The latest InsiderAdvantage survey of potential and announced Republican candidates for president suggests that two figures mainly ignored up to now, Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain, are, for at least the moment, capturing a reasonably strong share of the vote among those who say they plan to vote in their states' primaries or caucuses.
The Newsmax/InsiderAdvantage survey, which was also exclusively released for television through ABC's Atlanta affiliate WSB-TV, showed Mitt Romney still atop the potential field with 16 percent of the vote. But Bachmann demonstrated surprising strength, coming in second place at 12 percent. With the exit from the race of populist and/or conservative names such as Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, it is clear that the most dissatisfied and active part of the GOP electorate is moving toward candidates who are most viewed as "tea party" conservatives.
It also didn't help Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that they skipped the Fox News debate held early in May in South Carolina. Cain sparkled in the debate.
Why Romney and Gingrich chose to play coy, both with regards to announcing their candidacies and by "dissing" Fox, I have no earthly idea. Hello, there: We are talking about the most influential network for likely Republican and conservative-leaning voters in the nation. You can bet the brilliant man who basically created Fox, Roger Ailes, in his earlier years as a master strategist and adman, would never have let a candidate he was helping to squander such an opportunity.
Sarah Palin tied with Herman Cain at 11 percent in the poll. Tim Pawlenty and Gingrich rounded out the field with 7 percent each. There is nothing I can write about Palin that has not already been written. However, the ascendance of Bachmann as the surging female candidate in the race does not do much good for Palin.
So are Gingrich and Pawlenty already dead from the start? No. In the case of Pawlenty, he needs more debates and more name identification. He also needs to stop sounding so mealy-mouthed in his presentation. As for Gingrich, the former House speaker needs to stay off the Sunday talk shows, quit dragging his wife's name into every speech he gives and concentrate on the first four critical states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Gingrich can outdebate all of the candidates blindfolded, but his random comments to the press need to end.
Oddly, Romney seems both the strongest and yet the most vulnerable of the current crop of potential candidates. He scores well with the GOP's withering establishment base, but once again seems challenged in igniting support among more conservative and independent-leaning Republicans. His best bet at capturing the nomination is to take the mountain of money he will raise and use it to persuade voters that he is the most electable of the GOP field. If he can pull that off without appearing too silk-stockingish, this could be his election to lose.
As for the success of both Bachmann and Cain, can you say "tea party"? I have continually argued that the tea party is very much a political state of mind that goes well beyond any organized group. Just as there existed a large portion of disaffected voters who swarmed to Barack Obama in 2008, wanting any kind of change he could offer as banks melted down, troops died and personal finances were starting to look dim, so too do they exist in this race.
But now they don't particularly care for President Obama's style of change. Yet they are tired of professional politicians who bounce around on issues that the tea partiers feel very firm about. Those include a massive overhaul of entitlements and a radical change in our system of taxation.
So, this could be the year that a fresh face storms the GOP and wins the nomination, or this could be -- with apologies to my colleague at the national law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge, Howard Dean -- a long-lasting, but ultimately futile flash-in-the-pan performance by upstart candidates.
One thing I know for sure: A huge hunk of potential GOP voters say they are undecided. And that 25 percent-plus of the vote will decide who the Republicans nominate in 2012.