Are Republicans seriously contesting the 2012 election?

The stage is set for the Republican party to shake the ghost of George W. Bush and reassume the presidency in 2012. With the right candidate and an unforgiving economic message, they could mount a serious campaign against President Barack Obama and end his hopes for a second term.

The problem is someone forgot to tell the Republicans this is a winnable election for them. Every viable Republican should have been storming this race, ready to face Obama in a much more vulnerable state than Senator John McCain found him in four years ago.

Instead, the darlings of conservative America sat this one out. Rising stars Marco Rubio and Chris Christie would have had a formidable presence in the primaries and the general election, but both decided against it. Tried and trusted Republicans with proven executive track records, Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour, flirted with a run and then faltered. John Thune, a respected Senator hailed as “the one candidate I fear the most” by an Obama campaign aide, squandered his best chance for the presidency. Mike Huckabee, arguably the heir apparent to the Republican throne, passed on an inevitable ascendancy to the head of the pack. And who could forget Sarah Palin? She could have captivated the Tea Party fragment of the Republican race a hundred times better than any Republican currently in the race.

Instead, we’re left with a cast of characters that would have comprised the fringe of any other Republican race. When Ron Paul, the Texas congressman whose foreign policy views make him look like a leftist Democrat amongst a field of military-hawk Republicans, takes almost the same chunk of the vote as the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, you realize this race is as much about the Republican party figuring out where its soul is as it is about finding an opponent for Obama.

If the first nominating contest in Iowa taught us anything, it’s that Republicans are not swallowing a Romney candidacy easily. The 122,000 Republicans who turned out in Iowa on Jan. 3 barely topped the 2008 turnout and Romney received only 66 more votes than he did the last time around when he came in second. 75 per cent of the Republican electorate essentially wants someone else but they just wish they didn’t have to vote for George Bush part two (Rick Perry) or Sarah Palin-lite (Michele Bachmann). Right after Iowa, conservative activists were gathering in Texas to try to decide on a consensus candidate to act as the anti-Romney.

All of this has me asking: are Republicans actually taking this seriously? If they want to send Obama shopping for book deals and speaking gigs, every word that comes out of their mouths should be about the economy. They can win this thing on the economy alone. Instead, they’re at each other’s throats trying to disavow Paul as the long-lost cousin of the Republican party and prove to the evangelicals that they are the most pro-life and anti-gay candidate in the race.
It’s not just left-wing political onlookers like myself who are asking this. Erick Erickson, founder of right-wing blog, commented on CNN that some Republicans have essentially written 2012 off and are looking instead to 2016.

And maybe they’re at least somewhat validated in doing so. With Obama’s approval rating on the rise and the American economy experiencing modest growth, the President’s re-election chances look much stronger than they did six months ago. Against Romney, Obama faces a formidable challenge but I think it’s a likely bet that it’s a less of a challenge than he would have faced from a more polished, prominent and serious conservative.

To date, the 2012 election has been a bit of a sleeper. If Romney crosses the Republican finish line, he’ll be doing so with tepid and forced applause from the conservative class and a bunch of sidelined Republicans (aka Tim Pawlently) wondering why they didn’t take him down when they had the chance.

If Obama gets re-elected this year, 2016 is going to be an election that puts the paltry 2012 affair to shame. Then, the Republicans that should have run this time around will come out of the woodwork and the Democrats will field a range of candidates keen on building on Obama’s legacy.

And, who knows? 2016 could be Hillary Clinton’s year and then the Republicans will really be wishing they hadn’t squandered their 2012 chances.

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