It's question no. 1 for election junkies: Who is going to be the Republican nominee in 2012? The answer, if you attended Daily Kos editor Arjun Jaikumar's panel on the topic at Netroots Nation earlier today, is Mitt Romney — probably. All the panelists, including Slate writer Dave Weigel, former DNC hands Matt Ortega and Kombiz Lavasany, and Dkos editor Jake McIntyre, agreed that Romney is by far the most imposing candidate the likeliest to score the GOP nod. But why?
Jake has long stuck to his "establishment candidate" theory, which served him well in 2008 when he consistently predicted John McCain would be the nominee even during his darkest days. This thesis doesn't necessarily favor the candidate who is the most acceptable to the GOP establishment (though it usually is), but rather the person with the longest record of service and, often, a prior run under their belt. In 2008, that was most clearly McCain, while now, that role falls to Romney, as none of the other major contenders have run before.
Romney has other advantages as well. The most obvious is money — he's crushing the rest of the field in fundraising and will likely continue to do so. But Weigel, who spends a lot of time listening to what actual Republican voters have to say, made another important observation. Romney has been laser-focused on jobs and the economy, and that helps to mask his various sins and apostasies, ranging from Romneycare to gay rights. Weigel says that Republicans he talks to are beginning to make excuses for themselves so that they can get behind the more electable Romney, rather than vote with their hearts for someone else…
Like, say, Michele Bachmann, who was universally agreed-upon as the most likely person to derail a Romney candidacy. The biggest wildcard is the rise of the Tea Party movement, which threatens to disrupt the old "establishment candidate" order. As Jake said, if you had said a year ago that Bachmann would be a serious contender for the Republican crown, he'd have called you crazy. But then we saw candidates like Christine O'Donnell soar to popularity with Republicans in her home state, which really has to make us rethink our normal calculus.
Can Bachmann do it? It would take a much more disciplined campaign than she's ever run in the past, but she got off to a good start by not drooling into the lectern at the first debate last week (benefitting from the proverbial soft bigotry of low, low expectations). And of course she'll be able to raise scads of money thanks to her national fundraising base. I also think she has greater appeal to evangelicals than anyone in the race, with Mike Huckabee out. But will she pull it off? The panelists agreed it would be a tough row to hoe.
As for other possibilities, well, no candidates really got much credit from the speakers. Tim Pawlenty was seen as too afraid to attack Romney after wimping out at the debate. Jon Huntsman is undoubtedly a Beltway media creation. Everyone hates Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin has nothing resembling discipline. (Plus isn't she on vacation?) The biggest remaining name is probably Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been flirting with a run in recent weeks. Kombiz said he gets a Fred Thompson-esque vibe from Perry and thinks his heart might not really be in it. Matt wondered if the nation is really far enough away from Bush to be ready to elect another Texas governor, particularly one who hasn't governed his state well. But as Jake said, if Perry got in, he'd at least shake things up.
So that's the betting line, folks. The safe money is on Romney, but the real gamblers might want to lay out some coin on Bachmann. But these sorts of things always come with a huge caveat, as the panelists themselves will all tell you. Not only are the primaries half a year away, but we don't even know exactly when they'll happen, or what order they'll take place in. Like they say about baseball, it's why they play the games. A lot can happen between now and the GOP convention in August of 2012, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if everything we know now gets turned topsy-turvy by then.