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Opinion: The One Way the GOP can Take Advantage of Anti-Incumbency Fever

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The Republican race for the White House remains an interesting phenomenon with a large field of candidates and a great deal of action on the racetrack. While Sarah Palin is correct that "polls are for strippers and cross-country skiers" as she said here in Iowa last weekend, they are nonetheless also the barometer we use between elections to judge public opinion.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has edged ahead with 27 percent in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Former Mass Gov Mitt Romney has 22 percent, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin 14 percent, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) eight  percent and Michelle Bachmann six  percent. Incidentally, among rank-and-file Republicans, Bachmann has slid from 13 to three  percent.

We are all bent over the GOP tea leaves to see if we can discern a front runner and a “winning candidate,” but we don’t have the opportunity of seeing the Democrats agonize over who to run for President in 2012.

Certainly the numbers for Obama have turned pretty sour. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll 53 percent of respondents said they disapprove of his job performance, and only 43 percent approve. Only 37 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy; 59 percent disapprove and only 31 percent are “extremely confident” or “quite confident” that the President has the “right goals and policies to improve the economy.” 

If Obama had to battle other prominent Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue (or even the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent) New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there are compelling reasons to think he'd be beaten in the Iowa caucuses and primaries by any one of them.

Add to that the recent findings that a high percentage of Americans would like to see all the members of Congress up for reelection this year voted out of office and I’d dig into my briefcase of election clichés and pull out “Anti incumbency fever” as the phrase du jour.

Obama will not face an in-party challenge for the Democratic nomination, but unless things turn around pronto, he limps towards November like Jimmy Carter. That’s not a good thing for the Democrats. It also means that the Republicans only have to meet one criterion to potentially win the White House. Name a contender who is not too scary.

That said, I went looking for advice again and talked to a retired Republican friend of mine who has never steered me wrong. I asked him to pick the least scary Republicans from the current field; one’s that would get support from the arty base but not frighten the Independent/no-party voters who will crown our new leader in November. His picks were Romney, Perry and Huntsman. In a pinch Newt Gingrich might also do but he worried about foot-in-mouth disease with which Newt is afflicted and from which he has periodic outbreaks.

So, as we watch the endless parade of debates and forums on the GOP side it’s good to remember that the ultimate test of the horse in November is whether it has more wind and stamina that the current sort of favorite Barack Obama.

Steffen W. Schmidt, University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy (also Coastal Zone Management) at Iowa State University, affiliate Nova Oceanographic Center, author of 11 books, 40 years analyzing the Iowa Caucuses, Des Moines Register blogger, CNN en Español analyst and commentator and Associate Editor of Insider Iowa/.