Update on the GOP field: A small change or two

Yesterday morning in Somerset, Pa., to relatively little news coverage, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum followed up on his formal presidential campaign announcement on Good Morning America with a speech in front of a Pennsylvania courthouse. That brings the field of the officially declared to eight, at least four of whom have been much-discussed: businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The other four — Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), gay-rights activist Fred Karger and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson — seem to have received even less attention than the next tier of candidates, those National Journal calls the “all but official” — the likes of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former ambassador Jon Huntsman and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer.

The press for the “all but official” in turn pales in comparison to the attention former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin continues to receive for her “One Nation” bus tour. Palin is a part of a third-tier group of potential candidates whose ultimate decisions about a bid are not yet apparent — a group that includes former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former UN Ambassador John Bolton.

The men who decided against a bid — Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and the Donald, who needs no other moniker — broke a few hearts along the way, and long-hoped-for candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, budget guru Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush continue to elicit cautious enthusiasm.

That no clear frontrunner really exists should be clear not only from poll results, which frequently show “None/Not Decided” as Republicans’ top pick for a nominee, but also from the rhetoric surrounding the race. No one candidate seems to have been picked on with perfect consistency, what to me would be a sign of an identified threat to President Obama. But they’ve all been picked on enough for me to know the GOP field is a strong one. Pundits on both the left and the right continue to put down the candidates who, I can only presume, pose a threat to whichever candidate the criticizers prefer. (Unless it’s just too easy to take cheap shots, which, admittedly, could also be the case.)

Take Santorum’s announcement yesterday. It was pretty solid. What he had to say was, to my ears at least, true — a little vague, perhaps, but true, nevertheless.

“Something is wrong,” Santorum said. “Something is at stake here for the future of America … something that’s important.” According to the former senator, that “something” is more than the economy or gas prices, more even than President Obama’s “devaluation” of both the currency and the culture. At the peak of his speech and to a swell of applause, Santorum identified it powerfully: “One word, one reason: freedom.”

But for some reason, analysis of the speech condensed into condescending phrases like, “Well, Santorum’s not last in polls” or my personal favorites (tweets from Slate’s Dave Weigel — props to him for the genuinely funny humor), “Little-known fact: Santorum announced his presidential campaign today” and “Worried Santorum’s announcement might cut into Buddy Roemer’s support.”

True, with just 2 percent of support — less than the 3 percent who support “None of the above” — Santorum is very often last in the polls. But he said it himself yesterday: Up to his announcement, he was “walking,” not “running” for president. That seems a good thing to keep in mind about most of the candidates. Even heavy-hitting fundraisers like Romney haven’t brought their A-game yet. Whenever a frontrunner does emerge, he or she will have been formidably formed in the crucible of the primary campaign. The GOP will have a contender.