What Obama's Team Thinks of the Republican Field

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


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. 

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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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