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Why the GOP can beat Obama

It is fashionable among conservative pundits and GOP operatives to bemoan the state of the Republican presidential primary race. But even without a Paul Ryan, Wis., or a New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the race, there is still a good shot at beating President Obama — the best shot at upsetting an incumbent president, I would argue, since 1992.

Tony Fratto, a former White House staffer to George W. Bush, told me there’s no reason to be glum. “I like to look at big macro trends, and those trends tell me (1) people aren’t happy with the direction of country, especially the economy and spending, and we’re likely not going to see much change in that sentiment over the next year; and (2) Obama has probably already lost some states he won last time and has no chance of getting them back — Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, Nevada.”

Is it possible for a Republican, even a non-superstar candidate, to win? Fratto observed that a Republican will need to find a way “to take four out of five of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin and New Mexico.” He continued, “Is that possible? Assuming not a lot changes in the economy and a respectable Republican runs a good campaign — yes. If it’s an outlier Republican and/or one who doesn’t run a good campaign, then, no.”

As Josh Kraushaar put it in the National Journal, “No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been reelected with unemployment above 8 percent. And despite Obama’s strengths — his charisma and what will likely be a well-funded campaign — winning in a down economy is hard to do.” That’s especially true if gas prices stay at $4 a gallon.

In other words, the Republicans don’t need Ronald Reagan II to beat Obama; they need a solid conservative who can unify the party. Fratto’s view — that the 2012 race will be a referendum on the president — is similar to the take of Capitol Hill Republicans and other Republican officeholders and operatives.

While his name recognition is still below 50 percent and, consequently, Tim Pawlenty has yet to get above single digits in early polls, I do hear more think tankers, activists and operatives in essence trying to get comfortable with the non-flashy but solid Midwestern conservative. So far, Pawlenty has yet to draw in big donors, but if another entrant doesn’t show up fast, Pawlenty, one senses, is the non-Romney around which social and fiscal conservatives as well as hawks can rally.

Excerpted from Jennifer Rubin’s commentary on politics and policy: