Analysis: Elections down, presidential campaign begins

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the 2010 elections in the rearview mirror, the 2012 presidential campaign is now under way and would-be candidates are asking themselves: Is President Barack Obama beatable?

President Barack Obama attends a DNC Moving America Forward Rally at Cleveland State University in Ohio, October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Obama’s job approval rating is at a mediocre 45 percent, his handling of the U.S. economy gets a thumbs-down from voters so far, and he faces the challenge of seeking compromise with Republicans who seized control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Over the next few months more than a dozen Republican leaders will decide whether they think they can raise enough money and gain sufficient media attention and voter support to seek their party’s nomination for president.

Republicans have no natural candidate to turn to in 2012 like they have had in past elections, meaning a free-for-all is likely between the likes of Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and others.

At the same time, Obama is laying the groundwork for his own re-election bid, hoping the U.S. economy will heal sufficiently over the next two years that Americans can be persuaded to give him four more years.

Obama, as the incumbent with all the trappings of power, has the luxury of waiting several months before beginning in earnest his battle to remain in power.

For Obama, 2011 will be a year of raising money and trying to rebuild the coalition that carried him to victory two years ago and which appeared to crumble on Tuesday when his Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives and barely hung on to the Senate.

His popularity among independents, a crucial bloc that backed him in 2008, has dipped below 50 percent in many polls.

Deep losses by Democrats in Tuesday congressional elections do not necessarily doom Obama’s re-election campaign.

Related Coverage

Bill Galston, who was a policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, noted that both Clinton, a Democrat, and President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, rebounded from midterm election losses to roll on to re-election, but that the economy worked in their favor.

“Both Clinton and Reagan were fortified by an economy that picked up steam month by month after the midterms. And it remains to be seen whether Obama is going to be so fortunate. Right now the economists don’t think so,” he said.

Or, as University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato put it:

“If the economy doesn’t improve, people will vote for almost any alternative.”

Republicans are already blazing a trail through the early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa, meeting local Republican leaders, talking to voters, testing their messages, preaching limited government and a return to conservative principles.

Already well along in the process on the Republican side are former Massachusetts Governor Romney and soon-to-be-former Minnesota Governor Pawlenty. They could announce plans later this year or early next.

They have been doing some serious grassroots work helping Republican congressional candidates this year and both are fairly advanced in their thinking about a presidential race.

On the other hand, former Alaska Governor Palin has used her Fox News pedestal and a book tour to gain maximum attention. She told “Entertainment Tonight” last week she might run “if there’s nobody else to do it.”

Others who could conceivably seek the Republican nomination include Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, South Dakota Senator John Thune and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Romney has the experience of 2008, when he sought the nomination only to fall to John McCain. Romney is a widely known figure in New Hampshire, which perhaps more so than Iowa plays a defining role in choosing the Republican nominee.

“Mitt Romney is and has been leading consistently in New Hampshire since we started polling on this back in early 2009.” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Andy Smith.

Editing by Leslie Adler