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Republican Voters Not Ready to Settle Now the Obama Looks Beatable

"Look, you can almost stick a fork in him. I think he's about done politically. His numbers nationally are bad. You look at his numbers in the swing states that are going to really decide the election, like Iowa, and among independents, his numbers are awful."

-- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty talking about President Obama in a campaign speech in Humbolt, Iowa

AMES, Iowa – After what may be the most politically punishing month of his presidency, President Obama is looking eminently beatable. And that is changing the nature of the Republican nomination fight.

As Republican presidential hopefuls prepared for their first debate three months ago, the political world was convinced that after the daring raid just days before that killed Usama bin Laden, cooling anger over the 2010 Democratic health care law, modest, but steady economic growth and a billion-dollar campaign juggernaut in the making, Obama was a shoo-in for re-election.

Now, as the GOP field gets ready to rumble here in Iowa, Obama looks more and more like a one-term president.

After the first ever federal credit downgrade, a loss to House Republicans on a debt-ceiling deal, increasing outrage in the president’s political base, the deaths of 30 U.S. troops who were carrying out his tactical pivot in Afghanistan, fresh warnings of a double-dip recession, and the most toxic political climate in Washington in memory, Obama is in a political tailspin from which he may never recover.

The president’s high after the bin Laden kill was not as high as Republican pessimists believed in May and the current low isn’t as low as the newly optimistic GOPers think it is now, but the president’s problems are real and, in many ways, intractable.

As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made clear Tuesday that the economic outlook is bad until at least 2013, the Afghan drawdown will continue to be costly and the president’s base will only grow more disenchanted as he attempts to find a center-left path through the budget battles just ahead.

This growing understanding that the magic of 2008 is not likely to return for the embattled president is having two big effects on the GOP race.

First, it encourages Republicans not to settle for less in the name of electability. When Obama looked invincible, Republicans were more apt to accept a more moderate candidate who could woo skeptical independent voters. The better Obama looks, the better it is for Mitt Romney. If Obama’s approval ratings went back to 65 percent, Jon Huntsman might even be a contender.

But with Obama scarping the 30s and the country in a deep funk, Republicans start to think that almost anybody could kick him out. Talk to Iowa Republicans and they sound pretty convinced that Obama is, as Rush Limbaugh called him, a “debt man walking.” That means that activists are less willing to give up their favorite candidates. The obvious beneficiary here is Rep. Michele Bachmann who is regaining some momentum in the polls and currently the biggest draw in Iowa ahead of Thursday’s debate and Saturday’s straw poll.

All the candidates are here except Huntsman, who is down in Florida trying to bushwhack Romney by splitting moderate Republican votes there and in New Hampshire, and Bachmann has all the buzz with her message of no compromise, no retreat.

Other beneficiaries include Rep. Ron Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Herman Cain.

The second effect is to reverse the timid trend among top-tier contenders. Had Obama been in extremis in April would Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels have both opted out? Would Chris Christie have been so Shermanesque in his refusals? Would Jeb Bush have stayed silent?

The Obama slide has pretty clearly convinced Texas Gov. Rick Perry to take the plunge. The once reticent governor has grown more enthusiastic as Obama has faltered and is expected to gradually announce his candidacy in a series of events over the weekend in South Carolina, New Hampshire and, of course, Iowa.

Democrats can be glad that Republicans are feeling so cocky since the decisions made now will look very different when Obama finds the bottom and starts climbing back up. What looked good in August will be less attractive in February.

But the president has also gotten himself another top-tier contender on the Republican side in Perry and, most damagingly, lost the cloak of invincibility that is key to any incumbent president’s campaign.