A few weeks ago, the race for the Republican presidential nomination was a jumble of candidates, none of whom seemed to be winning the party's hearts or minds: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich. For a moment, some GOP voters even pinned their hopes on pizza magnate Herman Cain, mostly because he didn't sound — or look — like the others.
But now, if you talk with Republican political professionals, the GOP race has suddenly settled into a contest among only two or three potential nominees.
There's Romney, still the front-runner, stolidly running a cautious and conventional campaign.
There's Michele Bachmann, the "tea party" insurgent, who jumped into the first tier with a crisp performance at the June 13 debate in New Hampshire.
And waiting in the wings, there's Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who is considering a run for the White House.
All the other possibilities have been eclipsed, the GOP pros say. Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota who was once seen as a strong candidate, has lost ground by appearing uncertain about his own economic policies and how tough he wanted to be in his critique of Romney. Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, is trying to win the nomination as a moderate and is openly courting non-Republican independents, a strategy the pros think is doomed. Gingrich couldn't even get his campaign staff to follow him. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, has convinced political strategists (and many voters) that she's not serious about running.
Two polls this week tell most of the story. In Iowa, where the campaign's first real test will come in a party caucus scheduled for February, the Des Moines Register poll found Romney and Bachmann in a virtual tie — at 23% and 22%, respectively — even before Bachmann formally launched her campaign in the state. In New Hampshire, where the nation's first primary is held, Romney holds an apparently stable lead with the support of 36% of Republicans, but a Suffolk University/7News Poll found Bachmann suddenly surging into second place with 11%; no other candidate reached double digits. (Perry's name wasn't included in either poll.)
The first phase of the Republican race has always been about one question: Who would emerge as the leading conservative alternative to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who can't quite shake his reputation as a big-government moderate, a potentially fatal label in this year's Republican Party.
Right now, that alternative is Bachmann, the fiery, photogenic and sometimes outrageous Minnesota representative who founded Congress' Tea Party Caucus last year. Bachmann recognized earlier than most elected politicians that the tea party was a powerful wave of grass-roots fervor; she endorsed it, encouraged it and cultivated it long before her party's official leadership got there.
Now she's reaping the benefit. Plenty of potential Republican candidates this year sought to cast themselves as logical choices for tea party adherents, but Bachmann had the advantage of authenticity. She was tea party before tea party was cool.
But is the tea party still cool enough among Republicans to help its early champion, Bachmann, win the nomination? Several polls suggest that the tea party, with its uncompromising stance on spending cuts and minimal government, is losing some ground. A Pew Research poll in April found that 42% of Republicans said they supported the tea party's ideas, down from a high of 51% in November 2010.
Bachmann's fame, and her biggest potential flaw, stem from her take-no-prisoners rhetoric. During the 2008 presidential campaign, she accused then-candidate Barack Obama of holding "anti-American views" and said Democratic leaders of Congress should be investigated. She said global warming was "voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." And she once told the Minnesota Senate that abolishing the minimum wage could "wipe out unemployment completely, because we would be able to offer jobs at whatever level."
But don't underestimate her. She's hardcore, but she's no flake. She's smart, tough and hardworking. And, unlike Palin, she learns from her mistakes.
She's modulated her rhetoric — slightly, on a few issues. She now says she wishes she hadn't called Obama "anti-American." She says abolishing the minimum wage is just something that ought to be considered.
Can she win in Iowa? Sure; it's a conservative-friendly state, and Bachmann was born there, as she noted when she formally opened her campaign this week.
Can she win the Republican nomination? Probably not; Republican campaign history is full of charismatic social conservatives who won Iowa but never got any closer. (Last time, it was Mike Huckabee.)
But at this point, she has managed to turn the primary campaign into a straightforward, head-to-head contest between two versions of modern Republicanism: her insurgent tea party conservatism and the more traditional, big-business conservatism of Romney.
If Perry gets in, that would make it a three-way race, with Perry presumably casting himself as a conservative for all seasons — a Texas governor who can appeal to both the Romney and Bachmann wings of the party. But that's a subject for another column.