Last week, two more former or sitting governors — Sarah Palin and Chris Christie — announced that they would not seek the Republican nomination for president. Adding their names to those of Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, George Pataki and Tim Pawlenty means that nine governors have seriously considered running. Those six have either declined to do so or dropped out, leaving three — Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman Jr.— in the race. There is only one former senator, Rick Santorum.
This is unusual. Even though four of our last six presidents have been governors — Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush — most previous primary contests have seen more senators than governors active in the early stages. The fact that senators routinely lose does not seem to have discouraged them. (Sen. Trent Lott once said, "The only way we will ever get a senator as president will be if two of them run against each other," which is what happened in 2008.)
I think the reason that governors do better than senators in the final choice is that voters instinctively prefer candidates who have some managerial experience when choosing a person to fill the most challenging management position in the world. That seems to be holding in the current race. The polls show that the three top candidates now are Romney, Perry and Herman Cain, the retired business executive. All claim significant executive experience. Sen. Santorum is back in the pack with the three House members — Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul — and Jon Huntsman, who is seen more as an ambassador than a governor.
This bodes well for Romney, who has re-emerged as the front-runner. His performance in running the Olympics pushed him into the national consciousness and even those who disagree with many of his positions acknowledge that he has superb management skills. Polls show him ahead in key primary states which he lost last time — New Hampshire and Florida — and his appeal in the general election is considered stronger than any of his competitors'. "We must replace President Obama's inexperience with Romney's competence," is how one political observer recently put it to me.
Voters appear to agree. Romney is the only Republican consistently running ahead of Obama in head-to-head comparisons. However, that does not mean that the nomination is now firmly his. Perry could regain his footing; being governor of the nation's second-largest state for 12 years is still a good credential. Cain has likeability as a person, a solid background as an executive and complete distance from anything political, which is a good thing for many. Things are still fluid.
Still, the momentum is clearly in Romney's direction. In addition to his favorable poll numbers, he has the experience, organization and money to compete beyond the early states where he is favored. Big name endorsers and donors who have been waiting on the sidelines to see who will be the winner are now showing up in Romney's camp. The fact that the Obama campaign is bashing Romney at every opportunity shows that they also think he will be the nominee.
To stop him, the other seven candidates in the race must coalesce around one of their number in a united effort. I don't see them doing that because the ideological gaps between them are fairly large, and some of them may have visions of joining Romney as his vice presidential choice. (My own guess is that one of the governors on the list of dropouts is more likely.)
Anything can still happen, but, at the moment, for Romney, the race is his to lose.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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