For months the defining feature of the GOP race has been the fractured nature of the field.  The Republican electorate despite the number of choices continued to hold out hope for a mystery candidate to appear and solve all their woes.  But one by one the hoped for mystery candidates failed to appear and those like Rick Perry who decided to run showed serious deficiencies.  Now that is getting late in the race GOP voters are going to have to answer two questions and which they place more emphasis on.  Which candidates are ideologically conservative? Who can win against the president in 2012?  For over a year it has been accepted by the establishment that Mitt Romney is the GOP’s best chance to win in 2012.  Well let’s examine this and bring in a few of the other candidates to compare and contrast Romney with.

Mitt Romney has been running for the GOP nomination for president for well over the past five years.  He was one of the first GOP candidates to declare in 2007 and was also one of the first to declare in 2011.  Even after he lost to Senator John McCain in 2008 he campaigned hard for the GOP nominee, currying favor with the GOP establishment.  Establishment favor however does not equate to support within the broader GOP electorate as Romney is learning.

Romney faces questions from fiscally conservative voters over Romneycare, which the CATO Institute says is bankrupting his state.  His prior support of gay marriage and abortion, then his recent opposition to it also rankles social conservatives.  Perhaps even worse is that Romney has co-opted the states-rights argument and tried to make the distinction that what he did in MA is different then Obamacare because it was done at the state level.  In more moderate states like New Hampshire this has appeal but in conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina this argument is ringing hollow.  But this article is not debating whether Romney can win the GOP nomination but whether he can beat the president though these are issues to how well he can turn out the GOP base.

Romney has led in numerous surveys, national, state and primary surveys, but he has never taken over 30% among the GOP faithful.  And in general election surveys Romney leads or narrowly trails the president.  This is fueled by the fact President Obama continues to suffer horrendous approval ratings and is now stuck in two major scandals with Fast and Furious in AZ and the energy company Solyndra.  Romney is not the only GOP candidate to come close to beating the president in surveys however.  In a recent Quinnipiac survey Romney led the president by two points, but TX Governor Rick Perry only trailed by one point.  And in a recent Rasmussen survey, businessman Herman Cain narrowly trailed the president.  So just going off poll numbers does not indicate Romney is the best candidate to beat Obama.

Due to being in the race for months before any other candidate Romney has assembled an impressive war-chest.  He boasts the most impressive campaign infrastructure, infrastructure that has been active for over five years.  And with the absence of any mystery candidate Wal-Street can get behind many major donors are starting to align with Romney.  But it is notable where Romney continues to struggle to get donors such as in California and Texas and this is among Republicans.  Romney’s fundraising prowess among these donors has also come into question lately.  Texas Governor Rick Perry raised over $17 million in the 3rd quarter despite only being in the race for seven weeks.  Romney on the other hand raised $15 in the entire 3rd quarter.  Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact Romney’s campaign continues to burn through cash fast simply to maintain is current infrastructure, making it hard to expand.  Meanwhile Perry’s campaign barely burned through $2 million of the $17 million it raised.  So on fundraising again Romney does not appear to be a clear favorite, even among Republicans.  This begs the question how would he fare against the Democratic fundraising machine?

Appeal must also be considered.  Romney has a unique appeal in the Midwest/Rusbtbelt and Northeast that few if any of the other GOP candidates can match.  He also has an appeal to moderate independents that the other GOP candidates lack.  That gets the GOP votes they might otherwise struggle with.  But this needs to be contrasted to more conservatives candidates like Rick Perry or Herman Cain.  Perry and Cain both have appeal to fiscal and social conservatives Romney lacks.  The lose of moderates and independents could be mitigated by the fact Perry and Cain could turn out social and fiscal conservatives, just as Bush did in 2004.  Furthermore, unlike Romney, both Perry and Cain could have an appeal to Democratic leaning constituencies that Romney lacks.  Perry has shown with his elections in Texas that he can win a chunk of the Hispanic vote.  And Cain has both personal and businesses appeal to some in the black community.  Regionally, Perry and Cain would both have appeal in the South and Perry in the Southwest, especially if he can win Hispanic votes. 

Romney knows policy.  The verdict is out on how well Perry and Cain do.  Perry has struggled in the debates and while Cain has appeared solid in his debate performances he has not been fielded serious policy questions.  On Afghanistan he has hedged and said he would support his generals and on economic policy he has his 9-9-9 plan.  Perry appears to want troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and wants lower taxes, less regulation and to create new jobs (who doesn’t).  Knowing policy is not the only important thing about becoming president however, especially in debates.  You must be cool, intelligent and calm.  Romney passes in all three and so does Cain.  Perry has struggled on the calm and cool front, getting flustered towards the end of GOP debates.   So Romney appears to have an advantage on the policy front but perhaps not the appeal front.

Lastly comes the intangibles.  Any candidate could have an advantage here.  Romney has a claim here as he has business experience.  Perry has a claim here for the work and reform he has done and implemented in Texas.  Cain, unlike Perry or Romney, has never even held public office, being the ultimate outsider candidate.  All three candidates, whether through the public or private sector, have created jobs so voters could be drawn to them there. How voters interpret these intangibles is critically important for a candidate’s chances in 2012.

Using this analysis it is unclear whether Romney is the GOP’s best chance to beat the President in 2012.  The President is already in a precarious position and several GOP candidates, including Romney, are beating or narrowly trailing the president.  On fundraising Romney has not shown he can dominate the GOP field, so questions remain how he would do against Obama and Democrats.  Appeal also appears to be a net draw.  Romney has appeal in the Northeast and Midwest/Rustbelt and among moderate voters.  But Cain and Perry could reach into Democratic minority constituencies and win, as conservatives no less.  On policy all three candidates know their stuff.  Romney is the best at expressing it, the verdict is out on how Cain will do when he faces tough questions and Perry needs to improve.  Romney leads there.  Lastly, on the intangibles Romney does not have an edge.  In some form Perry, Romney and Cain can try to claim voters with their background.

So currently the verdict is out on whether Romney is the GOP’s best chance to beat Obama.  In a way it could depend on what strategy the GOP decides to pursue to beat Obama.  If the GOP wants independents and moderates to put them over the edge Romney may be best.  But if turnout among the base and stealing Democratic leaning constituencies is the plan than Perry or Cain may be the best candidates.  The election is a long ways off and voters, strategists and analysts would be wise to remember this.  No candidate has a lock on claiming “I am the GOP’s best chance to beat Obama in 2012.”


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