There are now three frontrunners in the Republican presidential primary, based on polls, money, and/or organization: Gov. Mitt Romney, businessman Herman Cain, and Gov. Rick Perry.
Each has unique strengths, but each also has weaknesses that has prevented him from taking or maintaining a clear lead.
Three questions illustrate the differences among them:
“Can he lead?”
“Can he govern?”
“Can he relate?”
These are the questions that Republican voters must ask–and that the candidates must answer.
“Can he relate?” Yes. As a Republican from one of the most Democratic states in the Union, Romney understands the broad spectrum of American political opinion. He also has political roots in the Midwest, the West, and the East. As a member of a faith community that still suffers prejudice, he also has a sense of the concerns of minorities. Despite his Harvard and Wall Street background, independents seem warm to his fatherly manner.
“Can he govern?” Yes. Romneyʼs term as Massachusetts governor is remembered as a successful one, although he did not run for re-election. His policies on health care and the environment, though problematic for conservatives, broadly reflected the priorities of voters in his state. In addition, the patient, focused way in which Romney has run his campaign is a sign that he would be a reliable commander-in-chief in times of crisis.
“Can he lead?” We donʼt know. Romneyʼs voice has been muted in many of the most important policy debates that have shaken the country during the Obama presidency. He was absent from the front lines in the ObamaCare battle, for example, and failed to weigh in on the debt ceiling debate until it was almost over. He has not (yet) been the advocate for limited government that the Republican Party, and the country, needs.
“Can he lead?” Yes. Cainʼs 9-9-9 plan has seized the spotlight, and inspired the country to consider the way our tax system affects economic growth and job creation. He has also been the most effective critic of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, insisting that the proper address for protest is the White House. He keeps his composure when under attack, and even liberal voters seem attracted to Cainʼs sense of vision and purpose.
“Can he relate?” Yes. Cain has been through every kind of struggle, and succeeded. He grew up black and poor in the South; he began his working life at the bottom rung; he even faced severe liver cancer and survived. Heʼs Main Street, not Wall Street or K Street. His controversial comments about Muslims aside, Cain has the potential to appeal to minority voters, which is why the left is trying to use his race against him.
“Can he govern?” We donʼt know. Foreign policy has been a persistent weakness for Cain. He has also faltered on immigration and national security. He does have solid executive experience, but the business world is very different from the political world. The fact that Cainʼs presidential campaign is still struggling to raise money and build organization in key primary states has raised doubts that he must address urgently.
“Can he govern?” Yes. Perryʼs record of job creation in Texas speaks for itself. He has a solid grasp of difficult policy issues, including energy, climate change, and foreign policy. Though Perry has struggled to explain his views on immigration, they are clearly shaped by what he has learned as a border state governor. He has more governing experience than any other candidate, and he is the only front runner who has served in the military.
“Can he lead?” Yes. In the early days of the Obama presidency, when Republicans had trouble finding their way, Perryʼs strong advocacy for the Tenth Amendment and the powers of the states versus the federal government helped ignite the Tea Party movement. Perry also has solid positions on social issues, from abortion to gun rights. Despite poor debate performances, Perry has recovered his fighting spirit–and has never lost a race.
“Can he relate?” We donʼt know. Perry sometimes comes across as provincial or parochial. The squabbles over his hunting lodge or the anti-Mormon views of one of his supporters are unfair and largely irrelevant but reflect real uncertainty about whether Perry can transcend Texas. He even managed to alienate conservatives when he accused critics of his immigration policies of being heartless. His approach must change.
“Can they help?” If theyʼre not adding new ideas, defending the Republican field as a whole from media bias, or taking on President Obama, what are they still doing in the race? Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul are tearing down the frontrunners without aiding themselves. Gary Johnson and John Huntsman are non-factors. Only Newt Gingrich seems to be helping. The others should adapt or leave.