Published on TheHill.com on May 31, 2011
With the visceral negativism of politics today, candidates must advance masked by the shadows of their opponents. For example, Obama could achieve credibility and strength in 2007-08 only when attention focused on Hillary. When the spotlight shifted to him in April and May of 2008, he nearly lost the nomination amid the Rev. Jeremiah Wright affair. In the general election, it was only because the focus was on Bush and the economic crash that he was able to win.
Mitt Romney has advanced to clear front-runner status in the shadow of Donald Trump. While the world wondered in February, March and April if the billionaire would run, Mitt consolidated his hold on a quarter of the GOP primary vote. When Newt Gingrich’s announcement was drowned out by controversy, Romney quietly took his share of Huckabee’s and Trump’s would-have-been voters.
Now, it appears that Romney will dwell in Sarah Palin’s shadow as she tours the country flirting with a presidential run. The brickbats she will likely attract from her numerous, sexist, leftist critics will dominate the media while Romney goes quietly about his business of fundraising and organizing in the key early states.
The Palin shadow will also fall over those who are scrambling to build their candidacies from scratch. Michele Bachmann will be hardest hit as Palin breathes up all of her oxygen, polarizing American women and leaving little room for the articulate, charismatic congresswoman to get attention. Nor will the Palin tour leave much for Herman Cain, whose Tea Party-based candidacy has shown signs of taking off lately. Neither they nor Pawlenty, Santorum or Huntsman will get much in the way of publicity as all eyes shift to Sarah.
Will Palin run? Perhaps. Can she win the nomination? No way on earth. While Republicans — including this one — like her, we fear that her negatives are so deeply entrenched that they would hobble her candidacy from its outset. Were she to win the nomination, we all worry that her negatives would reelect Obama for another four disastrous years.
In my April poll of Republican primary voters, I asked which candidates had too much baggage to get elected. Trump led in this dubious category with 45 percent, followed by Gingrich at 34 percent and Palin at 27. No other candidate was in double digits.
Republicans, this year, are more interested in pragmatic viability than in ideological purity. So they are willing to vote for a Mitt Romney even though he is seen as the candidate least likely to repeal ObamaCare, because 35 percent believe he is the most likely to beat Obama. Republicans regard the election of 2012 as so critical to the future of America (and they are right) that they are worried about taking a chance on someone whose own negatives could sink the campaign.
Ultimately I believe that Sarah Palin knows all this and won’t actually run. She will be what Colin Powell was in 1995 — the center of massive speculation that did not lead to an actual candidacy. But just as Bob Dole advanced steadily to win the 1996 Republican nomination while the hoopla surrounding Powell distracted all attention, so Romney advances masked by the shadows of first Trump, then Gingrich and now Palin.
And despite his obvious shortcomings — RomneyCare and his flip-flops over abortion — there is one big thing about Mitt that recommends him: He’s been vetted. He’s been around the track before and has had to survive the glare of national publicity. Any big negatives would have come out in January and February of 2008 in Iowa and New Hampshire. The negative researchers have done their best — and their worst. Who knows how the lesser-known, first-time candidates will fare in the vetting? Is one of them a potential John Edwards? How are we to know? Romney’s big edge is that he seems safe. And compared to the perils of a Trump or a Palin candidacy, that’s pretty important.