One year out, unsettled GOP field fears same forces as vulnerable president
ANALYSIS By RICK KLEIN (@rickklein)
WASHINGTON – Three years after the politics of hope swept the nation, anger is President Obama’s new hope.
The outlook is decidedly grim going into the final year before the 2012 election. That applies, of course, to an incumbent who’s watching sagging approval ratings and a soaring unemployment rate certain that he faces significant challenges in securing a second term.
But Republicans are also suffering from the public’s ire a year out. Even as they relish the prospect of taking on a very beatable incumbent, they are grappling with an unsettled field that features weak frontrunners, and facing some of the same anger that’s frustrated the president.
Despite economic indicators that leave him vulnerable, Obama runs strongly against all of his potential challengers in head-to-head polling.
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Obama in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney, down 47-46 percent. He’s running narrowly ahead of Herman Cain — 50-45 — and slightly more comfortably ahead of Rick Perry, up 51-43 in the poll conducted last week.
Two months before the Iowa caucuses, the top Republicans are showing a distinct lack of swagger.
Romney has been the slow and steady frontrunner, maintaining the support of roughly a quarter of likely Republican voters as his rivals have jumped around in national polls. This week, he dips a toe back into Iowa — the state that broke his heart and, ultimately, his campaign in 2008 — while still struggling to answer critiques about his conservative bona fides.
Cain is the latest to share front-running status with Romney. Polling suggests he’s been able to hang on to that place in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of sexual harassment allegations leveled at him in the 1990s.
But Cain’s halting and sometimes contradictory responses to the allegations have exposed structural weaknesses in his candidacy. His memory of the incidents changed as the week went on, as did the blame he spread in the direction of everyone from liberal activists to a rival campaign.
After answering extensive questions on the subject over the course of multiple media appearances early in the week — a week spent primarily in Washington and New York — Cain this weekend snapped at reporters who were seeking further clarification.
“Don’t even go there,” Cain said Saturday, cutting off a questioner. “If you all just listen for 30 seconds, I will explain this one time. We are getting back on message, end of story! Back on message!”
It’s not that easy in a modern presidential campaign — the type of campaign that bears little resemblance to the one Cain has been conducting.
He’s focused little on building a campaign infrastructure in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and continues to tie campaign events to efforts to sell his book in states that are traditionally irrelevant in GOP primaries.
More broadly, Republicans cannot expect to be unalloyed beneficiaries of the public anger that remains as strong as ever a year before the election.
The public remains deeply skeptical about the nation’s economic prospects. Only 38 percent approve of the president’s handling of the economy.
But Republicans fare no better: Only 40 percent say they trust Republicans in Congress to manage the economy, an identical figure to the portion that favors the president on that measurement.
Just a year after giving Republicans control of the House, nearly 6 in 10 voters say they’re inclined to look for another member of Congress. In the battle for the White House, none of the president’s main rivals are pulling away on trust on the economy, notwithstanding some impressive resumes.
Republicans want a referendum in 2012. But at least a portion of responsibility for the economy rests with the GOP after the tea party powered a Republican takeover in 2010.
President Obama is delaying formal campaigning for reelection as he sells his jobs package, most of which has no real chance of passing Congress. It’s a chance for the president to turn anger into an advantage.