As Republicans begin the process of winnowing down the field of 2012 contenders for one who can beat Barack Obama, they could do worse than to look for clues from the President they seek to unseat.
Out of a sense of mischief or foreboding, Mr. Obama and his aides have gone out of their way in recent days to heap praise on Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. The two ex-governors would rather forgo the flattery.
Next to an endorsement from Charlie Sheen, it's hard to imagine what could sabotage a wannabe nominee in Republican eyes more than accolades from this Democratic White House.
The idea that the Obama team fears the candidacies of Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Romney more than those of any of the other potential GOP nominees is plausible. As solid centrists, they are the Republicans most likely to appeal to independent voters. The latter were key to Mr. Obama's 2008 win, just as holding on to them will be crucial to his re-election.
So, the kind words are a clever use of reverse psychology on the part of Mr. Obama and his acolytes. And it could just work.
The absence of a clear Republican front-runner - an oddity for a party that has more often than not anointed its "next in line" as its presidential candidate - means the potential for an ideologue or far-right-wing outlier to snatch the nomination is greater this time around. That worries party elites, who would prefer a candidate who is electable over one who is ideologically pure. It could doom the party's mass-market appeal more than at any time since the party chose the libertarian Barry Goldwater in 1964.
The sinking feeling among GOP establishment operatives was palpable last week as former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich dipped his toe into the water. The despair only increased as Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and likely presidential candidate, referred in a radio interview to Mr. Obama "having grown up in Kenya."
A Huckabee aide later replied that his boss "simply misspoke." Nobody was buying that. The outburst, which was followed by Mr. Huckabee's swipe at actress Natalie Portman's out-of-wedlock pregnancy, demonstrated that some candidates still feel there is mileage to be had in spreading falsehoods about Mr. Obama's roots and personal values.
This does not augur well for either Mr. Huntsman or Mr. Romney, social moderates despite their Mormon faith. Neither has officially thrown his hat into the ring yet. Mr. Romney's entry is a mere formality. Mr. Huntsman's appears likely. And the White House is not taking any chances.
"I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he's proud of what he accomplished on health care in Massachusetts," the President mused last week in a speech to state governors gathered in Washington.
Mr. Obama's comments rolled through the right-wing blogosphere faster than you can say "RomneyCare" and served to draw attention to Mr. Romney's cardinal sin (for a Republican) of forcing Massachusetts residents to buy health insurance. Democrats enjoy pointing out that Mr. Obama modelled his own controversial health-care reform legislation on the so-called individual mandate Mr. Romney implemented in Massachusetts.
On Sunday, Obama chief of staff Bill Daley, a member of the famous Chicago political clan, dealt Mr. Huntsman - a former Utah governor and soon-to-be-former U.S. ambassador to China - a devilish compliment: "The closeness with which he worked with the President is much appreciated."
That comment drew an immediate rebuttal from John Weaver, a Republican operative close to Mr. Huntsman: "I've observed and read about the Daleys for decades and I never equated political fear with that name."
If there is any truth to the suggestion that the White House trembles at the thought of facing the telegenic but untested Mr. Huntsman in 2012, then its silence regarding every other potential GOP contender speaks volumes.
That could change if former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty gains traction. New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait posited this week that Mr. Pawlenty is the one candidate on whom the Republican base and establishment could agree. The so-called "Sam's Club Republican" would have strong appeal among white working-class voters, while toeing the party's traditional business-friendly line.
Still, the Republican primary race is likely to appear anything but mainstream to the very voters the GOP needs to woo to unseat the President. As Mr. Huckabee's comments suggest, it could be ugly to watch.
Conservative columnist George Will wrote on Sunday: "The nominee may emerge much diminished by involvement in a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons."
Perhaps that is one reason why Intrade, the online market that allows investors to bet on political outcomes, currently pegs Mr. Obama's probability of winning the 2012 presidential race at 63 per cent.