My assumption has long been that Republicans won't be dumb enough to nominate a presidential candidate next year who is unqualified or politically toxic and that they won't be lucky enough to find one who is a charismatic game-changer. I've assumed that the race will largely hinge on whether voters want Barack Obama to be president for another four years. Many of them will make that judgment based on the state of the economy and their perception of Obama's handling of it. That is not to say that the Republican nominee is irrelevant and that no other issues are important, just that the election will be first and foremost a choice about the president and the economy.
This still seems to be the case, but Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's announcement that he will not seek the Republican presidential nomination removes one serious, intelligent, and adult contender from the field. To be sure, many analysts thought that Barbour is too stereotypically Southern and too much of a Washington insider to be a strong candidate. The fact that he was once an accomplished lobbyist was a deal-breaker for some handicappers.
But for all of Barbour's good-ol'-boy, back-slapping bonhomie, he understands the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of the Republican Party and the problems facing the country better than almost anyone else in the GOP. He also has the self-confidence to say what is on his mind without parsing the political impact of every syllable.
Last April in New Orleans, Barbour lectured the Southern Republican Leadership Conference about the importance of the party's being broad-based and inclusive, arguing that the same ideological tests shouldn't apply in every state. He was not currying favor with the conservatives in the room. He was telling them what they needed to hear-whether they wanted to listen or not. That's what party leaders are supposed to do: lead.
Barbour's decision heightens speculation that Indiana's Mitch Daniels -- Barbour's friend, fellow governor, and fellow former Reagan White House staffer -- might jump into the race. Although Daniels's personal style is quite different, he, like Barbour, is a smart, serious truth-teller, which is refreshing in this day and age. The betting has been that the Indiana governor would not take the plunge, but it's unclear whether Barbour's somewhat surprising departure changes Daniels's calculations.
Even if Barbour and Daniels aren't in, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are. Under the right circumstances -- a weak economy or a highly unpopular incumbent-they are both perfectly capable of winning the general election. Under the wrong circumstances -- a stronger economy and a more popular incumbent than today-they have no worse chance of beating Obama than anyone else.
What's changed from 2008 is that no longer does every Republican contender have to compete in all four of the first caucuses and primaries -- in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. John McCain's skipping Iowa but winning the nomination in 2008 proves this. Running hard in two of the four should be sufficient. To win the nomination, a candidate will need to come in first in at least one early state and maybe take second place in one or two of the others. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani showed that you can't skip all the early contests.
Things could change, of course, if Florida Republicans decide that hosting the Republican National Convention and being a top swing state in the general election isn't sufficient and try to jump the line in the nominating contests.
One good, but unanswerable, question is whether after the first four nominating contests the race will narrow to two contenders who both have real chances of effectively competing in a general election-say, Daniels, Pawlenty, or Romney -- or whether one of the more exotic, niche candidates will manage to get to the finals. My view is that once the nomination fight gets down to the final two or three contenders, Republican voters will winnow out the folks from the Star Wars bar scene; but it's possible that an interesting and entertaining, but unelectable, candidate could make it into the championship round.
Although it has become fashionable to denigrate the entire field of GOP contenders, the weakening of the economy in the past 60 days may well have enhanced the value of the Republican nomination. It was probably unrealistic to expect the economy to grow enough over the next 18 months to get the unemployment rate down to the 7.4 percent level that it was in November 1984, when President Reagan won his 49-state landslide, after it had peaked at 10.8 percent in November and December of 1982. But the jobless rate now seems much less likely to get even close to that level than it did two months ago. Sluggish economic numbers and prolonged high gasoline prices are not positive factors for a president seeking reelection.