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Posted at 11:05 AM ET, 01/ 4/2011

An open slot in the 2012 Republican field

By Chris Cillizza

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. AP Images

The 2012 presidential field is already crowded with all-but-announced candidates.

But, there is a big slot left unfilled: someone from and for the economic wing of the tea party movement.

While there is a tendency among the media -- and many members of the Republican establishment -- to lump all tea party followers into a single clump, that analysis misses the mark.

As the movement has matured, some tea party activists gravitating far more toward economic issues (TARP, debt, health care etc.) while others have tended to focus far more on the social issue set.

(Worth noting: Being a member of the economic wing of the tea party doesn't mean you don't care or don't share socially conservative viewpoints. Rather, it suggests an emphasis on one issue area over the other.)

While the tea party movement was formed in reaction to economic issues, most of its leading spokesmen and women are more closely identified with the social wing of the movement.

Leading that list is former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the most high profile tea party figure in the country. While Palin has spoken forcefully against President Obama's fiscal policies, her rise to prominence has largely been built on very strong support among social conservatives.

Ditto former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former pastor who turned into the darling of social conservatives during his run for president in 2008. Others thinking about the race -- Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- are also more associated with social rather than fiscal issues at the moment.

Given that reality, there is a wide opening for a candidate who embodies the fiscal side of the tea party movement to emerge as a serious contender for the nomination.

"The tea party movement in 2010 was a particularly strong strain of economic conservatism, centered on opposition to bailouts, Obamacare, and runaway spending, and it largely succeeded," said Republican media consultant Jon Lerner who has advised a number of prominent tea party candidates. "It is the unifying center of the GOP today, yet none of the likely candidates in the 2012 presidential field easily represents or captures that cluster of issues."

If you accept the premise -- and we do -- that no candidate regarded by tea party voters as "establishment" can possibly occupy that space due to the antipathy of the tea party toward all things status quo (sorry Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, John Thune, Mitch Daniels etc.), then you are left with two options.

The first is that a candidate not currently in the field (or prospective field) enters the race sometime in the next six months or so.

The most obvious choice is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who has, somewhat oddly, turned into a national star among economic tea partiers who have latched on to his no-nonsense speaking style and commitment to closing the state's budget gap.

Christie has said repeatedly he is not interested in running for president in 2012 but did just enough work as a national surrogate during the 2010 campaign to keep the chatter alive -- although it's currently on life support.

(Newark Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran wrote that a Christie reversal about a presidential bid would make him a "monumental fraud". Ouch.)

If Christie did decide to run, his ability to appeal to the economic element of the tea party would virtually ensure that he would be a serious factor in the race.

Assuming Christie doesn't run, there is a thin bench of people not currently in or looking at the race who could occupy similar space in the primary field. People like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio could theoretically run as the choice of economic-minded tea party voters but neither seem inclined to make the race. (Of course, minds can change over the next six months.)

Without such a candidate, the second option would kick in: one of the current crop of candidates could move to become a sort of economic/social tea party hybrid.

Palin, who is well liked among both social and fiscal tea party supporters, might have the easiest time bridging the gap due to the fact that she is very well liked by both ends of the movement. But, Palin is the most unorthodox of public figures so it's hard to predict whether she would try to unify all tea party backers behind her or content herself with further cultivating her strong supporters among the social issues wing.

Gingrich could also fit that hybrid role as you could argue -- and Gingrich allies do argue -- that he has his feet as much in the economic camp as the social one already.

Gingrich is the big brain candidate of the race, regularly offering policy proposals and pronouncements on topics economic, social and foreign. That machine-gun approach to policy could allow him to co-opt some of those economic-minded tea party voters.

Pence, too, will try to be that hybrid tea party candidate as he has been an outspoken opponent of legislation like TARP in addition to carrying un-challengeable (or close to it) credentials on social issues.

But, there is strong speculation that Pence will pass on a presidential bid for what amounts to close to a free shot at the open seat governor's race in 2012. (Former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh and Republican Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman have both removed themselves from consideration, leaving Pence a wide open path.

Huckabee is a less likely choice for fiscal-mind tea partiers given his record as governor of Arkansas, a record that has gotten him cross-wise with the likes of the influential Club for Growth.

The simple fact is that there are few (if any) candidates or potential candidates who can naturally fill the slot of a tea-party affiliated economic conservative.

An opening exists. But who, if anyone, will step forward to fill it?

By Chris Cillizza  | January 4, 2011; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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