Many Republicans are currently lamenting the fact that for the second election in a row, they are entering the cycle with a distressingly lackluster field of candidates to take on Barack Obama. Of course, that may not be the real problem, or not the biggest problem, anyway. George W. Bush was not a terribly impressive candidate in 2000. The real difference between 2000 and 2012 (and between 2000 and 2008) is that there is no single choice that appears inevitable.
Robert Novak always used to remind me that Republicans have a historical tendency to gravitate toward "inevitable" establishment candidates for president early on, whose nomination is almost a fait accompli. That's not to say that the normal choice is more conservative or less so -- just that the nominee usually locks it up early on and wins establishment support.
There was no such candidate in 2008, nor is there in 2012 -- at least not yet. As a result, Republicans feel a bit like the guy who walks into a bar at the end of a long day and asks for a cheeseburger, only to be bombarded with options -- "Cheddar, pepper jack, bleu, swiss, or provolone?" He gives the waitress a tired look and finds himself at a loss for words. Perhaps he has a preference, but deep down he just wishes someone would have made the choice for him so he could get his damned burger without thinking too hard about it.
(Democrats, in contrast, frequently upend their "inevitable" candidates and nominate longshots -- President Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are all excellent examples.)
In this context, I note with interest that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty comes in second in National Journal's poll of GOP insiders. This despite the fact that he is barely a blip on the national radar, with practically zero name recognition at this point. His strength among the insiders strikes me as reasonable, and here's why:
1) He's not a Southerner. (Not that I have anything against Southerners, but this is an advantage.)
2) He comes off as articulate, intelligent, and relatively knowledgable -- which is not necessarily a prerequisite for Republican candidates, nor even for presidents. Pawlenty is no Newt Gingrich, but he's not Sharron Angle either. He has clearly been around a few budgets, educational reform efforts, etc., and he knows what's under the hood.
3) He's not the most conservative candidate, but he's probably conservative enough for most Republicans to be relatively happy with him in the end. In relationship terms, you could say that even if he isn't Mr. Right, he could easily be Mr. Right Now.
4) He's not Mitt Romney.
Nothing against Romney, either (except perhaps RomneyCare), but that last one may prove to be the most important. Romney ran in 2008, and Republican primary voters already have fixed ideas about him. This limits his upside potential in comparison to less-known figures like Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour, Pawlenty, and other newcomers to the presidential ballot (and even perhaps a long-absent, resurgent figure like Newt Gingrich).
If Romney doesn't lock it up early, then the field will likely narrow to a two-man race -- which is what ultimately happened in 2008, certainly by the time of the Florida primary. At that point, the candidate who is not Mitt Romney will likely inherit a large majority of underperforming and drop-out candidates' support. This could make Haley Barbour the nominee. It could also throw the race to someone like Pawlenty, who lacks a strong or passionate following but could easily be the second or third choice of most Republican primary voters by the time Iowa rolls around.
Here's how the insiders put it:
“Increasingly the choice by process-of-elimination,” noted one Republican Insider. “His strategy is to be the least offensive of the ugly girls still standing at the bar at 2 a.m.,” joked another GOP Insider.
Speaking of Pawlenty, he was on Morning Joe today, talking about "fiat money." I wonder whether he's making a play for the Ron Paul crowd?