Welcome to The Hotline’s inaugural edition of Presidential Power Rankings.
Who is best positioned to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination? Find out here, where we rank the top 15 GOP contenders using a formula that answers a simple question: Who is currently in the strongest position to secure the nomination? Our 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.
Check back frequently for updates as the 2012 presidential contest gets under way.
The A-List Tier
1. MITT ROMNEY
The GOP has a history of nominating the person who has stood in line, and after finishing second behind John McCain in 2008, Romney is now that person. He's got the necessary infrastructure, fundraising ability, and intangibles to be the undisputed front-runner, but how convincingly he answers nagging questions about his individual mandate in Commonwealth Care will determine how long he keeps the top spot.
2. TIM PAWLENTY
Like Romney, Pawlenty is acting like a traditional candidate, putting together the staff and resources necessary to jump in with both feet. He’s certainly got the executive experience and conservative credentials, but early reviews of his public appearances make us wonder whether he's exciting enough to inspire a primary audience. Our burning question: Does “Minnesota Nice” play in presidential primary politics?
3. JOHN THUNE
He’s young, presidential-looking, and in tune with the base – all of which endears him to primary crowds. He has the smarts and savvy to go with battle-tested campaign skills (see: Daschle, Tom). Is John Thune in 2010 what Barack Obama was in 2006? Not yet – but if primary voters are looking for a fresh face to lead the GOP into a new, conservative era, Thune could be the guy. His biggest vulnerability is his 2008 vote for TARP, an explanation for which he’s already rehearsing.
4. HALEY BARBOUR
Many believe Barbour is the best tactician, and one of the best politicians, in the Republican Party. His tenure at the Republican Governors Association was a virtually unqualified success, and he can claim credit for down-ballot wins, too. But as the Mississippian himself points out, he's a lawyer, a lobbyist, and a politician – three strikes in an atmosphere that distains the establishment.
The Fox News Tier
5. MIKE HUCKABEE
Whether Huckabee is serious about running or just wants his name out there to make money is an unsolved mystery. But no one should underestimate the most charismatic man in the field. He won Iowa once, he can do it again. Still, fiscal conservatives don’t like Huck, and he’ll have to answer for releasing a criminal who murdered four police officers in Washington state late last year.
6. SARAH PALIN
As with Huckabee, we question Palin's intentions. We’d take her potential candidacy more seriously if she weren’t banking millions from books, speaking engagements, and reality shows. Is she only keeping her name in the 2012 conversation to stay relevant? One thing is for sure: Palin has a stronger connection to an ascendant base than any other candidate. But if she's serious about running, she will need to assemble precisely the sort of traditional campaign she has eschewed in the past.
7. NEWT GINGRICH
Newt is greeted like a rock star at every GOP rally he attends, and the activist class claims he's the party’s sharpest policy mind. But he has flirted with an Oval Office run in the past without making the leap, which makes us wary of taking him too seriously. Making book-tour stops in Iowa only sells more books – it doesn't get him any delegates. If he does run, his banter about anti-colonialism, food stamps, and Hitler will make it hard for him to tack back to the middle if he were to secure the nomination.
8. MIKE PENCE
The surprise winner at the Values Voter Summit straw poll is serious about running, given his decision to withdraw from his House leadership post. But is he running for president or for governor of Indiana? His speech this month at the Detroit Economic Club indicates the former. Pence connects with tea party voters, but any House member faces a tough climb if he wants to run for the White House.
The Governor / VP / '16 Tier
9. MITCH DANIELS
Indiana's successful two-term governor is getting the kind of early buzz any White House contender would kill for. But his decision to call for a “truce” on social issues, which angered social conservatives, put him on the wrong side of a key constituency before his campaign even began. While he’s been meeting with GOP power players to map out a potential run, Daniels has also been unusually honest about the fact that toying with a White House run is a great way to stay relevant.
10. CHRIS CHRISTIE
He’s the Republican flavor of the moment, thanks to high-profile battles with New Jersey teachers unions and Trenton Democrats. But the charismatic former prosecutor has spent the last two months finding a thousand different ways to promise that he’s not running. A draft movement will have to be very persuasive – and incredibly well-funded – to have a shot.
11. RICK PERRY
The thrice-elected Texas governor maintains he is uninterested in living in Washington, but a national book tour and his unabashed courtship of tea party conservatives hints otherwise. Bringing up the 10th Amendment during his tough primary bid was a smart move, and it solidified his place among a segment of GOP-primary voters who may prove essential to deciding the 2012 nominee.
12. BOBBY JINDAL
We believe the Louisiana governor is a more likely candidate in 2016 than he is in 2012, but he remains a man to watch in the upcoming cycle. Jindal has to run for reelection in 2011, giving him at most a three-month turnaround before Iowa voters caucus. Still, Jindal has a noted policy mind and an impeccable record of fiscal conservatism. He's a player, even if only for vice president.
The Tea Party Tier
13. RICK SANTORUM
Santorum has been quietly interviewing potential staffers and is beginning to pile the few eggs he has into the Iowa basket, hoping the stars align and voters are so divided between top-tier candidates that he can pull a Huckabee and carry the conservative vote. Sure, he's a long shot, but the only candidate who unabashedly entered the 2004 contest so early was Howard Dean, who went from obscurity to front-runner before falling flat.
14. JIM DEMINT
DeMint has been forward in claiming credit for conservative primary victories over establishment favorites, and he's no stranger to bashing his own party when it's not conservative enough for his taste, something that's popular with the base. But he's equally insistent that he won't be running in 2012, and he's made no moves that suggest he isn't being honest. If he runs, DeMint would be a force to be reckoned with – but he's ranked here for now because of the magnitude of that "if."
15. R. PAUL
In 2008, Ron Paul was little more than a sideshow. He generated big crowds and unparalleled excitement, but was unable to convert that grassroots energy into the votes needed to compete in key early states. Suddenly, Paul's message is a lot more popular – so much so that his son is an incoming senator from Kentucky. Who's the messenger for that message in 2012? Ron? Rand?
On the bubble: John Cornyn, Gary Johnson, Bob McDonnell, George Pataki, Marco Rubio