The Washington Times-Herald

December 14, 2011

GOP voters are sampling presidential choices

Mitchel Olszak
CNHI

New Castle — If you don’t like who’s leading the GOP presidential polls, just wait a week. It’s likely to change.

That’s certainly how it seems to the casual observer, watching Republican presidential hopefuls rise and fall. You get the sense that GOP voters are a fickle lot, not content with anything put in front of them.

But that’s not an accurate assessment, because polls aren’t votes. Instead, they are snapshots of opinions, and what they really reveal is a fluid contest where citizens are kicking the tires of candidates and taking them for test drives.

In many instances, they don’t like the results.

What’s really interesting in this race is how many supposedly formidable candidates have proven to be quite vulnerable.

Perhaps most prominent is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who’s been running for president for more than four years.

To hear some analysts tell it, Romney is the anointed choice, selected by the Republican establishment as the candidate most able to defeat Barack Obama.

However, voters appear to be hesitant to rally around Romney. One key reason is that his stance on key GOP issues has changed over the years, resulting in Romney being labeled a flip-flopper.

That’s a concern for voters seeking ideological purity, but also for more pragmatic Republicans, who worry Romney may be exposed in a general election as a candidate who stands for nothing.

Recently, the Republican leading in the polls was businessman Herman Cain, an unorthodox candidate in several ways. But Cain suspended his campaign after multiple allegations he had engaged in sexual harassment and had participated in a years-long affair with a woman.

Cain denies the charges, but he had to know they were out there. It’s a lesson for anyone seeking public office in the Internet era: There are no secrets. Simply being tone deaf to the obvious made Cain a dubious presidential pick.

Another Republican once touted as a formidable foe for Romney was Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Here was a guy who could fire up the Republican base with his Christian conservatism, reasonably healthy state economy and a long list of executions during his tenure.

But in debates, Perry has repeatedly stumbled over his own words, uncomfortably reminding many of another Texas governor who became president.

And then Perry made the mistake of discussing illegal aliens. Potential supporters were aghast that a border state governor actually had nuanced views on the issue. In a party that touts state and local control over many matters of government, we once again see that such ideals are defended only so long as the locals come to the desired conclusions.

Today, the GOP’s rising presidential star is former House speaker Newt Gingrich, with polls giving him double-digit leads over Romney in key states.

As a candidate, Gingrich is sharp, knowledgeable and articulate, qualities that serve him well in debates.

But at the same time, Gingrich carries heavy ethical and moral baggage, and his explanations for these failings have been dubious at best. Plus, Gingrich’s political history is one of extreme highs and lows. Where he’ll be in a month is anyone’s guess.

Still, Republican voters shouldn’t worry too much about the twists and turns in this campaign. Despite some of the talk, there is still plenty of time to assess the candidates.

And a drawn-out primary battle is by no means bad. Look at what it did for Obama four years ago against Hillary Clinton.

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Mitchel Olszak writes for The New Castle (Pa.) News.