Obama's ambassador to China and his moderate stances on issues like civil unions for gays. But from the standpoint of Obama's brain trust, there is no compelling reason for Republicans to vote for him. 

The White House considers Tim Pawlenty to be a formidable contender. He's a self-described "Sam's Club" Republican who strikes middle America as a nice guy, and he's got a solid Horatio Alger story that will distract people from his fidelity to orthodox conservative policy positions.

But Pawlenty, a plurality governor in a blue state, has no real innovative ideas to his name, was less popular when he left office, and seems to be betting on a strategy of allowing anyone who might beat him to collapse from their own weight.  Candidates don't tend to win that way. Look at Lamar Alexander and his presidential bids, also premised on likability, competence. Pawlenty will be forced to focus attention on social issues to prevent Bachmann from taking his votes in Iowa and South Carolina. That'll make it tough to pull back to the center in the general election.

The primary race, most of Obama's team believes, is Mitt Romney's to lose. And here's the case they'd make for him: He was an effective governor of a very blue state with notable achievements (not just health care) to his name, a very smart policy-oriented brain, and an underappreciated asset: he saved the 2002 Olympics--or so the story goes. (Never underestimate the power of Americana during an election year.)

Romney's problem is similar to Obama's: he doesn't play well with downscale voters. He comes off as the manager who fired them, or who cut their wages--the "Richie Rich" know-it-all. Obama's demerits with these voters are different, but a general election race between the two would leave a large number of those voters up for grabs.

Since the nomination rests on delegate accumulation, a Republican can enter the race as late as November and still be eligible to win them in the big states. A candidate who says "no" today--even Mitch Daniels--might be persuaded to become a "yes" by November.

If the economy improves in a way that's perceptible to voters, if the private sector creates 200,000 more jobs a month, if inflation tames and gas prices decline, Obama can point to a body of evidence when he's asked to assess his unpopular decisions.  

Health care remains one of Obama's fundamental problems, but the issue is turning around. Democrats were indelibly damaged by the health care debate, but it's Republicans who are now getting tripped up by the Medicare plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Image credit: AP

Drop-down image credit: AP

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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