Pop quiz: Who is Fred Karger?
I doubt you'd know. Sounds like a guy who'd sell you Sheetrock or life insurance.
And yet, the folks who run the South Carolina Republican Party are very interested in Fred Karger - so interested, in fact, that they want him on stage next Thursday as a presidential candidate in the first Republican debate of the 2012 campaign, slated for airing on Fox News. They've invited him to Greenville ("we hope you'll be part of this truly historic event") even though his poll standing is so abysmally low that when pollsters query voters about the Republican aspirants, they don't even float his name.
And why should they? The guy is openly gay, which means that his prospects for winning the Republican nomination are roughly on a par with mine. But Fred Karger is crucial to our discussion today, if only as a metaphor. The GOP's wooing of Karger is a sign of desperation, vivid proof that it's still struggling to assemble a substantive roster of candidates in the most ill-defined Republican race since dark horse Wendell Willkie filled the party vacuum in 1940.
Right now, here's the Republican debate lineup: Rick Santorum (whose national ranking is slightly higher than Karger's), Ron Paul (who assails Social Security as unconstitutional, a surefire electoral winner), Tim Pawlenty (who has replaced Ambien as a sleep aid), and somebody named Buddy Roemer (who served in Congress back in Madonna's heyday).
Good grief. If I want to watch minor-league ball, I'd drive to Wilmington.
Four years ago, at this point in the calendar, Republicans were staging their early '08 debates with 10 people - including all their heavy hitters. But this time, Mitt Romney is skipping the Fox event, Newt Gingrich isn't ready to take the '12 plunge, Jon Huntsman doesn't know yet, Michele Bachmann won't say, Mike Huckabee isn't sure, Mitch Daniels is wavering, Haley Barbour just said no, John Thune and Chris Christie and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have all punted, Donald Trump won't decide for a while whether to double-down on his freak show . . . this is not how the Republicans typically do their business.
Their nomination process is orderly; they generally gravitate to a front-runner, someone who tried and failed before (Ronald Reagan in 1980, George Bush senior in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008), or someone with stellar insider connections (George W. Bush in 2000). Not this time. Romney is usually on top, drawing roughly 20 percent of the likely Republican primary voters - the worst posting for a Republican front-runner since Gallup began tracking the party contest in 1952. And when Republican voters were asked in mid-April, by the New York Times-CBS News pollsters, to cite the candidate they were most enthusiastic about, 57 percent couldn't name anybody.
The void is so huge that even Rudy "9/11" Giuliani said Tuesday that he's keeping "the door open" for a presidential bid. Yeah, he's exactly what the restive Republicans are looking for. The first time he ran, in 2008, he spent $60 million and won exactly one delegate, which strikes me as the polar opposite of fiscal conservatism.
So why the void? For starters, it's no easy task to confront an incumbent who figures to raise and spend $1 billion. Second, many of the likely '12 aspirants are having trouble raising sufficient early money, because donors are holding back. And they're reluctant for the same reason that the Republican base is ill-disposed: The '12 hopefuls have more baggage than an airport carousel at Christmas.
Romney is a human weathervane who's still trying to deny his moderate gubernatorial record in order to pander rightward. Pawlenty is going the same route, having renounced his belief in man-made global warming. Huckabee ticks off the party's antitax zealots because as a governor he raised taxes. Huntsman, who will soon step down as U.S. ambassador to China, is tainted because he (gasp) worked for Barack Obama. Gingrich and Bachmann are fun on the stump, but the only way either of them will get to the White House is with a visitor's pass.
And Trump? He seems like a passing spring squall. Conservatives who love his birther bilge will sour on him once they learn about his liberal past, notably this line from one of his books: "We must have universal health care."