Republicans show little enthusiasm for anyone as their top spokesman, let alone 2016 presidential candidate.
Picking a leader is a new dilemma for modern Republicans. For decades, their next presumptive presidential candidate had been the person last elected president or vice president, or came closest to winning the nomination.
Not in 2016. There’s no logical frontrunner, and polls show a cluster of well-known names bunched together.
For three days last week, some 1,500 delegates to the Republican Leadership Conference sized up the prospects. Most came away unexcited. A straw poll was largely inconclusive. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas inched out physician Ben Carson, with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky a distant third.
Only 35 percent of delegates voted, and many of the big 2016 names –– Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas –– did not appear here.
Richard Brown, a retired oil and gas executive from Rockwall, Texas, offered the typical response. He checked off Carson’s name, but said, “Frankly, I didn’t like any of those people for president.” Carson was his choice because “he’s an honorable man.”
MaryAnn Riley, a Spartanburg, S.C., activist, also was not pleased. She and Brown stood together near the ballot, ticking off reservations about nearly everyone.
Paul? “I’m not comfortable with him. There’s something about him,” said Riley.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal? “Kind of moving to the middle,” said Brown.
How about Cruz? “I like how he’s doing exactly what he said he’d do,” Brown said. “But on a national basis, I’m not sure he could get away with that.”
That kind of talk was everywhere. Bush? “Too early for another Bush. We need at least four more years,' said Sherry Barnes, an Augusta, Ga., attorney.
People know intellectually what they want: Someone firmly committed to conservative principles on economics and limited government.
Most also want a winner, someone who can attract swing voters not bound to any firm ideology. The highlight of one session was former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, who offered sobering advice. Be tolerant and be willing to compromise.
“Purity is the enemy of victory,” he said.
Passion, though, drives politics as much as strategy, and other experts here stressed stirring the grassroots masses with a “get-government-off-our-backs” message as the way to win. Rail against the Affordable Care Act, allow responsible people to own guns and cut back on government regulations and taxes, they urged.
In short, the activists here want a tactician who also can lead a pep rally. It won’t be party chairman Reince Priebus, respected for his efforts to expand the party’s base. Nor will it be 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He’s more the elder statesman and campaign pitchman, stumping hard for state candidates and having some success.
The next voice of the party tried to emerge at the conference, but no one really did.
Jindal, who will headline South Carolina’s gala Silver Elephant Celebration in Columbia Friday, swung hard against Common Core. Education officials and governors helped develop the standards for English and math for use throughout elementary and secondary school.
“There is something fundamentally wrong when the bureaucrats, when the federal government especially, thinks they know best and they don’t need to listen to parents,” he said as the crowd roared.
Cruz spent Saturday headlining a prayer breakfast, meeting and greeting dozens of delegates and then firing them up in a half-hour speech. He stressed the political power of the grassroots.
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum stressed reaching out to working class voters, saying, “The real wellspring of the Republican Party is in middle America, blue-collar America.” Another failed 2012 hopeful, Gov. Rick Perryof Texas, got a polite response with his call for returning more power to the states.
No one sparked much chatter in the halls. The talk was more a yen for fresh faces. Carson gets a lot of mentions, and his minions have been the most active of any potential candidate, stopping people to engage them and handing out bumper stickers.
Cheryl Frazier, a Winnfield, La., insurance broker, had no qualms about Carson’s lack of government experience. “He’s lived in the United States all his life. I’m sure he knows the system,” Frazier said.
People floated other names. Glenda Pollard, a Baton Rouge, La., Realtor, was impressed with Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who will chair the new House committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
Riley liked Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who survived a recall election in 2012 after standing up to the state’s labor unions.
There’s simply no consensus on who’s next for the party, or even who its chief voice is now.
“We have to be behind one person,” said Pollard, “but right now, there’s not a perfect candidate.”