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The Republican Dwarfs

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

I must admit that it took me at least a minute to figure out the Drudge Report headline: "Paw In."

Had there been some gruesome animal attack somewhere, alligators eating little girls' arms in Florida, a train accident in Eastern Europe or something else I could worry about as my children travel to places that are literally beyond my world?

I looked at the picture quickly, and I didn't have a clue. Matt Drudge being tasteful about a grisly animal attack by picturing the zookeeper instead of the animal? Not likely.

It was, of course, Tim Pawlenty, putting some part of himself (presumably greater than a paw) in the 2012 presidential race. I've heard many Republicans sing his praises as governor of Minnesota, and I have no reason to doubt his competence. But to misquote Mario Cuomo, the issue in this race is not competence but ideology -- at least on the Republican side.

The candidate who would truly electrify 2012 is Sarah Palin. Like her or hate her, she is way beyond a politician. Snow White to the dwarves, as the Democratic field was referred to in 2007 before Barack Obama (never a dwarf) got in the race.

Here's my guess based on absolutely no inside information. She won't run. She may flirt with it for a while, keeping the press guessing and the cameras flashing, but there's not much talk of her meeting with top fundraisers and trying to lock them up or at least keep them neutral. Palin is making money and drawing crowds of admirers (and also getting paid for that) doing exactly what she wants to do. If she runs, she loses at least two out of three of those things and gains a hostile press corps and all the other candidates shooting at her, to boot. And, being realistic, do you really think she could beat Obama?

Which leaves Mitt Romney as the GOP frontrunner, if for no reason other than that no one can remember who the other potential candidates are. Right now, Romney looks to be the strongest general election candidate of the group because of his experience with economic issues and his more moderate (Massachusetts) views on social issues. He's not a divisive general election candidate, which makes him a less than ideal candidate in the Republican nomination battle.

The Democrats did it first. The Republicans didn't even know they were doing it until the Christian Coalition had already taken control of the party-nominating apparatus -- going to caucuses, voting in primaries, taking the power to pick delegates away from central committees, even as Democrats were attempting to give more power to the insiders. After you lose for a while, pragmatism reasserts itself over ideology.

The nomination process measures different strengths. Even today, with everyone seeing the same news, winning state caucuses and even primaries is a personal exercise. It's more like running for governor every week than it is like running for president. I am proud of the governor I worked for in 1988, and I think he would have been a much better president than he was a presidential candidate. The same may be true of Pawlenty. But getting elected in a national election, which is completely different from the primary process, is a prerequisite to being any kind of president.

Lee Atwater, the late and legendary Republican political operative, used to say there was a little boat with all the people Americans could imagine being president, whether they agreed with them or not. Getting into that boat is a necessary step to winning. Obama is obviously already in that boat, as was Hillary Clinton. The Republican who is closest to the boat is almost surely Romney, but his nomination is anything but certain.

Fun and games to come, and definitely not the Disney sort.


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See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.

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