GOP Class Of 2012 Candidates Takes Shape

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This past week was an eventful one for the Republican 2012 presidential hopeful field. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Ron Paul announced that they would run, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced he wouldn't, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tried to tackle his health care dilemma. NPR's Mara Liasson brings us up to date on the 2012 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Speaking on his Fox News program, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee ended speculation last night on whether he would enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (R-Arkansas, Former Governor): My answer is clear and firm: I will not seek the Republican nomination for president this year. I'm going to gladly continue doing what I do, and hopefully helping others in their campaigns for Congress, governorships and other positions.

HANSEN: This past week was an eventful one for the Republican field. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Ron Paul announced that they would run. Two other would-be candidates continue to drop hints about their ambitions, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney tries to tackle his health care dilemma.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here, thank goodness. Mara, good morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARA LIASSON: And good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: All right, here we are. Mike Huckabee is out. What does it means for the Republican field?

LIASSON: Well, it has a huge impact on the Republican field because he had a real social conservative constituency. He was running consistently at the top of the polls, nationally and in key states. So he would have been the top social conservative candidate if he had run. So now there's this huge vacuum.

People like Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann are going to try to fill that space with evangelical voters. But we don't know whether they can.

HANSEN: And, of course, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are both well-known names in the Republican Party. But is the party really looking, do you think, for a fresh face?

LIASSON: Polls show that Republican primary voters are very unhappy with their choices at this point. That's not unusual for this stage in a primary battle. And Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are both polling in the low single digits, so I don't think either of them are a big factor in terms of the nomination. But they are a big factor in terms of the primary debate.

Ron Paul, you could call him the Godfather of the Tea Party. He can raise tremendous amounts of money on the Internet with his so-called money bombs. So he brings energy and young voters to the party.

Newt Gingrich is an intellectual force in the party. He has the ability to set the terms of the debate, although there are questions about whether he has the discipline for this kind of campaign. And there're questions about whether his personal life and his three marriages will hurt him in his bid. But he certainly is an idea machine and I think that's the role he will play.

HANSEN: That leaves the potentials: Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, he's quite coy about his ambitions. How do his tea leaves look today?

LIASSON: Well, we still don't know what Mitch Daniels is going to do. His wife, Cheri Daniels, gave a much-anticipated speech at an Indiana state Republican Party dinner on Thursday night. And the reason why that was so anticipated is because she is famously reticent about being involved in politics, and hasn't been enthusiastic about him running for president.

But Mitch Daniels is someone who a lot of people in the party looked to as an establishment alternative to Mitt Romney who's the front-runner, if there is such a thing right now. And he is someone who's made the deficit his number one issue. He's governed Indiana by hitting a lot of the sweet spots for Republican primary voters. He's taken away powers from public sector unions. He's defunded Planned Parenthood.

So he's someone who I think would immediately vault to the top tier of candidates if he decided to run. We just don't know yet what he's going to do.

HANSEN: What about Mitt Romney's health care system that he established while he was governor of Massachusetts, and the federal overhaul of health care that President Obama supported? Is Mitt Romney trying to create some space there?

LIASSON: Mitt Romney gave a speech this week about his health care plan, which the White House says was the inspiration for the president's health care plan. This is a huge problem for Romney. Repealing the health care plan is the number one priority of conservative Republicans. And the bind he was in is that he had to solve his number one problem, Massachusetts healthcare, without reminding everyone else about his number two problem, which is that he tends to flip-flop. And many Republicans think he doesn't have a core.

So he gave a speech where he defended the Massachusetts healthcare plan, but said he would never impose it on other states. And promised - as every Republican candidate will do - to repeal the Obama plan as soon as he is elected president.

HANSEN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Liane.

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