Sizing up the chances for a late-entry presidential candidate

Chris Christie? Maybe as a veep. Sarah Palin? Vanity might make her do it. Hillary Clinton? No longer beyond the realm of the possible.

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Sen. Hillary Clinton in Denver. (Democratic National Convention Committee)

Chris Christie? Maybe as a veep. Sarah Palin? Vanity might make her do it. Hillary Clinton? No longer beyond the realm of the possible.

The national-political story right now focuses on three non-candidates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Secretary of State Hillary Cllinton, who might become candidates for their parties' presidential nominations.

National media would welcome the entry of any or all of them.  It would jack up public interest — and TV ratings and print readership — during this in-between period before voters actually start casting ballots in primaries and caucuses early in 2012.

What about these three?

Christie is the Newest Thing in national Republican politics and being urged by major GOP fundraisers, among others, to join a presidential nominating field which leaves them unexcited. He gave a widely noted speech this past Tuesday at the Reagan Library which many saw as "presidential" and is greatly in demand as a speaker and TV-interview guest.  But he is ending only the second year of his New Jersey governorship and consistently has stated that he will not be a presidential candidate in 2012.

Christie clearly has political gifts.  He has strong approval ratings in a heavily Democratic state, having recently achieved public pension reforms by facing down powerful public-employee and teachers unions.  He is a blunt and often witty plain talker who avoids the usual candidate-speak.  His blue-collar origins put him easily on the same wavelength with Democrats who gave him a 2010 electoral victory over former Gov. Jon Corzine but who voted for many of their usual Democratic favorites down the ballot.  (He knows and belts out the lyrics of the Bruce Springsteen songbook).  He is a former U.S. Attorney whose appointment initially was protested by many leading members of the New Jersey bar but whose reputation grew, year by year, in the job.

Less noted, at this early stage, is the fact that his views on social issues are more in tune with his state than those of GOP social conservatives who may be dissatisfied at this point with Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.  Coming up in New Jersey, he also accumulated political baggage which included back-and-forth lawsuits vs. political opponents and a stint as a state lobbyist for financial and business firms.  His few foreign-policy-related statements reflect the fact that he has little foreign-affairs knowledge or experience — unimportant in the state house but important in the White House.

His health also is a question.  He has fought a constant battle with his weight and, in a recent network interview, confided that he often felt fatigued because of the excess poundage. He has been admitted to emergency rooms with asthma attacks. The weight issue might seem unimportant but a presidential campaign, and a presidency, are physically and mentally taxing ordeals reserved, as President Woodrow Wilson put it, "for a small company of athletes."

Four years ago Republicans were urging former Sen. and TV personality Fred Thompson to rescue the party by entering the nominating race.  Thompson, a lazy and low-achieving senator, proved to be a lazy and low-achieving candidate and exited the race only a brief time after finally entering it.  Would this be the case with Christie?   I doubt it.  Christie is strong and energetic and no doubt would wage the same kind of nominating campaign if he entered.

Most winning candidates have thought about, and prepared for, presidential candidacies for big chunks of their lives. Christie, 49, has been in the big time less than two years.  It is a wise man who knows himself and Christie does not strike me as a guy who could be flattered and cajoled into entering the race for a job for which he knows he is unprepared.  A 2012 vice-presidential nominee?  Perhaps.  Christie's approval ratings as a governor may never be higher than they are today.  A run as his party's No. 2 next year could position him, win or lose, to advance.  Odds: I make it 55-45 that Christie will not enter the nominating race.

Media will be disappointed if Palin does not jump in.  But, with both Perry and Bachmann already occuping much of her Tea Party turf, it is hard to see her doing so.  She has name identification, has a core group of believers, and no doubt would quickly rank among the top four in GOP voter popularity if she entered the race.   But her potential would be limited.   On the other hand, national-level politicians always like to think there are millions out there clamoring for their presence and are more susceptible than most to the flattery and urgings of courtiers who love the roar of the greasepaint, smell of the crowd.  Odds:  I make it 60-40 that Palin does not enter.

Clinton has a far tougher decision to make.  She made a conscious choice in 2009 when she left her U.S. Senate seat to serve as Obama's Secretary of State.  Her independent political base as a New York senator would have given her far more latitude for maneuver than her present Cabinet post does.  She has stated publicly that she has no plan for another presidential candidacy and also has said she will leave her present job at the end of 2012 in any circumstance — a somewhat surprising declaration made quite early in 2011.

If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the GOP presidential nominee, he would draw independent and some moderate Democratic votes and be heavily favored over Obama in 2012.   The prospective financial and economic climates next year will be huge burdens for Obama as he seeks reelection.   His only chance of winning would come if Republicans nominate a candidate, such as Perry, who frightens the same independent voters Romney would attract.  That could happen, since participants in Republican caucuses and primaries are far more conservative than the electorate in a national general election.  Independents and moderates are notorious for skipping the nominating contests of both parties.
Why would Hillary run?   I expect some Democratic fundraisers, elected officials, and activists to begin appealing to her to run, for the same reasons that their Republican counterparts are urging a candidacy on Christie.  They will want someone whose politics are comfortable to them but who also might offer a chance to win.  Clinton, as Secretary of State, has been wholly removed from the financial and economic decisions of the Obama administration.  In no way is she associated with the present prolonged economic downturn.  And, during her time as secretary, she has become a more appealing figure to moderates and independents than she was as a 2008 presidential candidate.   If you are a Hillary believer, you probably are telling her now:  If not now, when?   Your party needs you. It will be too late for you to try again in 2016.

On the other hand, challenges of incumbent presidents, within their own parties, usually have ended up with victories by the incumbent, followed by their defeats in a general election.   How badly does Hillary want to be president?

Odds: I make it 60-40 that Clinton does not run, although I do believe she will give it more consideration than I would have thought possible only a month ago.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of