Something peculiar is going on with the Republican Party, nationally and in Florida. After a phenomenally successful 2010, Republicans can't seem to find any giant-killers to take on Barack Obama or Bill Nelson.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's surprise decision this week not to run for president was just the latest reminder of how uncertain the GOP field remains and how many Republicans see Obama as tough to beat. Grass-roots activists look at Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, yawn and pine for a star like Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Meanwhile, the field challenging Democratic Sen. Nelson — George LeMieux, Mike Haridopolos and Adam Hasner — is sufficiently weak that activists continue to speculate about a wealthy self-funder jumping in, just as Rick Scott shocked the establishment by beating gubernatorial front-runner Bill McCollum in 2010.
"In Florida, practically every relevant Republican backed McCollum for months, only to see the rug pulled from under him by a wealthy bald guy who came out of nowhere. That left a lasting impression. People are waiting longer to commit to one candidate,'' said Republican consultant Ana Navarro of Miami. "Self-funders can pop up at any moment and they can win. It sure would be nice to have a Republican knight on a white horse come riding to our rescue, but I sure hope that if that person's out there, he or she is at least dusting off the saddle by now."
Republicans swept Florida in 2010, decimating the Democratic ranks in Tallahassee and leaving Nelson as the sole remaining statewide Democrat. Heading into the 2012 cycle, meanwhile, Obama's approval ratings are slipping, gas prices are rising and the economy remains shaky.
Still, there is a big difference between a midterm election and a presidential election. Florida has nearly 570,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans and in a high-turnout presidential election year, that can be decisive.
"As a Republican I have to be realistic about Bill Nelson,'' said Republican consultant Phil Vangelakos of Orlando. "In 2010 we fielded a rock star in Marco Rubio, and he couldn't get above 50 percent. ... In 2012 we've got to ask ourselves: In a presidential election, does Florida have what it takes to go Republican? It's not nearly as likely in 2012 as it was in 2010."
Predictions 18 months early are worthless. At this point in the 1992 election cycle, President George H.W. Bush enjoyed 76 percent approval ratings and Bill Clinton was still five months away from announcing his candidacy.
Obama is vulnerable, yet pessimism abounds in the GOP.
Sen. Nelson, meanwhile, has never been a polarizing figure, long showing a knack for winning Republican votes. And none of his rivals looks especially daunting.
LeMieux is tainted among many conservatives by his long association with former Gov. Charlie Crist, who appointed him to the Senate; Florida Senate President Haridopolos is raising plenty of money but has been wounded by ethics scandals, including a sweetheart book deal from the community college that used to employ him; former House Majority Leader Hasner, who flirted with being state GOP chairman before jumping into the Senate primary, was better known in the Legislature for hyper-partisan rhetoric and aggressive money-raising than substantive accomplishment.
"There's no excitement for any of the guys running in the U.S. Senate race right now,'' said Republican consultant Chris Ingram of Tampa. "For me, it's just more of the same. None of these guys has demonstrated anything of significant accomplishment that makes you say wow — and they're not great communicators."
The low-key, slow-starting Republican presidential contest looks just as wide open. A recent New York Times poll found nearly 6 in 10 Republicans could not point to a single contender who sparked their enthusiasm.
Nine candidates have taken some step toward running: former Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty; U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; former Massachusetts Gov. Romney; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain; former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer; and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Meanwhile, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says he will make up his mind soon, and varying degrees of speculation continue to surround the prospective candidacies of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and developer/reality TV star Donald Trump.
One Republican presidential debate has already been postponed, and less than a week before Fox airs the first major debate of the election it's unclear who will show up. Politico reported that major candidates expected to participate include Pawlenty, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul and possibly Bachmann.
"Both in the GOP primary for president and in Florida, we have no heir apparent. There is nobody who stands heads and shoulders above the rest. They are totally open fields," said Navarro. "At the national level, it's hard to pick a candidate to support when we still don't know who is in and who's not."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.