Republicans Not Quite Ready For The 2012 Rumble

The 2012 campaign season is shaping up, and Obama is fresh off six fundraisers over a two-day visit to the West Coast. Republicans, on the other hand, are having trouble finding a front-runner of their own. Host Scott Simon and NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving take a look at the latest fundraising numbers and the Republicans who are jockeying to run against President Obama come November of next year.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

As we've heard, President Obama held six - six fundraisers over the course of his two-day visit to the West Coast, all part of his newly launched reelection bid. The 2012 campaign season seems to be shaping up.

Ron Elving is here to take a look at the latest fundraising numbers and consider some of the Republican names who are jockeying to run against President Obama. Of course, Ron is NPR's senior Washington editor and joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And should we consider the president's town hall meetings as what amounts to early campaign stumps.

ELVING: Hard to know what else to call them. He went to Virginia, Nevada, California in this past week - all important states to his reelection campaign effort. He raised a great deal of money for himself and for the Democratic National Committee. And the atmosphere in the town halls, but particularly in the fundraisers in California, very much a campaign pep rally kind of atmosphere.

SIMON: Let me ask you too about some of the earliest fundraising numbers, because House Democrats and House Republicans each have official campaign committees, and then in the last quarter the Democrats, I guess, substantially outraised Republicans. But break down those numbers for us.

ELVING: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DCCC, took in $19.6 million in the first three months of the year, and they cut their debt in half. That gave them something of an advantage over the Republican majority committee, which is the National Republican Congressional Committee. They raised $18 million - no mean sum - and they still have a substantial of their debt still to retire.

But, you know, there are many different ways of looking at this. If you look at the individual Republican candidates, particularly the House freshmen just elected in November, are outraising their Democratic colleagues. Now, there weren't that many Democrats newly elected back last November. The Republicans outnumbered them nine to one in that freshman class.

SIMON: I restrain myself from the horse race question, but no reason to do it any longer. Let me ask you about the line-up of potential Republican candidates, because I guess it was the Gallup organization pointed out that every campaign going back to 1952 - which I guess would have been Ike - there has always been a clear Republican frontrunner. Not so this time.

ELVING: Not so this time, and it is a surprise. The Republicans, historically, have been a hierarchical party, very well-structured party. But I can think of three quick reasons that this particular season looks different.

Number one is the Tea Party. The Tea Party has shaken this hierarchical well-structured Republican Party to its core. Second thing is that George W. Bush shook up the succession line for the Republicans. He did not have a vice president who was in position to succeed him. Dick Cheney, for reasons of age and health, was not in a position to do that. Moreover, he left office under such a cloud of unpopularity that he probably scotched the chances for his brother, Jeb.

The third thing is that the two also-rans from 2008 - the runners-up, if you will, who did not beat John McCain - Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, emerge now for 2012 not that popular in the Republican Party. They're one and two or two and three in every poll - they're up there - but with low percentages and they're just not turning the party regulars on the way you would expect a frontrunner to do.

SIMON: And governors, like Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana?

ELVING: People don't know who they are. That is the biggest problem for those individuals. And the Pew Research Center did a poll just in the last few days in which they asked people whom they were hearing the most about lately on the Republican side, and most telling number: about half of the people who responded said they couldn't remember any Republican name they've been hearing much about lately. And then they when they were asked...

SIMON: Oh, but I can think of one.

ELVING: Well, and they were, when those who could think of a name came up with that name, the most frequently mentioned name was Donald Trump by a margin of four to one over Mitt Romney. Nobody else got out single digits percentage-wise.

SIMON: Analyze Mr. Trump's appeal for us as you see it right now.

ELVING: I don't question that he takes himself seriously, but his presidential candidacy I think was a flirtation when he began it, and it has gotten such a positive response that he may be suddenly thinking that there is another dimension to the Donald, even unglimpsed by himself.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

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