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DECKER: GOP: Whose turn is it?

Tradition-bound Republicans usually nominate familiar names

The 2012 presidential election is exactly a year away, and there's still no clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Despite all the chatter about dark-horse candidates coming out of nowhere to win the race, surprises are rare in the stodgy Republican Party's 150-year history.

In recent times, Republicans have gone with the candidate whose turn seems to be next. This is typically a loyal party regular who has been safely elected to a major office before and is a known quantity to everyone. Often enough, the GOP standard-bearer in a given election is the runner-up from a previous cycle, who after losing backed the party ticket like a good soldier. Ronald Reagan was the nominee in 1980 and 1984 after losing to Gerald Ford in 1976; George H.W. Bush was the man in 1988 and 1992 after losing the 1980 primary election to Reagan; Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was tapped in 1996 after losing to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 primaries; and Arizona Sen. John McCain was nominated in 2008 after losing to George W. Bush in 2000.

Although not exclusive to the GOP, it's also common to tap former vice presidents or vice-presidential candidates to later carry the flag at the top of the ticket. After all, it's natural to look to a faithful No. 2 when trying to figure out who should be the next No. 1 because that man already has been a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. After serving as Eisenhower's vice president for two terms from 1953-1961, Richard Nixon - the first sitting veep to head a GOP ticket - was the Republican standard-bearer in 1960, 1968 and 1972. George H.W. Bush was the leading man after serving two terms as vice president under the Gipper. Mr. Dole was Ford's running mate 20 years before heading the GOP ticket.

Before Nixon, four GOP vice presidents became president outside of the nominating process: Chester Arthur after James Garfield was shot in 1881, Theodore Roosevelt after William McKinley was shot in 1901, Calvin Coolidge after Warren Harding died of natural causes in 1923, and Ford after Nixon resigned in 1974. Dynasties and warriors also come into play, both fitting well with old-fashioned Republican tendencies. Nine of 38 (24 percent) Republican presidential nominees since 1860 have come from just four famous families: Harrison, Roosevelt, Taft and Bush. Seven GOP campaigns (18 percent) have been headed by generals: Civil War victors Ulysses Grant in 1868 and 1872, James Garfield in 1880, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and 1892, and World War II commander Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Brass is still frequently floated when an election cycle is around the corner, such as Gen. David Petraeus this year and Colin Powell in 1996.

Some commentators are speculating that 2012 could be a replay of the 1964 race, when the Grand Old Party went with a radical insurgent nominee in Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater to try to unseat Lyndon Johnson, the liberal incumbent Democrat who was rapidly expanding the welfare state. No doubt, many Tea Partyers and other conservatives who are distrustful of the GOP's Washington establishment like this vision. However, the story isn't as straightforward as it usually is recounted. Goldwater did beat four-term New York Gov. (and later Ford's vice president) Nelson Rockefeller, scion of one of America's first families and a moderate darling of the establishment, but this was largely for personal reasons and not entirely ideological ones. A year earlier, "Rocky" Rockefeller married Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, with whom he'd been having an adulterous affair before dumping his first wife. More than demanding conservative change, Republicans simply weren't ready to nominate a divorcee and possibly put a home-wrecker in the White House.

In 12 of the 13 (92 percent) presidential elections since 1960, Republicans have nominated a previous primary candidate, a vice president or someone from a political dynasty. In the current field, Mitt Romney comes closest to fitting the bill. The former Massachusetts governor lost to Mr. McCain last time and then dutifully supported the McCain-Palin ticket. He's also from a prominent Republican family, his father George W. Romney having served three terms as Michigan governor, run for president in 1964 and 1968 and served in Nixon's Cabinet. Perhaps 2012 will be an aberration year, with atypical factors in play such as a tanking economy, the Tea Party uprising and the temperamental mood of the electorate. Republicans, though, seldom break with convention at their nominating conventions.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the new book "Bowing to Beijing" (Regnery, 2011).

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About the Author
Brett M. Decker

Brett M. Decker

Brett M. Decker, former Editorial Page Editor for The Washington Times, was an editorial page writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Senior Vice President of the Export-Import Bank, Senior Vice President of Pentagon Federal Credit Union, speechwriter to then-House Majority Whip (later Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and reporter and television producer for the legendary Robert ...

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