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Republican moderate officeholders from Jon Huntsman version 2.0 — his campaign recently relaunched with a more aggressively independent and even progressive tone — to George Pataki are coming out of the woodwork, trying to gain traction in the 2012 race to unseat Barack Obama, who because of a lagging economy and cynical obstruction in Washington looks more vulnerable than ever. The only problem? Republican primary voters aren’t on board with the plan.

Things are looking fabulous for potential Republican challengers to the president right now. His every effort to stimulate the economy has either failed to keep up with epic unemployment or been blocked in Congress. His approval numbers are reaching all-time lows. Key demographic groups that propelled his 2008 rout of John McCain are souring on him, and though Labor will surely back his reelection, progressives threaten to be too depressed by a failure to change the culture in D.C. to be “fired up and ready to go” when they need to be. As reputed pollster Tom Jensen put it:

Only 48% of Democrats on our most recent national survey said they were ‘very excited’ about voting in 2012. On the survey before that the figure was 49%. Those last two polls are the only times all year the ‘very excited’ number has dipped below 50%.

In 13 polls before August the average level of Democrats ‘very excited’ about voting next year had averaged 57%. It had been as high as 65% and only twice had the number even dipped below 55%.

It had seemed earlier in the year like Democrats had overcome the ‘enthusiasm gap’ that caused so much of their trouble in last year’s elections. But now 54% of Republicans say they’re ‘very excited’ about casting their ballots next year, indicating that the problem may be back.

The debt deal really does appear to have demoralized the base, and the weird thing about it is that this is one issue where if Obama had done what folks on the left wanted him to do, he also would have had the support of independents. The deal has proven to be a complete flop in swing states where we’ve polled it like Colorado, North Carolina, and Ohio. And in every single one of those states a majority of voters overall, as well as a majority of independents, think new taxes are going to be needed to solve the deficit problem.

So why are Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann dominating the field — and the conversation? The Republican establishment is making known it doesn’t want to waste an opportunity to roll back the most progressive presidency in decades. After all, it may not have been clear six months ago that Republicans would have a solid shot to knock out Barack Obama, but it surely is now.

But it’s that very tension we can expect to play out this fall as opinions harden and the Iowa caucuses approach — an establishment desperate to put a credible, sensible challenger forward to take out their enemy, and a Tea Party equally determined not to waste its energy and activism on a Mitt Romney — or even worse, a Jon Huntsman.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny

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