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In GOP presidential field, only three are for real

By John P. Avlon, Special to CNN
  • John Avlon: There are 3 serious GOP presidential candidates: Huntsman, Romney, Pawlenty
  • He says the 6 others are either self-promoters or idea-promoters, not president material
  • He says it's not new, but still debases democracy when candidates are not really serious
  • Avlon: Reality TV driven culture makes it worse; people run who aren't qualified, voters lose

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- There are three ways to run for president these days.

The first is to run to promote yourself. The second is to run to promote ideas. The third is to actually run for president of the United States.

The Republican presidential hopefuls running on this old-fashioned third notion are a distinct minority. And that says a lot about the state of our politics: bread and circuses meets reality TV.

Mitt Romney and the newly declared Jon Huntsman are definitely running for president. So is Tim Pawlenty (although his whiffed pitch at CNN's New Hampshire debate gave many the sense that he is really angling for a VP-slot).

These three folks have done the hard work of actually putting together a presidential campaign team, raising money and defining their positions. Running for president -- and preparing for the responsibilities of the office -- is serious business. They are taking it seriously.

Running for president to advance ideas is itself a time-honored approach. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and congressman Shirley Chisholm ran for president to help advance women's rights and civil rights. Socialist Eugene Debs ran for president in the early 1900s (once from prison). Conservative Barry Goldwater defeated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the GOP nomination in 1964, championing the libertarian-conservative cause before being defeated by President Lyndon Johnson.

Likewise, Ross Perot's independent campaign in 1992 helped elevate the issue of the deficit to national prominence, paving the way for the balanced budgets of the late 1990s.

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Ron Paul, Gary Johnson and Newt Gingrich are running in this tradition -- none are likely to actually win the nomination, but their presence helps shape the debate.

Paul and Johnson advance the libertarian cause that is (thankfully) on the rise in the GOP, especially among the youthful grassroots. Paul gets points for philosophic consistency when it comes to the now-fashionable criticisms of the Bush Doctrine, deficits and the debt. Gary Johnson's libertarian bona fides extend to social issues as well as fiscal and he has the added distinction of serving as a successful two-term governor of a swing state -- New Mexico -- giving him executive experience as well.

Newt Gingrich soldiers on despite being fired by his entire senior staff, because he wants to be part of the national debate. This forceful professorial approach is something the former Speaker of the House is good at -- and his honesty about the need for (and obstacles to) immigration reform was a substantive highlight of the New Hampshire debate.

There's no doubt that Newt would be pleased to wake up and find himself president, but doing the hard work of campaigning for the office doesn't seem to hold the same appeal. He is running as a candidate of ideas -- and that doesn't require a body man or baggage -- handler.

And then there's the self-promotional approach to running for president. In our recent past, this slot has been occupied most boastfully by Al Sharpton, who ran for president as a Democrat in 2004. He'd never previously been elected to any office, and his campaign expenditures -- the Four Seasons, not the local Holiday Inn -- led me to believe that he was really running to qualify for federal matching funds. Nonetheless, established candidates like Sen. John Kerry and former Gov. Howard Dean tip-toed around him, as he stood on the same stage and was taken somewhat seriously.

We've seen other self-promotional candidates, like Harold Stassen, run for president multiple times. We've seen "what the hell?" campaigns like that of former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, as well as businessmen aiming for the ultimate executive office.

In the 2012 campaign, Herman Cain occupies the self-promotional businessman slot quite capably. The former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and current conservative radio show host is the most able orator in the field and has fired up the enthusiasm of his supporters. But it's a long way from the boardroom to nuclear-code access, as Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan found out. Herman Cain will increase his fame, but he's not going to win the White House.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum is running as the stalwart defender of social conservatives, but because of the near-ubiquity of those positions among his fellow candidates, he has not only failed to stand out from the pack, he has failed to make it clear what unique contribution his campaign makes to the debate. As a result, it seems as though Santorum is running primarily to keep his name alive, and finds the national spotlight more satisfying than risking another failed run in his native Pennsylvania.

But the clearest example of the self-promotional approach to the presidency this campaign is Michele Bachmann. She absorbed a lot of media attention after the New Hampshire debate after exceeding expectations by side-stepping her steady stream of unhinged statements. These have included, for example, talking about how President Obama is "un-American" and bringing "tyranny" and "slavery" to the United States.

Bachmann is using the $13.5 million she raised in donations last year from a national activist base to purchase a first-rate campaign team, helmed by longtime Republican strategist (and former columnist) Ed Rollins.

They can polish this quick study into serious-seeming candidate, but her record shows that she is fundamentally unserious and makes serially irresponsible statements. Bachmann practices the politics of incitement with heavy dose of the paranoid style. This can make an effectively inflammatory factional leader, but it is the opposite of the kind of unifying leader we look for in a president. For this reason, and many others, Bachmann won't be elected president.

That she is being taken seriously by a segment of the conservative electorate -- and could possibly win a caucus like Iowa -- should concern responsible Republicans who want to win the White House.

When six of the nine competitors for the GOP nomination are running to promote themselves or their ideas rather than to actually win the White House, the democratic process is degraded. It becomes infused with our reality TV driven culture, where people aim to be famous for being famous. No actual previous accomplishment is necessary. Only it's voters, rather than viewers, who are the ultimate losers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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