November 17, 2011 — Top political journalists, strategists and analysts assembled Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to look forward to the 2012 elections as part of the University of Virginia Center for Politics' 13th annual American Democracy Conference, held at the offices of the American Gas Association in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
In response to the most pressing political question of the hour – the identity of the Republican presidential nominee to challenge President Obama – the assembled experts seemed to broadly agree that Mitt Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts who is making his second run at the White House, is the favorite, but that his nomination is not a lock.
"Whoever is sitting in the anti-Romney chair when the music stops might end up being the next president," said Alex Burns, a reporter for Politico, noting that one of the other Republicans might emerge to defeat Romney, distrusted by many Republicans who believe his conservative rhetoric isn't matched by a sufficiently conservative record.
Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, Republican pollster Ed Goeas and commentators Bill Schneider and Juan Williams joined Burns on the opening panel, which primarily assessed the Republican field. Center for Politics director Larry J. Sabato, University Professor of politics, moderated the panel.
Cardona, who said that she is having quite a bit of fun watching the Republicans fight one another, said that this was a particularly conservative Republican presidential field. "Romney is a moderate, but he cannot run as a moderate," she said.
The Republican nominating contest kicks off Jan. 3 with the traditional opening event, the Iowa caucuses. The small number of voters who participate in Iowa – only about 120,000 Republicans took part in 2008, compared to the nearly 2 million who voted in Florida's 2008 GOP primary – makes personal campaigning there a must, Goeas said.
"If they haven't met a candidate at least three times, then something's wrong with the campaign," Goeas said, describing the views of likely Iowa caucus-goers.
Romney, who spent a lot of time and money in the Hawkeye State in his bid for the GOP nomination four years ago, only to finish a distant second to ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is taking a cautious approach to Iowa this time, and he has sought to downplay the importance of winning the state. (His polling is much stronger in New Hampshire, whose voters know Romney from his days governing neighboring Massachusetts.)
Schneider said that Romney is trying to surpass expectations, and that he is going to try to do well in Iowa without looking like he's trying to do well there, which is quite a balancing act.
"You have to manage expectations if you're Romney because he is essentially running against 'expectation,' an invisible candidate, and he has to be careful not to fail to meet expectations," Schneider said.
Iowa has produced some quirky results over the years, such as Huckabee's win in 2008 and, going back more than 20 years, the Rev. Pat Robertson finishing ahead of eventual President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 Republican race. Goeas suggested that Rep. Ron Paul, the anti-war, libertarian Republican, might have a shot to pull an upset this time.
The Republican race is defined as much by who is running as who is not, said Williams, a Fox News commentator. Big-name Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana decided not to run. Establishment Republicans, such as the Bush family, wanted these candidates to enter, and their absence leaves the establishment without a candidate in this race, he said.
"These are not the candidates that establishment Republicans want," Williams said.
Other panels focused on Obama's first three years in office and an insider's view of next year's elections. Participants included journalists and analysts Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, Carl Cannon of RealClearPolitics.com, Christina Bellantoni of Roll Call, Perry Bacon of the Washington Post, Rhodes Cook of the Center for Politics' Sabato's Crystal Ball, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Major Garrett of National Journal, as well as political insiders Leslie Sanchez of Resurgent Republic, Rob Jesmer of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Guy Cecil of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Phil Cox of the Republican Governors Association – the last a U.Va. graduate and former student of Sabato.
Perhaps taking the most (good-natured) flak at the conference was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the Republican presidential race in August with much fanfare. After becoming the instant front-runner, he severely damaged his campaign with a series of poor debate performances and questions over his record in Texas. At a recent debate, Perry could recall the names of only two of the three federal departments he proposes to eliminate.
In opening the conference, Sabato asked panelists to "discuss the three dominant political forces that seem to be driving politics in recent weeks. Number one? Memory loss. Number two? Sexual harassment. And – what was the third? I can't remember. Oops."
Ornstein piled on during the next panel when, in commenting on the gloomy Washington weather that day, he said, "It's 61 and foggy, just like Rick Perry."