Who has what it takes to beat Barack Obama?

At this stage in any American presidential election, it is almost too easy to make fun of the primary contenders. It is especially true this year, when the sitting president – serene, remote, unchallenged – has no need to contest his party’s primary at all. Inevitably, his opponents seem insubstantial and unserious by comparison. Invariably, cartoonists will caricature them as, say, sparrows on a telephone line, chirping away at the eagle in the White House, and columnists will make up disparaging names (one past group of primary contenders was known as “the Seven Dwarves”).

To make matters worse, a few genuinely crazy or eccentric politicians always join the campaign in its early stages, which makes the others seem less serious by association. This year, the “real” candidates have had to contend with Donald Trump on the one hand and Sarah Palin on the other. President Obama personally dispensed with Trump by calling him a “carnival barker”, a tactic that worked because it was true. Palin will be more difficult to shoo away. Her enigmatic appearances in places where she is guaranteed lots of attention, such as motorcycle rallies, make the rest of the candidates seem dull and earnest. While they bang on about the deficit and terrorism, she gets to ride around on a Harley-Davidson, waving the American flag, and lobbying to visit Margaret Thatcher.

But at some point in the first half of next year, all of this will abruptly come to an end. The Republican Party will select its candidate, and that person will overnight acquire stature, money, enthusiastic supporters and television time. He or she will have several opportunities to share a podium with the President. He or she will appear frequently before cheering crowds. At that point the contest will be real. But even then – with the full backing of the Republican Party, the conservative blogosphere and Fox News – will any of those who have so far declared (or half-declared) their candidacy have the qualities needed to beat President Obama?

In fact, some of them do, at least at the moment. Mitt Romney, an accomplished governor, sounds good on economics. Tim Pawlenty, another accomplished governor, has the gravitas required of a commander-in-chief. Jon Huntsman, ambassador to China (and a former governor too) ought to have bipartisan appeal. Ron Paul has conviction, and Sarah Palin definitely has the knack of getting people to talk about her.

Despite recent news coverage, they are not all unserious or insubstantial. Nevertheless, they must now square the same circle: to triumph in the party’s primary election, a candidate must appeal to the ideological Republicans who actually vote in primary elections – and this year they are more radical than ever. But to triumph in the presidential election, a candidate must appeal to the great, wishy-washy mass of swing voters and centrists – most of whom dislike radical language, especially during a recession.

This combination of hurdles will probably trip up Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who declared his candidacy back in May and is running on a platform of classic isolationism (“end all wars”) and radical libertarianism (“return to the gold standard”), sometimes couched in the language of evangelical Christianity (“true liberties come from our Creator”). Given the mood of the Republican Party this year, this will get him quite far. But although the “end all wars” rhetoric might inspire some on the Left, it’s hard to see how, as a package, Paul captures the imagination of the American mainstream.

Mitt Romney, at the moment the front-runner, is in some ways Paul’s polar opposite, and thus has the opposite problem. Paul is from liberty-loving Texas; Romney is a former governor of Massachusetts, probably the most liberal state in the nation. Paul wants to dismantle government; Romney created a Massachusetts state health-care plan, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to President Obama’s federal health-care plan. All of which ought to make Romney a powerful centrist challenger to an even more liberal president. Yet in order to secure the Republican nomination, Romney is going to have to try to sound like Paul. He has already begun to repudiate some of his past decisions and positions. He is trying to prove that he wasn’t really all that moderate when governor of Massachusetts, that his health-care plan wasn’t really all that liberal, and that in fact he really has a lot in common with Christian evangelicals. So why, then, should disgruntled Democrats vote for him next year?

If they are moderates, Republicans like Pawlenty (governor of Minnesota, another liberal state) and Huntsman will have to spend the next year proving to the Republican Party that they are not Republican In Name Only – RINOs, in the slang of the moment. Both are already in trouble because “compromising” photographs of them actually shaking hands with the President are in circulation. But if they are radicals or eccentrics, Republicans such as Paul, Palin and Newt Gingrich will have to spend the rest of the campaign proving to the rest of the country that they are not crazy. Neither scenario is a formula for an easy campaign, a short primary, and a romp to victory in 2012.

As I’ve said, at some point next spring, a leader will emerge from this pack and the calculus will change. But will the figure who emerges, bloodied by assault from the Right and the Left, still have the stamina to win? Perhaps this year the circle is too hard to square.

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