Doubts persist among Republican Party professionals about the quality of this year’s presidential field and the ability of the leading candidates to defeat an unpopular Democratic president struggling with a stubbornly bad economy.
“I’ve never seen such amateurism in a Republican field of presidential [nomination] candidates,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member and president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “None of these campaigns, with the possible exception of [Texas Rep.] Ron Paul’s, has the organizational infrastructure we’ve seen in past presidential caucuses in Iowa.”
Republican operatives and officials say the disorganized and uninspired state of the campaigns to date could make for an ambiguous message after Tuesday’s vote, with likely caucus attendees unusually undecided or unenthusiastic about their choices this late in the game.
“The fact that few of our caucusgoers are passionately dedicated to any candidate with the exception of Paul - has disrupted traditional precinct and turnout practices,” former Iowa GOP Chairman Kayne Robinson told The Washington Times.
“I think most caucus people this time really want to follow [conservative author] Bill Buckley’s rule by backing the most conservative candidate who they believe can beat the Democrat opponent, in this case President Obama,” said Mr. Robinson. “Trouble is, the name of that Republican who can beat Obama has changed about every two weeks and you can’t build a major organization that way.”
The “amateurishness,” GOP political operatives say, was on display late last month in the failure of top GOP hopefuls - including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Texas Gov. Rick Perry - to gather sufficient valid signatures to get on Virginia’s primary ballot.
Mr. Gingrich suffered through a disastrous campaign rollout last summer, and then lacked the funds to combat a fierce blast of negative ads from rivals in Iowa when he was surging in the polls.
Mr. Perry began lining up evangelical support even before he announced his candidacy in late summer but then, to the astonishment of some evangelical leaders, failed to do the requisite follow-up. Nor did his staff prepare him for the TV debates that have proved crucial this campaign cycle.
Still, a solid performance by either the former House speaker or the Texas governor would give them life going into primaries later this month in South Carolina and Florida, and dent the perception in political circles of the inevitability of the nomination of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Mr. Romney is the GOP field’s clear organizational and fund-raising leader, but for many religious conservatives, what matters most is their belief that Mr. Romney’s Mormonism is not a legitimate form of Christianity.
His position changes on abortion and perceived big-government inclinations are less important to the religious right, but all important to the strict fiscal conservative and libertarian-minded voting blocs, which also oppose him. But Mr. Romney has benefited from the failure - so far, at least - of his doubters in the party to unite around a single alternative.
“The evangelicals are being drown out by negative direct mail and TV ads, and they are sick of it because they can’t get a concise theme or message from national evangelical leaders, so Romney succeeds at dividing evangelicals, and they don’t come after Romney,” said Randy Brinson, founder and chairman of Redeem the Vote, a leading Christian conservative advocacy group. “That will change soon.”
Evangelical campaign strategist David Lane said that only Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry have realistic shots at denying Mr. Romney the nomination and that the other Romney rivals “lack the money and ability to go the distance.”
A strong finish by Mr. Santorum, Mr. Lane said, “may actually secure the nomination for Romney.”