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Sideline player could emerge as GOP 'superhero'

| Sunday, June 26, 2011

Whether Gov. Rick Perry of Texas takes the stage wearing a suit or jeans, he walks with a confident swagger in cowboy boots.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie owns any stage because of his blunt talk and seemingly unpopular remedies.

Outspoken former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin breaks political stereotypes with her unpredictability.

These three share something: They are popular Republicans who are not seeking the party's 2012 presidential nomination — yet. Republican voters and political strategists lately are speculating whether one of the three might be a better choice than any of eight declared GOP contenders.

People are thinking about their favorites because the contest has not begun in earnest and the debate between candidates is not engaging, said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.

"At this stage in the nomination race, it is not unusual for partisans to hope that more candidates — especially more of the politicians they prefer — jump in ... regardless of those politicians' chances of winning," Brown said. When the choices become clearer, "the preferences of partisans will sort themselves out."

It's not the first time people have pined for a candidate who isn't running.

In 2004, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards were shaping campaigns against President George W. Bush, some Democrats tried to draft Hillary Clinton. When she declined, Democratic partisans sought former four-star Army Gen. Wesley Clark. He finally jumped in but proved to be a weak candidate who quickly faded.

A quick rise and fall as a presidential contender similarly happened to former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., in 2008.

In this crowded field of GOP candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues to hold the front-runner position. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman declared last week that he would join the hopefuls: U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Green Tree native; U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who on Monday will kick off a three-state campaign tour in Iowa; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia; former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Penn Hills; and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain.

Because they don't hold wide-ranging positions on policy issues, their personalities and character largely drive the race at this point, Brown said.

"GOP primary voters are considering which Republican best represents the image of their party," she said.

The "grass is always greener" syndrome, said Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University of Ohio, leads people to compare potential candidates to successful presidents.

"They are looking for their party superhero to step in and change the dynamics of the current state of public opinion," he said.

Will Perry run?

During a January interview with the Tribune-Review, Perry said running for president "isn't even remotely on my radar."

Now he is reconsidering, his longtime adviser David Carney told the Trib, after a speech to the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on Sunday in which Perry sounded like a candidate. Carney expects Perry to make a decision "in mid-July," after the Texas legislative session ends.

"In the past six weeks, the organic outpouring of encouragement and pledges of support has been considerable," Carney said. "We have to see if we can raise the amount of money needed to run a broad campaign."

Political experts believe Perry is more likely than Christie or Palin to join the race. He appeals to many Republicans — the Tea Party activists, the fiscal conservatives and the national security hawks, said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College. Voters perceive Perry as tough yet personable, the qualities Americans like in a president, Brauer said.

"Perry has a more than a decent shot at winning the nomination, especially since he can truly play the anti-Romney card," Brauer said. "He may even have a decent shot at winning the presidency if he can address and overcome his weaknesses" — the biggest of which, Brauer said, is a comparison to President George W. Bush, a former Texas governor.

Perry's strength, Brauer believes, is his experience after 10 years as governor in a state with a strong economy. Texas battled through the recession better than any state, leading in job creation with more than 250,000 jobs produced between January 2010 and January 2011, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data recently released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show Texas represents 8.3 percent of the economy, displacing New York as the second-largest economy behind California.

"Demographics also plays a big role," Brauer said. "(Perry) is a Southerner in a country whose population has been shifting to the South, which means more electoral votes in the region."

The case for Christie

Christie told the Trib in an interview in December that he has no interest in becoming president.

"I have my hands full in New Jersey," he said.

Yet this month, a group of grass-roots Iowa Republicans visited the New Jersey governor to implore him to run, renewing speculation that he might.

So far, said his spokeswoman Maria Connelly, the only visit Christie will make to Iowa will be in July for a speech about education, about which he is passionate. GOP candidates are scheduled to debate in Iowa in August. The state holds the nation's first caucus early next year.

Kelley does not believe Christie will run, although he noted the governor's dynamic personality helped him to win as a Republican in a "blue state" in which voter registration is overwhelmingly Democratic.

"Christie is a tough campaigner, has proven how to win in a blue state, and I think is generally liked as someone who is willing to transcend partisan politics," Kelly said.

Christie became governor in January 2010 and immediately took steps to change the way New Jersey does business. He slashed the budget in order to pay for his priorities such as improving an aging transportation system. He allowed only modest increases in public school aid, carrying on a legendary verbal bout with the state's teachers union.

Palin, the wild card

No one but Palin knows whether she intends to run, strategists agree.

She emerged on the national stage when Sen. John McCain of Arizona surprised Americans by introducing her as his GOP running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign, and she earned supporters with her brash, folksy manner when she debated Vice President Joe Biden.

Palin has cultivated her enigmatic image. Her family dramas cause people to roll their eyes, and her critics cite missteps in speeches and commentaries that make it appear she does not know facts. But many conservatives allow her these foibles.

"A lot of Republicans like her as a provocateur, and the way she fires up the base, but would not vote for her for president," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia.

After President Obama's win, Palin resigned as governor during the second year of her first term, saying: "I love my job, and I love Alaska, and it hurts to make this choice, but I'm doing what's best for them." She traveled the country in support of Tea Party Republicans, hosted a Discovery Channel TV show about Alaska, and became a political contributor for Fox News Channel.

She keeps herself a newsmaker, most recently with a four-state bus tour begun on Memorial Day weekend that she insisted was not an informal campaign. She began with a motorcycle ride at the National Mall as part of the annual Rolling Thunder tribute to veterans, then intensified talk by refusing most media access to her tour.

In an interview on the bus with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, Palin said: "I think that it would be a mistake for me to become some kind of conventional politician. ... It's not about me; it's not a publicity-seeking tour; it's about highlighting the great things about America."

Recent polling data show Obama is vulnerable. A Gallup survey of 914 registered voters last week said he would trail a no-name Republican challenger by 5 percentage points, losing 44 percent to 39 percent, with 18 percent of respondents choosing "other."

Palin's entry in the race could change everything, Brown said.

"If you had a Palin-Obama race, it becomes a battle of the ideologues," she said, "which means that turnout would rise because both sides can't stand the thought of the other one winning."

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