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Scot Lehigh

The GOP’s Henry VIII impulse

Rudy Giuliani Rudy Giuliani (Associated Press)
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / June 8, 2011

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REPUBLICANS HAVE reached the Henry VIII stage of pre-primary politics, that state of nagging discontent when, to a restive eye, figures who beckon from afar seem much more desirable than those who are actually at hand.

Henry felt that way about his various wives. The GOP ambivalence is every bit as bad when even a bumptious blowhard like Donald Trump floated to the top of GOP favorites, before the rapier of ridicule deflated his trial balloon.

Some now turn lonely eyes toward New Jersey, where combative freshman Governor Chris Christie has attracted raves by jousting with public employee unions. Others hope that Rick Perry, the pistol-packing, coyote-slaying jogger and longtime Texas governor, will run for president of a country that he once seemed to suggest his state might secede from. For reasons that remain unclear, a certain R.W.L. Giuliani of New York is said to think the times may call for the man formerly known as America’s mayor to give it another go.

It is, after all, an article of conservative faith that this president has been a colossal failure. Granted, one favorite trope — that Obama has made the United States into an international laughing stock — had to be taken temporarily out of rhetorical rotation after the mission that dispatched Osama bin Laden.

And yet conservative combatants remain convinced that Obama’s effort to extend health care to all Americans, his failure to bring about a speedy recovery from the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, and his tepidness about tackling a structural deficit a decade in the making almost inevitably spell his defeat.

Still, from Haley Barbour to Mitch Daniels to Mike Huckabee to Mike Pence to John Thune, any number of hoped-for hopefuls have chosen not to run. That doesn’t mean Obama won’t face a tough campaign; an incumbent presiding over a struggling economy seldom earns easy reelection. But it does mean this: Those who would actually have to put their prestige on the line don’t necessarily share the notion that Obama is easily beaten.

And so the Republican Party faces a dilemma. The figures who would be the most appealing general election candidates don’t excite the party’s base, while those who do are difficult to see as potential presidents.

Consider Sarah Palin. When frontrunner-by-default Mitt Romney announced his candidacy in New Hampshire last Thursday, some pundits thought she had rained on Romney’s parade by taking her wandering-through-history tour to the Granite States that same day.

Meanwhile, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that Palin would instantly be competitive with Romney if she entered the race.

The view here is that Palin is unlikely to run. But even if she does, having her in would actually be good for Romney. Although Palin has her fans among social conservatives, most people realize she’s unqualified by experience, knowledge, or temperament to be president.

In the short term, a Palin candidacy would no doubt attract enormous attention — and frame the Republican race as Romney versus Palin. But over time, it would drive realistic Republicans into Romney’s arms.

“She remains kind of a controversial figure,’’ former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci says, diplomatically, “and when you are taking on an incumbent president, you don’t really want to nominate a controversial figure.’’

Cellucci, who’ll be with Giuliani if he jumps in, puts his guy, plus Romney and Tim Pawlenty, in the category of serious, solid candidates. After Giuliani’s underwhelming 2008 outing, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who recently resigned as Obama’s ambassador to China to explore a candidacy, seems more likely to round out the serious trio. That said, when I mentioned Huntsman to former Granite State governor and state party chairman John Sununu last week, he scoffed. “There’s no Republican who is going to be a Huntsman person; he’s an Obama-ite,’’ said Sununu, who says he’s deciding between Romney and Pawlenty.

But though different observers slice the field somewhat differently, the reality is that the party’s Henry VIII impulse is as predictable as it is unproductive. The GOP has several plausible candidates — and they are figures who don’t need to be courted or cajoled from afar.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.