For all intents and purposes, it appears that most GOP voters are split between supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as their party’s candidate for president. Both candidates have their strengths and weaknesses, and as such, whom they choose will likely come down to prioritizing electability versus experience.
Romney has clearly learned a lot since the last time he ran for president back in 2008, turning in strong, consistent performances at every debate, raising lots of money, racking up endorsements, and looking presidential every step of the way. In most polling, he is the most popular Republican candidate among Independents, and in most polls beats President Obama among registered voters if the election were held today. He’s a smart, polished businessman who is well-poised to take on the president in a general election.
Yet there’s still a feeling of discontent with Romney among many conservatives. He’s yet to close the deal with social conservatives because of his “evolving” positions on abortion and gay marriage. He will never be the Tea Party favorite due to his involvement in the Massachusetts Health Care Law and his past support for immigration reform. Ironically, Romney’s moderate past would actually help him in a general election. Realizing, however, that our nation’s primary structure generally favors the most ideologically-extreme candidate, he’s since reversed his positions on many of these issues. “New Mitt” pledges to deport all illegal aliens living in the United States, sign a pledge promising to form a commission to investigate the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community if elected president, and to support a controversial anti-abortion law in South Dakota. All stances will likely not only cost him some of his Independent support but will certainly be used by Obama to paint Romney as just another “right-wing extremist.” In the meantime, GOP primary voters are left questioning whether he would govern as a conservative or as a centrist. Romney is still a bit of a question mark.
Gingrich has a completely different set of strengths and weaknesses. No one questions his knowledge of history and public policy, or that he truly is an intellectual conservative in the vein of William F. Buckley Jr. He consistently runs circles around his rivals at every debate, and gives detailed plans rather than just talking points. Unlike many other candidates, he also has a record of implementing his grand ideas. As speaker of the house, Gingrich presided over the last era in this country’s history when, in spite of a divided government, things actually got done. The budget got balanced. Government waste and regulation was reduced. The entire welfare system was overhauled, and capital gains and estate tax rates were cut. The economy was strong. Gingrich was the architect for much of this, so many are now looking to him as the candidate best poised to fix our country’s structural problems. Unfortunately for Gingrich, social conservatives aren’t likely to forget his failed marriages and sometimes questionable ethics. Tea Party conservatives aren’t getting behind him because of his willingness to compromise with Democrats and his support for environmental regulation and immigration reform. Seen as stubborn, prickly and sometimes unhinged, Gingrich has always been a polarizing figure in American politics, even among Republicans. Unless he can win over Independents, a general election win is much more unlikely for him than it would likely be for Romney.
So for many GOP voters, both candidates are a mixed bag. Ironically, there is a candidate in the race who does appear to bridge the gap between experience and electability — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. He’s worked for four administrations and has foreign policy experience serving as U.S. Ambassador to China and Singapore. Fluent in Mandarin and having lived and worked in China, he’s almost certainly the best candidate to deal with the Chinese in a tough and effective way. He also offered up tax reform and other structural solutions to America’s problems long before the other candidates in the race. Equally important, he ran a state that experienced the highest job growth in the nation while also balancing the state’s budget and lowering taxes. If you’ve ever been to Utah, you know it’s a state that functions the way a state should function, a statement further evidenced by the fact that the Pew Center named it the best-managed state in the country in 2008.
Huntsman’s record of lowering taxes and creating jobs should appeal to Tea Party conservatives. His pro-life position on abortion and success in passing one of the largest school voucher bills in this country should garner support among social conservatives. His record on LGBT equality and environmental protection appeals to Independents, the majority of whom are now looking for a viable alternative to Obama. Huntsman essentially combines Gingrich’s record of conservative governance with Romney’s appeal to Independents. But, as noted before, our flawed primary process makes it almost impossible for a non-ideological candidate like Huntsman to get the nomination.
So unless Huntsman manages to break into the top tier in the next few weeks, GOP primary voters will basically be choosing between two men: one who has a better shot at being elected president, and one with perhaps a better plan for governing as president. With high unemployment and low job approval ratings for the current president, it’s the Republicans’ race to lose.
Matthew Craffey of Thousand Oaks earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with an emphasis in international relations from California Lutheran University. Check out his opinions on politics, faith and music at www.matthewcraffey.com.