I’ve written before about how weak and divided the republican presidential field is at the moment. It seems, however, that there’s a new media narrative going around at the moment: that most of the heavyweights will stay out of the race, leaving the 2012 primary battle to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich… and a handful of people that analysts agree are no-hopers, like Ambassador to China and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee looks more and more likely to stay out of the race. Sarah Palin (who needs no introduction)? Who knows, but it increasingly seems like the establishment and the right-wing press have turned against her, meaning that while she could do well in primaries, she would probably have little chance of winning the nomination. We may also have another far-right candidate like Reps. Michele Bachmann and/or Steve King, but neither of those two individuals will come anywhere close to being the republican nominee. Oh, and then there’s Donald Trump, who’s about as likely to become president as I am.
With that in mind, Mitt Romney is the clear frontrunner, with the most establishment support, the best organisation and the most money. But could he win, bearing in mind his moderate record as governor and his frankly rather liberal positions back in the 1990s? I’m not just talking about his passing healthcare reform (‘Romneycare’) in Massachusetts – I’m also talking about his past support for abortion and gay rights when he ran for the Senate in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, best illustrated by this wonderful video:
Conventional wisdom would suggest that all of the anti-Romney forces would eventually coalesce around a candidate to the right of the former Massachusetts governor, who would go on to win the nomination. That could very well be Tim Pawlenty, who has low visibility at the moment but lots of money, a promising campaign staff, and a lot of goodwill from the establishment – Pawlenty talks like a moderate, but is actually quite conservative on both economic and social issues, and is an evangelical Christian. It could also be Newt Gingrich, who’s said some very repulsive things about the current president, Muslims and other people and groups in recent months.
At the same time, though, consider 2008. John McCain was seen as the ‘moderate’ candidate who could not be trusted by the right. Yet he still managed to trounce more conservative opponents in ’08, and win the nomination surprisingly early. And Romney has been even more deft than John McCain in flip-flopping on past statements and talking like a true red-blooded conservative – perhaps best illustrated by the title of his 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness“. While there’s still time for someone more authentically conservative, with enough establishment support and money to have a serious shot at the nomination, yet without the total lack of charisma from which Tim Pawlenty suffers, to enter the race, Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that this might just be one of those elections where the best candidates decide not to take the plunge, and the GOP ends up with a lacklustre nominee:
…sometimes the “person who can win” decides not to run, and you’re left to choose between people who can’t. The last time the Republicans made big gains in the mid-term elections  and then faced a vulnerable-but-formidable Democratic incumbent two years later, they found themselves choosing between Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan in the primaries, while figures like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney (now there would have been a primary campaign!) stayed on the sidelines. It could happen again: Just because the Republicans seem to need a better candidate than Mitt Romney doesn’t mean they’ll get one.
I think that’s right. And while I still have trouble seeing how republicans could possibly nominate Mitt Romney, I have even more trouble imagining any of the other probable candidates winning their party’s nomination. So, right now, it’s Romney – unless Mike Huckabee proves the pundits wrong and decides to actually run.