The 2012 presidential campaign begins today, about as officially as it ever will. A presidential debate in New Hampshire tonight features Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Tim Pawlenty. This is by no means the full field. Missing will be John Huntsman -- absent by choice -- and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Ron Paul clone that event organizers decided "was not viable as a candidate." At this point, neither are Gingrich or Paul, but I guess name recognition earns you some slack.
Going into this, Romney is definitely the candidate to beat. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll puts Romney at the head of the pack by a fairly respectable margin, beating his closest competitor -- the as yet unannounced Sarah Palin -- 24% to 20%. After that, it's Giuliani with 12% and it just gets sad after that.
Gallup likewise has a poll out and the news for the non-Romneys there is worse. While Mitt's percentage is identical to CNN's findings -- 24% -- everyone else is worse off. Palin only scores 16%.
And the news gets yet worse. Gallup also polled respondents by taking Palin out of the equation. If Sarah Palin decides against running (an extremely likely scenario, in my opinion), the big gainer is Romney. He rises to 27%, easily beating the next in line -- Herman Cain at 10%.
If the Tea Party is the voice of the Republican Party, these results show that it may be a matter of decibels, not numbers. They dominate the conversation by being the loudest and most attention-seeking. But they hate Romney and Romney leads.
I say "may be," because the numbers don't add up decisively for Mittens. If we take all the 'bagger-affiliated candidates from Gallup's numbers (I'm using the rest of the field, minus Huntsman, Johnson, Gingrich, and Santorum -- a little arbitrary, I'll admit), then the 'baggers win -- about 32% to Romney's 27% without Palin. With Palin in the numbers get worse for Romney. Whether or not the fractious Tea Partiers will be able to settle on a single candidate is another story, but right now, Mittens seems to be the establishment candidate and the voice of those who choose not to march around dressed like George Washington carrying poorly spelled signs.
Yet Romney is such a poor candidate. He suffers from a well-deserved reputation as a flip-flopper. Not only in terms of healthcare reform, but also on the issues of gay rights and abortion. He governed from the center as Governor of New Hampshire and has since run as far to the right as he could without actually joining a militia group. He is profoundly unserious and impossible to take seriously.
What all this tells me is that there's a large segment of the party that really, really, really doesn't like all the teabagger madness. Palin, Bachmann, Cain, et. al. are all clowns and these people see that. Better to have Flip-Flop Mitt as the nominee than one of these frothing lunatics with half a brain. After all, there's actually some danger that the nominee could win. If the idea of Michele Bachmann with the launch codes makes you nervous, there are apparently people within the Republican Party who share your concerns.