With four Republican candidates left in the presidential race, each giving his all in the countdown to the South Carolina primary on Saturday, the GOP electorate is still up for grabs. And despite the persistent "Mitt Romney is inevitable" narrative, for many Republican voters the nominee is anything but a foregone conclusion.
The Root spoke with five prominent black conservatives — the former chair of the Republican National Committee, a civil rights activist, a former mayor of Cincinnati, a talk-radio host you may remember as the guy who begged John McCain to "take it to Obama" at a town hall in 2008, and a writer and actor best known for his role as Denise's husband on The Cosby Show — to see which choices they're leaning toward. If their varying, but mostly undecided, outlooks on the race are any indication, this primary season could stretch out quite a bit longer.
Michael Steele, Former Chairman of the Republican National Committee and MSNBC Political Analyst
I've made a concerted effort to stay above [endorsements] so I can look at what the candidates are doing and how they're being perceived as objectively as possible. What I will say is that I really have a problem with members of the party, particularly those who are part of the "establishment," pooh-poohing our candidates who have made the commitment to run. Belittling their prospects is sort of glomming on to this idea that's been floated around by folks on the left that these guys aren't ready for prime time.
I find that to be highly insulting because they made a commitment that the folks who are running their mouths have never made. They are putting their families and their communities out there for the public to scrutinize. You're talking about folks who have been governors and significant leaders nationally who have done important things for the country. You may not like their speaking style, you may not like their demeanor or they may not be as aggressive as you'd like them to be or whatever, but their qualifications and their leadership qualities are clearly things that have helped them get this far.
Niger Innis, Political Consultant and National Spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality
My candidate was Herman Cain. I supported him for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that he captured the imagination of the American people because he was not a politician as usual. He was a businessman and a leader, and in sharp contrast to the big-government policies of the current administration, he would have been a dramatic departure from that philosophy.
Herman, unfortunately, could not stay in the race, which I think is good news for Obama. Obama's worst nightmare would have been Cain getting the nomination. His second-worst nightmare was Cain's candidacy having the buoyancy that it had throughout the primary process. It's kind of hard to demonize the Republican Party and make them into a bunch of racists when the guy who's at the top of the polls is a black man blacker than Obama.
I have not found another candidate to support. There are things I like about each candidate. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both make the best arguments for why African Americans, Latinos and working-class folk of whatever color need to join the Republican Party. Ron Paul's views on foreign policy may be a bit out of the mainstream of Republican orthodoxy, but we would be quite foolish indeed to discard Paul and his supporters.
They're going to need everybody in the tent to defeat Barack Obama, including the strong libertarian wing of the Republican Party, and independents, and a few Democrats. I think Mitt Romney will be the best representative of the private sector, but he has not been aggressive enough at defending free market capitalism and offering a contrast to the European-style socialist vision of Barack Obama.
But Cain was my man, and I am going to stay out of it until the general election. I will support, as a private citizen, whoever becomes the nominee of the party.
Ken Blackwell, Senior Fellow for the Family Research Council; Former Cincinnati Mayor
I was supporting Rick Perry. I've known Rick for about 10 years. Early on in his campaign, he came to Steve Forbes and me and asked us to help him look at a comprehensive tax policy, given that I had worked closely with Steve on the whole flat tax idea for 16 years or so. I was very comfortable with him on a personal basis, so when he asked me to help him on policy, it was easy for me to say yes.
Perry is what I call a portfolio conservative. He is solid on national security issues, he's solid on economic issues and he is solid on social and traditional American value matters. I just think he was the full package. I think he decided to get in too late, and when he got in he was not as adequately prepared as he needed to be coming right off of back surgery. He probably didn't get the best advice in the world from his closest advisers as to what to anticipate when you enter the big stage.
Gov. Perry's endorsement of Newt Gingrich didn't surprise me, but I haven't picked another candidate as I go forward. I've worked with all of the candidates in a variety of situations, so I know their strengths and weaknesses from a policy standpoint. I'm inclined to wait to see where I can make a balanced and helpful endorsement, and until then I will be sorting out the pros and the cons for each candidate.
James T. Harris, Host of The James T. Harris Show on Tuscon, Ariz., Talk Radio
The people I really like are not in the race, so I don't have any favorites right now. I would have loved for Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin to be in this race. But I'm going to support the person who wins the nomination, and I think any of the candidates would beat President Obama handily. I think an empty Pepsi can would beat Obama handily.
If there's one candidate right now that I would lean toward over the others, it would be Mitt Romney simply because he has executive experience. The last thing we want to do is re-create the issues that the Democrats gave us by putting someone inexperienced into the most powerful office in the land.
For most of the 20th century, the Republicans have put people who've had governor's experience in office, and it's worked very well for us. Now that Perry's out, I'm leaning toward Romney, which leaves me in the same situation as 2008: having to get behind a moderate because that's better than someone who I would deem as being beyond socialist.
Joseph C. Phillips, Syndicated Columnist and Actor
I have not settled on a candidate. Up until this point, I've considered myself part of the 75 percenters — the 75 percent of Republican voters who want anyone but Mitt Romney to be the nominee. One of my reasons for that is I don't like the feeling that someone is being chosen for me. To quote the famous book by Phyllis Schlafly: We want a choice, not an echo.
There is a sense sometimes that Republican voters don't have a choice, that whoever's next in line is who the candidate will be. Romney's been running for president for a very long time, and a lot of voters feel that he has been anointed by some secret society within the party as the Republican candidate.
While Romney is very polished — and he should be, considering that he's been running so long — he comes across as just another typical politician who's saying a bunch of nothing. There are no bold ideas or big plans. Even though I never took Herman Cain seriously as a candidate, it was refreshing to have someone at least come out with a point of view. Romney released a 50-point thing that looks like the same old stuff you hear all the time. And then there's Romneycare, the blueprint for the very unpopular Obamacare.
All of that said … I'm now starting to lean toward Romney. He has accomplished some things in the business world; and on illegal immigration, which is probably the most important issue of this current generation, he's on the right side of that issue when it comes to the E-Verify system [which helps employers screen out undocumented workers]. Also, I would agree with some other conservatives who have said that if the health care law is really going to be repealed, then we have to win the election. And I think that Romney is probably the most electable.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.