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.
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.
Despite the political baggage, polls show Mr. Romney atop the Republican field. His advantages include his personal wealth, the fact that he has kept his political organization intact and the strong name recognition he built in 2008.
He also has demonstrated an ability to raise money, having collected pledges of $10 million in one day at his fundraising kickoff.
Many predict he also likely learned from his missteps in the 2008 campaign, where he tried to woo conservative voters in Iowa by pivoting to the right on social issues. This time, pundits predict he'll play up his business and managerial record — he was a successful businessman and is credited by many with "saving" the troubled 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
Mr. Romney's path to victory was easier after Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels decided to forgo a bid, following in the footsteps of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and billionaire Donald Trump.
An opening for others
But those decisions also opened the door for other former governors, Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Huntsman, to emerge as alternatives to Mr. Romney.
Unlike Mr. Romney, the two newcomers to national politics have tried to come clean about some of the biggest blemishes on their records, walking away from their support of regional "cap-and-trade" energy programs that are nearly identical to the federal bill Mr. Obama tried to push through Congress in 2009.
The cap-and-trade idea is anathema to many tea partyers and fiscal conservatives.
Mr. Pawlenty has called cap-and-trade "stupid" and "ham-fisted," while playing up his accomplishments as a two-term governor in what once was one of the nation's most liberal states. He paints himself as a fiscal warrior, having balanced state budgets, at least on paper, and vetoed tax hikes. He also boasts about knocking heads with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, enduring a partial government shutdown and a labor strike.
Observers say he can appear to be bland and isn't as well-known as Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Paul, a hero to the libertarian wing of the GOP.
"Pawlenty has an opening to become the widely acceptable alternative to Romney, but the 'charisma challenge' can be a stiff one in presidential politics," said Isaac Wood, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
That lack of presence on the stump, coupled with the possible candidacies of other established Republicans, such as Mrs. Palin, Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann, threatens to siphon support away from Mr. Pawlenty and other newcomers to the national stage, including Mr. Huntsman.
Like Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Huntsman has tried to blunt criticism of his past support of cap-and-trade programs by pointing to his successes as governor, when he pushed through changes in Utah's liquor laws by making it easier to buy liquor by the drink, saying the laws were hurting business and tourism in the state. He has won kudos for instituting a flat tax and backing a school voucher program, which was later voted down in a state referendum.
He also has faced questions about his Mormon faith, his support of civil unions for homosexual couples and state aid benefits to children of illegal immigrants, and his two-year stint representing the Obama administration as ambassador to China.
"I consider him a moderate Republican," said Utah Senate President Michael G. Waddoups, a Republican. "The issues he espoused and championed were accepted across the spectrum better than most of the conservative issues that Utah tends to embrace."
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