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The American Debate: GOP lacks the luster to overcome Obama

If you trust in the predictions of Dick Cheney - and hey, who doesn't? - then clearly you believe that a Republican restoration is imminent.

If Republicans hope to wrestle this real estate from Obama, they’ll need to field a candidate who has a chance. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
If Republicans hope to wrestle this real estate from Obama, they’ll need to field a candidate who has a chance. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)Read more

If you trust in the predictions of Dick Cheney - and hey, who doesn't? - then clearly you believe that a Republican restoration is imminent.

The crowd went wild at a recent conservative confab when Cheney confidently decreed that "Barack Obama is a one-term president," but I'd suggest that such giddiness is woefully premature, and that forecasts of an Obama defeat may well prove to be as credible as the seer's old saw about how our troops in Iraq would be welcomed as liberators.

The current polls report that Obama is vulnerable when matched against a generic Republican candidate. In reality, however, he'll be matched against an actual candidate. And all actual candidates are burdened with actual baggage - not to mention the inevitable wounds and scars that any Republican will suffer during a primary season that promises to be downright Darwinian.

Even if one of these Republicans manages to unite all the various overlapping factions - the tea-partiers, the religious conservatives, the deficit hawks, the libertarians, the pro-business country clubbers, the Wall Street types, the neoconservatives - will he or she be sufficiently financed and talented to knock off a charismatic incumbent who's likely to be sitting on $1 billion in campaign funds?

And speaking of talent, have you actually looked at the current crop of Republican prospects? Suffice it so say that one of the front-runners is a guy who once embarked on a family road trip by strapping the family dog to the roof of the car.

OK, dog lovers would probably give Mitt Romney a pass on that one. But his baggage is heavy regardless. He may have deep pockets and great hair, but his Mormon faith is still anathema to many Christian conservatives, and that faction is dominant in the crucial early primaries. Indeed, he is widely distrusted, within his own party, as a policy flip-flopper whose Olympian acrobats conjure memories of Olga Korbut.

In the '08 primaries, he veered rightward on abortion and gay marriage, distancing himself from his moderate stint as a Massachusetts governor - but his current backflip is far more breathtaking. In '06, he signed a statewide health-care reform law, complete with a requirement that all Bay State citizens buy coverage. You see the problem. He can't remake himself as a pitchfork populist standing tall with GOP conservatives against the alleged tyranny of ObamaCare - not unless he somehow convinces them that RomneyCare is, in his words, "entirely different."

Which it isn't. Which is why Obama delights in citing the similarities. Which is why Fox News recently sliced Romney to ribbons on this issue - host Chris Wallace told Romney that "we got a lot of e-mail from conservatives this week who said that you are the wrong man" to carry the party banner on health care - and I'll simply note that any Republican scolded in this fashion by Fox News might as well be riding on the roof with the family dog.

The latest CNN poll of Republican voters puts Romney in second place for the nomination. First place goes to Mike Huckabee. It speaks volumes about the quality of the GOP field that the front-runner du jour is an evangelical pastor who compares gay civil unions to drug use, incest, and polygamy. And assuming he even runs, I wonder whether voters will warm to his "soft on crime" credentials, given the fact that, as Arkansas governor, he freed a rapist who later suffocated a mother of three; and that he helped free a serial criminal who, this past November, killed four cops in Washington state as they ate breakfast.

Huckabee may well opt to stick with his broadcast gigs, and wisely so. Sarah Palin may do the same, rather than expose herself to the daily indignities of demonstrating how little she knows. Her own fans don't even think she's electable; although she wowed the crowd at last weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference, she drew only 18 percent of the straw-poll voters. The conservative base apparently fears that she'd be chewed up by "the liberal media," but I sense that her fatal flaw is her sarcasm. Swing voters in a general election typically gravitate to sunny optimism - what Palin dismisses as "hopey, changey."

In that straw poll, Palin wound up in a tie with Newt Gingrich. The ex-House speaker is teasing us about a presidential bid, just as he did prior to the '08 festivities. I'm underwhelmed.

Gingrich peaked as a power figure way back in 1995, around the time he was threatening to shut down the government. He made good on his threat, but lost the PR battle when President Clinton tagged him as an obstructionist. He showed up at last weekend's conference with a bright idea: Republicans should win back the Congress - and shut down the government. The crowd roared, but the truth is, a lot of conservatives view Gingrich merely as a retread who talks big.

At least he has stump charisma - unlike Tim Pawlenty, who would appear to be a major player, at least on paper. Pawlenty, the lame-duck Minnesota governor, has assembled a crack team of campaign veterans, but his big problem - aside from the fact that he lacks a signature achievement as governor - is that he's more soporific than Ambien. A couple of months back, he did a mad-as-heck bit for the tea-party faction, voicing his desire to "take a nine iron and smash the window out of big government," but it was akin to watching Woody Allen lock and load.

All told, the public is hip to the GOP's candidate deficit. Obama's job-approval numbers are tepid these days - but he looks robust when matched against actual Republican challengers. A new CNN poll shows that, if the election were held today, Obama would crush all likely rivals, by as many as 13 percentage points. That's the spread with Palin on the ballot.

Republicans can console themselves with the thought that '12 is a long way off. But the time window for new candidates is rapidly closing. How about Jeb Bush? Toxic name. John Thune, South Dakota senator? Too new. Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi? That's an idea. He once ran the national party, he knows Washington . . . but wait, he's the guy who says that Virginia's failure to mention slavery, in its celebration of Confederate History Month, "doesn't amount to diddly." That would certainly go down well with the burgeoning minority electorate that already boycotts the GOP in presidential contests.

Obama may be beatable, on paper. But you can't beat something with nothing.