- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In a Republican presidential field where no top-tier candidate offers a flawless resume, the question facing GOP primary voters is whether they can find a diamond in the rough — a standard-bearer who embodies the party’s conservative backbone and can give President Obama a run for his money.

With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the nominal front-runner in a wide-open field, set to formally enter the race Thursday, all of the top candidates have significant deviations from Republican orthodoxy on their records, while the second-tier hopefuls have yet to prove they can raise funds and energize base voters enough to threaten Mr. Obama’s re-election hopes.

That could pose problems for Republicans, who feel Mr. Obama’s record on health care and federal spending should make him ripe for a serious challenge in 2012. GOP officials at the very least want a strong presidential showing to help them hang on to control of the House and win the three or four seats needed to gain control of the Senate.

“There is a reason why Republicans are so desperate to find another candidate and begging candidates to get into the race, because the current crop just isn’t cutting it,” said Mo Elliethee, a Democratic strategist.

Those who have formed campaigns or exploratory committees are Mr. Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, businessman Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Those toying with a run include Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former New York Gov. Rudolph W. Giuliani, a 2008 candidate, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The party’s big fear is a repeat of 1996, when the nominee, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, topped a lackluster field but failed to energize the GOP in the general election, delivering another win to President Clinton.

Rough rollout

Among the Republican hopefuls, no one has had a more disastrous rollout than Mr. Gingrich, who has seemed lost at times when it comes to the hot-button issues vital to primary voters. Already dogged by old questions about his personal life and extramarital affairs, the former speaker made another blunder during an appearance last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he openly criticized House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to curb the costs of Medicare as “right-wing social engineering.”

Since then, Mr. Gingrich has been on damage control. He has called Mr. Ryan to apologize and assured interviewers that he would have voted for the plan.

Mr. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, summed up the situation in a radio interview by saying, “With allies like that, who needs the left?”

Similar foot-in-mouth story lines have dogged other top candidates.

Polls suggest that Mr. Romney’s shortcoming is a well-documented tendency, seen in his unsuccessful 2008 run, to change his rhetoric over time on core social issues such as homosexuality, abortion and guns. His Mormonism raises questions among the party’s evangelical base, and he is still dogged by the decision to distance himself from President Reagan in his 1994 U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts, saying in a debate, “I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.”

But the biggest thorn in the side of his campaign likely will be his biggest legislative achievement: the universal health care legislation he signed as governor of Massachusetts, which many conservatives view as the prelude to the national health care overhaul that President Obama signed into law last year.

Mr. Romney has refused to denounce Massachusetts’ plan. He argues that it is a constitutionally sound experiment by a state, while Mr. Obama’s law represents an unconstitutional power grab by the federal government.

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