On the eve of tonight's debate in Michigan, here are my thoughts of the current state of the GOP nomination contest.
The pace of GOP candidates shuffling in and out of the spotlight has again quickened. Herman Cain held on longer than Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in the spotlight, but many in the media say the two or three week period that has accumulated of increasing (esp. in its negativivity) coverage of Mr. Cain will ultimately hurt him, as he's ensnared by continual accusations. The reaction to this news seemed different at first — the influential voices of the party hesitated in throwing him to the dogs — but it will undoubtedly happen. This ignores the fact that the media was beginning to coalesce around the opinion that 9-9-9 couldn't hold up as a serious policy matter in the long term.
As the field effectively narrows, there's more concern about tossing out each successive hot candidate. Who's looking to step in now?
Mitt Romney has been trying to make his newly-minted Tea Party-infused persona stick with voters, but the results are mixed. That leaves him with the 25% of the polls he's had all along. These voters who support the more moderate Mitt persona he's clung to until recently, but their bonafide Tea Party-leaning neighbors enjoy sampling the field before realizing he might be the most viable option.
Newt Gingrich is making a run. I will get to see Newt for the first time this coming week in New Hampshire, but having only watched him on TV thus far, he falls into a category of candidates comprised of Huntsman and, to a lesser extent, Rick Santorum, as seasoned politicians less liable to have derailing allegations levied against them. At the very least, whatever exposes are written about these men, they would likely expose elements of their character that while surprising to some voters, would likely be less sensational and captivating to the national audience, as opposed to a sexual scandal. Cain's debacle may be akin to that of Tiger Woods, as though the allegations themselves me be ultimately survivable, is too great a distraction to overcome them while running a successful campaign or excelling in a championship-level golf career.
Rick Santorum is the most solidly social-conservative candidate in a year when even the most disheartened Obama-supporter couldn't see themselves voting for him. Gingrich has unpleasant personal commitment issues that would plague him were he to pull into a threatening position against Romney. Both Santorum and Gingrich would have trouble drawing in the moderate voters a Republican nominee will need to defeat Obama. Far right wingers and Tea Partiers may not see things that way, but a growing number of Republican primary voters will, especially in a state like New Hampshire.
In that environment I could see Jon Huntsman poised for some increased attention in national polling for the first time. His campaign has already funneled a substantial amount of time, staff, and energy into New Hampshire, and the state could reward him for this at the last minute. So long as Huntsman doesn't disappear from the state in the coming weeks, he needs to make his case on the national stage. He'll need to reign in his recent comedic approach to debates and lay bare the necessity for 2012 Republicans to find value in a consistent candidate whose stances on key issues amount to convictions, not mere "positions."
If Huntsman wants to make a run, he'll need to remain established in New Hampshire (just as Huckabee had built a solid foundation in Iowa leading into mid-November '07) while gradually developing a frequent movement through other early states. The relocating of his campaign to New Hampshire was a wise strategic move, and Florida would have required too many resources and campaign dollars to become a bastion of his support. Even a mere 5% jump for Huntsman in national polling could trigger a growing wave of support. Once the Huntsman Super PAC starts unrolling the television commercials the official campaign can't afford, his path to the nomination could clear up significantly and the MSM will be left scratching their heads why they didn't take Huntsman seriously for so long.
Huntsman's failure to gain steam this far certainly isn't a strategic advantage for him, but it may just work to his favor. Unlike Huckabee, however, Huntman's job will be considerably more difficult; he has need to convince a large swath of Republican voters that Obama is not a candidate the average GOP candidate can hit a homerun against.
I get the impression working the campaign trail and talking to voters that Obama is perceived as being insurmountably weak. Consequently, a Republican no matter how conservative they are could stand to take him down. The Huntsman campaign, more than anything, is a testament to the acknowledgment of this fact, and for that reason can rightly claim possesses the best chance of unseating the President.