Even in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters expect to meet each of the presidential candidates at least once, few people get a chance to ask them more than one question. For those of us who live elsewhere, even one question is out of the question. But if I had a chance to pose just one, here’s the one I’d put to some of the major Republican contenders:
• Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House: You may be one of the most important Republicans in the second half of the 20th century, having moved from gadfly to House speaker, even as you moved the Republicans in the House from hopeless members of an oppressed minority into a robust majority. Still, hardly any of your former colleagues — the ones who, presumably, owe you the most for their positions and influence — have given your candidacy a second thought.
By definition, leaders have to have followers, which prompts this question: Why do Republican office holders shy away from you in such numbers and with such fervor, and, to reverse the classic formulation Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. applied to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do you combine a second-class personality with a first-class intellect?
• Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts: You’re the front-runner — and you face a problem at the front of the calendar. Last time out, in 2008, Iowa smacked you down, placing you 9 percentage points behind Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas (but 12 points ahead of the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, which underlines the unpredictability of the state). Though you have high name recognition there, you are mostly known for not being enough — not conservative enough, not consistent enough, not Christian enough (which is the prejudice that dares not speak its name).
You know that a smart governor, Bill Clinton, once skipped Iowa and won the whole thing. You might, too. But Clinton had a pretext — the presence in the race of an Iowa native son, Sen. Tom Harkin. That’s where Rep. Michele Bachmann may come in handy. Though she represents Minnesota in the House, she’s from the aptly named Waterloo, Iowa. So: Do you compete in Iowa?
• Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota: You’re the new conservative darling, all the more alluring because you come from the state that spawned liberal darlings Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale and Paul Wellstone. (Not that conservatism, of the social nature, hasn’t been flourishing in the state for the past quarter-century. It’s just that few people outside Minnesota have noticed the sea change in the state that was the only one Mondale carried in 1984.)
But there remain nagging questions about your economic conservatism, underlined by the comments of former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson, who admittedly is no friend of yours. Still, you must answer this question: Did your actions as House majority leader and then as governor ease or exacerbate the current fiscal crisis in Minnesota?
• Jon M. Huntsman Jr., former governor of Utah: You’ve moved seamlessly from your role as U.S. ambassador to China into presidential candidate, following a star turn in Beijing with a star turn in Lebanon and Portsmouth, N.H. You have a facile answer, but not a thoughtful answer, to the question that is on the minds of both Democrats and Republicans: How could you serve a president as ambassador to perhaps the most important nation on Earth and then run against him for president?
Huntsman’s “disloyalty to the president of the United States, regardless of the president or to which party the president belongs,” wrote Erick Erickson, managing editor of the conservative website RedState.com, “should not be rewarded by any patriot of this country.”
• Rick Perry, governor of Texas: You presumably know that two of the last three Republican presidents have been governors and that nine of the last 10 have been from the banks of the Ohio or west of it. You know, too, that Republicans have been the guardians of state prerogatives for the last several decades. But how does a man who believes that the federal government’s role should be minimized and that the states’ roles should be maximized explain why he wants to step away from the governor’s office in Austin — where there are no term limits — and move into the Oval Office in Washington?
• Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania, and Michele Bachmann, House member from Minnesota: You both infuriate your opponents and beguile your supporters, the former primarily social conservatives, the latter primarily economic conservatives. But with you, Mr. Santorum, having lost your re-election bid in 2006 by 18 percentage points and you, Ms. Bachmann, having run behind the GOP presidential candidate in every county in your district in 2008, how can you expect to run credible elections nationwide?
• Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska: You’re the biggest media star in the party, with the potential of raising the most money (and the most hackles from the left), but your unpredictability may have been transformed from an asset into a disadvantage. Just last week you were on a political tour with no evident theme or purpose, except to project yourself onto the national scene. But a question lingers: Why did you resign a position of political leadership with barely any notice and no apparent reason, and if it was to influence the national debate, how have you done so?
• Ron Paul, House member from Texas: You’re the straightest shooter in this group, the truest believer, the most consistent political figure. Plus you have perhaps the most devoted core of supporters of any American political figure since Barry Goldwater — and, something that can be said for no one else listed in this column — the respect and admiration of your opponents. You’ve run for president three times now, and this question nags at you: Are you enhancing or diminishing your views by making them the basis of a presidential campaign, and do you risk becoming something of a Harold Stassen, who is remembered more for being a perennial presidential candidate than for being a creditable governor of Minnesota and president of the University of Pennsylvania?