Here we are, a year before the first caucuses and primaries, and to our stunned surprise, not a single presidential candidate has made his or her campaign official. But behind the scenes, the invisible primary is well under way, as candidates hit the trail and solicit support. We’re tracking the key players and moves to answer the question: Who is best positioned to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?
We rank the top 15 GOP contenders using four criteria:
- Money: How much do they have? How much can they raise?
- Campaign infrastructure: Do they have the ability to assemble a competitive and competent staff, both at the national and state levels?
- Strengths: What issue(s) can the candidate truly hang their hat on? Is there a specific area of expertise they can sell to voters? Do they have a strong track record on one particular issue?
- Weaknesses: Every candidate has one -- heck, most candidates have plenty -- and the reality is that eventually they will have to address them. This will be easier for some contenders than others: Explaining away one vote for bad legislation is far easier than justifying a major moral lapse or some fatally flawed executive decision. At the end of the day, some candidates will have weaknesses, and others will have albatrosses. It’s the latter group who should be worried.
Who's trending since our first edition of PPR:
RISING: Mitch Daniels, Jim DeMint, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum
FALLING: Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, John Thune
ARRIVALS: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rudy Giuliani, Jon Huntsman
DEPARTURES: Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, Rick Perry
|MITT ROMNEY (previous rank: 1)
Romney remains the front-runner largely because no one has challenged him head-on. In fact, he's barely been heard from in the last few months, save for a few newspaper op-eds. That suits him just fine; the less time anyone has to knock him down a peg or two, the better his chances at the nomination. Still, serious ideological questions lurk just below the surface, sure to be exploited by Romney's rivals.
|TIM PAWLENTY (previous rank: 2)
No candidate is more seriously putting together a ground operation than Pawlenty, and his new stump speech addresses questions about a perceived lack of passion on the trail. T-Paw's book tour is earning him fans and giving him a second chance to introduce himself to voters who might have yawned when they attended his first address.
|MIKE HUCKABEE (previous rank: 5)
If Huckabee runs, he can win Iowa, compete in South Carolina, and put together a coalition of social conservatives that no one else can match. But he's not showing a lot of leg. We hear from activists on the ground that Huckabee has no presence in early-primary states, a troubling sign when even Sarah Palin is trolling for support. Huck is a major potential player in the top tier -- but he’s saddled with the 'potential' label until he starts acting like a real candidate.
|JOHN THUNE (previous rank: 3)
Thune might appear less enamored of the idea of running for president now than he did six months ago, but he's making phone calls that indicate the door isn't closed yet. Thune was making calls to prominent strategists in key early states as late as September. Then those calls abruptly stopped. Taking a pass makes sense: President Obama is looking stronger; why not wait him out and run in 2016?
|MITCH DANIELS (previous rank: 9)
Daniels has perhaps the best record of turning around a state, but he stumbled early with his proposed truce on social issues. That's coming back to haunt him this month when he addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference, an event that's becoming a tinderbox for reasons not entirely within Daniels's control. Still, the prospect of a Daniels bid gets a warm welcome in top GOP circles.
|HALEY BARBOUR (previous rank: 4)
Barbour's comments about his hometown's history during the civil rights era didn't do him any favors. In fact, it may qualify as the first major gaffe of the 2012 race. But it didn't kill Barbour's chances. He went to South Carolina to meet with donors last week, and his team has met to discuss the strategy surrounding a bid. But every strategist we talk with brings up the dreaded "L" word: lobbyist.
|NEWT GINGRICH (previous rank: 7)
Gingrich has wanted to run for president since becoming speaker in 1995. After a few false starts, he's looking pretty serious this time out. Allies have been asked to keep their powder dry, and Gingrich is collecting endorsements and shopping for office space. But waiting nearly a generation to make a move means there's a lot of new talent in a space Gingrich once occupied by himself; that could ultimately be his downfall.
|SARAH PALIN (previous rank: 6)
There is a growing consensus among blogging heads that Palin's poll numbers are bad enough to end her chances in a general election. There are an increasing number of Palin apologists, and even fans, who adore her personally but say they wouldn’t vote for her. Once Palin loses her base, she is as good as toast. Her tone-deaf reaction to the Tucson, Ariz., shootings may ultimately be the moment she slipped out of contention for good.
|JON HUNTSMAN (new to rankings)
Huntsman floated his name with uncharacteristic transparency, letting it be known he shouldn’t be overlooked. But he’s taken a few strange initial steps –- first taking a job in President Obama’s administration, then buying a house in Washington at a time when D.C. is the last image anyone wants to project. Huntsman is a relative centrist, and if he tries to occupy that position by himself he has a narrow, but real, path to victory.
|RICK SANTORUM (previous rank: 13)
At the moment, there aren't all that many candidates actively hitting the trail. Santorum is one, and he's actually making progress, hiring a well-regarded staffer in New Hampshire and the beginnings of a campaign team in Iowa. He remains a long shot, and activists are cognizant of the way he left office in 2006. Still, the fact that he's actually visiting Iowa and New Hampshire counts for something.
|JIM DEMINT (previous rank: 14)
Jim DeMint is no one's vice presidential nominee. He's probably not the future GOP presidential nominee either, but his reputation with the party's activist base means he's going to play a big role in the 2012 process -- even if he's not a candidate. We wouldn't be surprised to see a draft movement sometime soon.
|MICHELE BACHMANN (new to rankings)
Bachmann has carved a niche for herself, and if anything, she would benefit the most if Palin decides not to run. Bachmann will visit Iowa again in March, and her massive bank account makes her someone to contend with. But we still see her as a more likely Senate candidate than a presidential contender. Watch how Minnesota legislators draw district lines to get an early idea which way she's leaning.
|RON PAUL (previous rank: 15)
No one will ever be able to accuse Paul of sticking his finger in the wind. He leads, and if no one follows, he's hardly deterred. Despite the sturm und drang of the 2008 campaign, not that many people actually did follow. He may visit Iowa now and then, but Ron Paul is not going to be the 2012 presidential nominee.
|HERMAN CAIN (new to rankings)
Cain is the only candidate who has filed papers to explore the race. He is little-known, and unlikely to make it past the very beginning stages of the contest, but at least he's in and campaigning. He'll do well in any debates in which he's included, too; Cain has perhaps the best presentation skills of anyone outside Huckabee.
|RUDY GIULIANI (new to rankings)
Giuliani is the most popular Republican who can never win the party's nomination. He backed away again and again from making a stand in 2008, and by the time he did, other candidates had the momentum. Giuliani is talking about making another run, and we hear he'd like to do so. But cooler heads are trying to talk him down.
ON THE BUBBLE: Bobby Jindal, Gary Johnson, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Donald Trump
Photos (top to bottom):
Romney: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Pawlenty: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Huckabee: AFP/Getty/Toshifumi Kitamura
Thune: Liz Lynch
Daniels: Liz Lynch
Barbour: Liz Lynch
Gingrich: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Palin: Getty/William Thomas Cain
Huntsman: AFP/Getty/Liu Jin
Santorum: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
DeMint: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Bachmann: Getty/Mark Wilson
Paul: Getty/Alex Wong
Cain: Getty/Brendan Smialowski
Giuliani: Getty/Chris Hondros
This article appears in the Feb. 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.