Top Republicans, inspired by President Obama’s recent drop in popularity, are newly optimistic about their chances of challenging him in 2012 and are focusing on some surprising names.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the Republican nominee in 1996, told POLITICO that he would like to see Army four-star Gen. David Petraeus — the head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan — run for president as a latter-day Ike.
Some fiscal conservatives, convinced that they’ll never “out-Obama Obama,” are sold on a solid-but-unflashy choice: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was able to generate some early buzz — and news coverage — simply by telegraphing plans for a quick trip to Iowa later this year.
Then there is freshman Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor who cut a high profile as an opponent of the Obama administration’s auto industry strategy and keynoted the South Carolina GOP’s annual dinner in May.
“Several GOP candidates are coming to the view that the way to run against Obama is not to out-Obama Obama with flash or sizzle,” said Dan Senor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Bush administration veteran. “They want to go in the opposite direction: smart, back-to-basics, competence.”
It’s a fool’s errand to appraise whether any of these candidates — or the half-dozen other top-tier GOP possibilities — stand a chance in 2012. And top GOP strategists say they recognize that history gives them little chance of unseating Obama if the economy improves noticeably.
Still, there’s been an unmistakable surge in the behind-the-scenes chatter as Obama's poll numbers continue to fall — and it reflects a party that is at least contemplating an out of-the-box approach to 2012.
As much as anything, it’s an expansive search for more options than there are at present, one that could yield a candidate as unorthodox as Scarborough, the youthful former congressman-turned-cable-TV-personality, or as staid as Daniels, the former Office of Management and Budget director nicknamed “The Blade” for his budget-cutting acumen.
The common denominator is that Republican operatives no longer assume — as they did in the opening months of Obama’s presidency — that 2012 will be a fruitless cycle for their party. The comparisons to 1964, a nadir for the GOP, are now being reassessed.
Liz Cheney, a State Department official in the Bush administration, said it is "absolutely" possible for a Republican to win the presidency in 2012.
"The independents who were so critical will come back to the Republican Party when they realize, as they're coming to realize, that we're the ones that can be trusted both on the economy and on national security," she said. "So the substance is a lot more important than: Is it this person? Is it that person?"
One such person floated in a column in The Wall Street Journal is none other than her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney. That's not happening, though it’s sometimes hard to tell with his frequent appearances and sharp political rhetoric.
When asked if it’s even plausible, she replied: "I think no. I mean, I'd love for it to. But no."
Most of the media attention to date has centered on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was greeted with interest as he courted donors and operatives in New York City this week; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost his quest for last year’s nomination to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); and others who have flirted with runs before but took a pass, notably former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
But for many Republicans, a fresh face who conveys a dramatic departure from the familiar is exactly what the party needs.
"Well, I'd like to see Gen. Petraeus warm up,” Dole said. “I don't know anything about his politics, whether he has an interest. It's kind of a time for another Eisenhower, in my view."
This isn't the first time the popular general's name has been floated as a possible GOP savior — and it won't be the last. Petraeus has political impulses but hasn't revealed if they are conservative ones, and he might not even be a Republican.
The CFR’s Senor is skeptical, even though Petraeus would be an appealing candidate. “He has to be focused like a laser beam on Afghanistan,” Senor said. “If he is as successful in Afghanistan as he was in Iraq, nothing else matters, and he will instantly be considered a top-tier candidate for president.
“But in order to be successful, he has to work very closely and effectively inside this administration, and very loyally to the commander-in-chief. He’s going to work successfully with this administration, and then all of a sudden announce that he’s stepping down to run against the commander in chief under which he served? As a practical matter, that’s unlikely.”
MSNBC’s Scarborough has been told by some big donors that he should make a run in 2012.
“I think he does have aspirations. That is half of it: You got to want it,” said CNBC’s Donny Deutsche, a regular guest on Scarborough ’s morning show, who recently raised the idea with him off camera. “In this day and age, it would almost make sense for [a presidential candidate] to come from media.”
Mika Brzezinski, Scarborough’s co-host, says she hears constant calls for him to run, at events the two do together around the country.
“People think his voice and message match where people are today,” she told us.
Still, Brzezinski predicted it won’t happen because he’s committed to the show.
Scarborough was mentioned as possible candidate for Senate seat in Florida earlier this year but told friends he was much happier hosting a popular television show and making money. Since then, he has emerged as a critic of Obama on government spending and other issues — but one who also prides himself in taking on his own party.
Asked about his interest in running, Scarborough said in an e-mail: “I plan to work at 30 Rock for a very long time,” a reference to NBC headquarters in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. (Full disclosure: Both authors of this article make regular, unpaid appearances on his show.)
“Morning Joe,” which reaches just under 500,000 viewers each day, is a strong platform for reaching voters and landing speeches before audiences of people who could vote for him or, more importantly, raise money for a presidential run. It’s also a great practice arena for getting up to speed on issues and testing ideas and lines that might one day resonate with voters.
The show could also hurt him. He has popped off on camera for hundreds of hours, giving any opponent plenty of footage to exploit. And what might make him appealing to a liberal donor in New York — his willingness to reason with opponents and buck his own party — would be appalling to many conservatives.
Ed Rollins, the veteran Republican operative who ran Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, said it’s more likely an elected official like Daniels or Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour could mount a serious challenge to Obama.
The crop of attractive candidates, he said, “will grow and prosper.” As will the speculation on who could pull it off.