Excited onlookers keep stopping Newt Gingrich to pose for photos or sign autographs after his long day bashing President Obama on everything from energy to Egypt. But when asked about his real agenda at the popular Conservative Political Action Conference—floating an actual candidacy—the ex–House speaker turns cautious. “You have to decide whether it’s something you feel compelled to do,” he says, “and if it’s absolutely your duty to do it.”
As all manner of pols, poseurs, and publicity seekers flirt with the notion of seeking the Republican nomination, shadowboxing is being covered as if it were a heavyweight championship. Web-driven scrutiny has elevated a match that is clearly not ready for the main arena.
Big-name strategists are sitting on the sidelines, worried about backing a palooka. What’s left is a muddy game of positioning. “They’re trying to impress the process press, especially Politico, to get some clips they can show donors,” says GOP strategist Mike Murphy. “It’s a big house of mirrors.” After a slew of aspirants, real and delusional, strutted their stuff at CPAC, it was hard to miss the elephant that wasn’t in the room: no one, for now, poses a clear threat to Obama.
Among those auditioning: acid-tongued congresswoman Michele Bachmann, bombastic billionaire Donald Trump, and pizza mogul Herman Cain. Jon Huntsman? Ron Paul? Rand Paul? Sure, take a number.
The GOP has always handed the nomination to the next old guy in line (John McCain, Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan); or the vice president (Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush); or a close relative (George W.). But after the Tea Party’s rise, says historian Richard Norton Smith, “A party that doesn’t speak with one voice is unlikely to be able to anoint a consensus candidate. And part of it is you’ve got a bunch of retreads.”
Former GOP chairman Ed Gillespie disagrees, saying: “Obama’s not scaring anybody out of running.” Adds Democratic imagemaker Mandy Grunwald: “You do look at them and think, ‘That’s all they got?’ But you truly don’t know who’s a great candidate until you’re in the arena.”
Everyone is tiptoeing around. Mitt Romney is turning down most interviews. Fox News has its own slate of wannabes—Sarah Palin, Gingrich, Mike Huckabee—who are narrowcasting to primary voters without the hassles of campaigning.
Meanwhile, political operatives are quietly undermining potential rivals. Here’s what they’re whispering:
• Mitt Romney Should be christened the frontrunner, with his business background, except reporters don’t much like him: too robotic, too much flip-flopping in 2008, and can’t explain away a Massachusetts health plan that served as a model for Obamacare.
• Mitch Daniels An accomplished governor of Indiana who drew media raves for soberly warning that America is drowning in red ink, he’s “the intellectuals’ choice, which is the kiss of death,” says a veteran of several White House campaigns.
• Haley Barbour The Mississippi chief executive is a canny pol but tried to whitewash his state’s segregationist past and is an overweight ex-lobbyist to boot.
• Newt Gingrich The GOP’s best idea man and futurist carries more baggage than a 747 after getting run out of the House leadership. And religious voters won’t flock to a guy who’s had three wives.
• Tim Pawlenty Competent, conservative, and colorless, but could break through if others falter.
• Rick Santorum The former senator from Pennsylvania, a strong voice on social issues, got trounced four years ago.
• Mike Huckabee The onetime preacher is the only Republican to tie Obama in a NEWSWEEK poll but tells people he likes his lucrative life as a Fox commentator; may not run.
• Sarah Palin Too polarizing and wedded to her grudge-match persona. Grumbles a top Republican: “She’s a media creation.” Besides, they scoff, isn’t she angling for another reality show?