Who Will Rise To The Top Of The GOP Ticket?

The 2012 presidential election is 19 months away, but there's already plenty of debate over the tug-of-war between the Republican establishment and Tea Party activists. Host Liane Hansen talks to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson about the prospects for the GOP.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

The 2012 presidential election is 19 months away, but the battle for the GOP nomination is already gearing up. The first formal Republican debate is scheduled for Thursday in South Carolina, although it's unclear who will show up. But there's already plenty of debate over the tug-of-war between the Republican establishment and Tea Party activists.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: The big news of the week was about who's not running, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. He's not going to seek the nomination for president. Why did that come as such a big surprise?

LIASSON: It came as a big surprise cause Haley Barbour was doing all things you would do to run for president. He'd hired a campaign manager and he was making visits to the early states. So that came as quite a surprise. His stated reason was that he didn't the fire in the belly necessary to run. But many Republicans think it could've been that he decided that his past as a lobbyist for oil companies and tobacco companies and foreign governments was an obstacle. And also the fact that he'd made a series of racially insensitive comments, and being the governor of Mississippi auditioning for the job of running against the first African-American president, he might've decided those obstacles were too big to overcome.

HANSEN: What does Barbour's departure then mean for the rest of the Republican field?

LIASSON: Well, what it means for the rest of the race is that Haley Barbour's Rolodex, full of big funders, is now up for grabs. His endorsement is up for grabs and it will be sought after. He's an incredible strategist. People will also want his advice.

I think the person that it affects the most right now is a Mitch Daniels; the governor Indiana who's a good friend of Barbour's and said he wouldn't run if Barbour did. Daniels has said that he would wait till the end of the Indiana legislative session to decide. That session just ended. He also just signed anti-abortion bill that will please the social conservatives in the Republican Party; thats a group that he had angered when he called for a truce on social issues.

So now all eyes are on Mitch Daniels who should be deciding whether or not he's got to get in in the next week or two.

HANSEN: There was also controversy this week over Donald Trump's statements. How have the Republicans reacted to him and what he's been saying?

LIASSON: Well, up until now the Republicans have been happy that he was stirring the pot on the so-called birther issue, raising the false questions about the Barack Obama's not being born in the United States. Made them look sensible and he was able to speak to the very high percentage of Republican primary voters who believe that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.

But the president relieves his long form birth certificate, which is what the so-called birthers had been asking him to do. That kind of took some of the air out of Donald Trump's sails. And many of the White House believe that it now denies the other Republican candidates the privilege of looking more mature, while Donald Trump stirred up these false rumors.

HANSEN: Now, that Republican field is starting to take shape with names like Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann and Santorum in the running. But the Republicans dont seem to have unified behind any of them. Is there some game-changer maybe that they're waiting for?

LIASSON: Well, I don't know if there is a game changer. I think it's very early. The polls show that most Republicans aren't happy with the choices before them. But one of the potential candidates that has been raising a lot of questions is Mike Huckabee. Now that Haley Barbour is out, there's no major candidate from the South running, except for Newt Gingrich. And Mike Huckabee came in second last time. People forget this, but he actually got the second highest number of delegates after John McCain.

He's polling at the top of the polls with Republican primary voters in key states and nationally. He has a real constituency, evangelicals and social conservatives. And a lot of people are mystified as to why he wouldn't try again. But he hasn't done anything to lay the groundwork. A lot of his former operatives are now being signed up by others socially conservative Tea Party-oriented candidates, like Michele Bachmann.

So there have been a lot of questions raised about why Mike Huckabee isn't getting in. He says he'll decide during the summer, maybe at the end of the summer. And some Republicans think that might be too late.

HANSEN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Liane.

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