After months of masking their intentions while nimbly navigating the invisible primary, White House candidates are beginning to show their hands. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty became the first top-tier candidate to formally announce an exploratory committee this month, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is close to doing the same - moves that will likely trigger a run of announcements from other contenders in the coming weeks.
With the Iowa caucuses tentatively slated for February 6, 2012, candidates have roughly 10 months left to sell themselves as the most appealing option to the Republican primary electorate. Who is currently best positioned to do so?
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.
RISING: Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul, Herman Cain
FALLING: Mike Huckabee, Jim DeMint
ARRIVALS: Donald Trump
DEPARTURES: John Thune
|MITT ROMNEY (previous rank: 1)
Romney's campaign-in-waiting has started picking up the pace. He's visiting key early states and recruiting staffers who will serve in key roles. But health care hangs over his head like the sword of Damocles, ready to fall at any moment. Romney's initial defense of CommonwealthCare won over a few skeptics, but the vast majority of Republicans aren't going to be thrilled when they hear his rivals compare his Massachusetts version of health care with President Obama's. And Obama is gleefully trumpeting those comparisons, much to Romney's dispair.
|TIM PAWLENTY (previous rank: 2)
Pawlenty looks increasingly likely to step into the front-runner's void if Romney fizzles and no other candidate sets the world on fire. South Dakota Sen. John Thune’s decision not to run creates more room for a Midwestern conservative with few glaring vulnerabilities. Pawlenty has already snagged some top staffers, including Eric Woolson, the architect of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 caucus victory, to run his Iowa operation. He recently became the first serious candidate to launch an exploratory committee, which will help raise his profile beyond Minnesota.
|HALEY BARBOUR (previous rank: 6)
No candidate's reputation has preceeded him with the chattering classes more than Barbour's. He has met the attending expectations in some cases, especially as he begins to form a top-notch staff. But in others, Barbour has fallen short, stumbling where his reputation for political preeminence should have bolstered him. The terrible two-month stretch of damaging headlines he’s endured will make his path to victory more difficult. But if his reputation is deserved -- and it is -- Barbour will be able to recover.
|NEWT GINGRICH (previous rank: 7)
There is no bigger ideas factory in the Republican Party than Newt Gingrich's brain. However, many of those ideas aren't realistic or feasible, and Gingrich's inflammatory rhetoric has gotten the best of him in the past. In addition, his disorganized “launch” won’t inspire much confidence about his ability to put together a structured campaign. But if there's one cautionary note everyone involved in the race is sounding these days, it's that Gingrich is not to be underestimated. Perhaps no other serious contender can dominate a debate like Gingrich, and that will keep him in good stead through the long months until the Iowa caucuses.
|MITCH DANIELS (previous rank: 5)
On paper, Daniels is a very intriguing candidate. He'd be a formidable contender -- if, that is, he actually showed signs he was interested in running. But despite conservative buzz over balancing the budget and reforming public services in Indiana, Daniels hasn’t taken any steps to prepare for a presidential campaign. To the contrary, he’s been gratuitously alienating key parts of the GOP base -- from calling for a social truce, tweaking Rush Limbaugh, and even (initially) defending liberal protesters at the state House. Once he signals any serious interest in running, he'll move up in the rankings.
|MIKE HUCKABEE (previous rank: 3)
Huckabee seems much more content promoting his new book rather than spending time on the campaign trail being subjected to presidential-level scrutiny. If he runs, he’d have a logical path to the nomination through Iowa and South Carolina, and a populist message that could resonate in working-class parts of the country. But with a new millionaire’s mansion in Florida and making good money as a host on Fox News, it seems less likely by the day that he’ll pursue a bid.
|SARAH PALIN (previous rank: 8)
The basic formula for compiling these rankings is to take a candidate's likelihood of winning and divide by the likelihood that he or she will run in the first place. We're very skeptical that Palin will run, but her chances of securing the GOP nomination if she does are high. How can that be, given her falling approval ratings among Republicans? Consider Rep. Ben Quayle, who faced allegations during his primary campaign in Arizona that he posted messages on a raunchy local website. Quayle became the focus of the race, big-footing other candidates and splintering the opposition. Palin has the unique ability to do the same.
|MICHELE BACHMANN (previous rank: 12)
If Palin doesn’t run, Bachmann could fill the role of a provocative social conservative who excites the base. She’s looking more like a presidential candidate lately, making stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But her recent “Lexington and Concord” gaffe in New Hampshire underscores her biggest flaw: A serious lack of gravitas.
|JON HUNTSMAN (previous rank: 9)
Given his position as an ambassador, Huntsman can't even answer questions about whether he'd like to run until the end of next month. But he's making all the moves, and he has a team in place if and when he decides to make the formal leap. The question is whether he can overcome his reputation as a pragmatic candidate (in the minds of a Republican primary voter, “pragmatic” can mean “moderate”). President Obama won't make it any easier for Huntsman; he is already joking about touting Huntsman's work for the administration. Every joke, it is said, has a kernel of truth wrapped within.
|RICK SANTORUM (previous rank: 10)
Santorum has been spending significant time in Iowa, hoping to win over conservative culture warriors. But like Gingrich, his time in the political spotlight was nearly a decade ago and he’s having trouble picking up buzz despite his aggressive early efforts. He’s been raising his foreign-policy profile lately with tough criticism over Obama’s handling of the Libya crisis, but more than a few Iowa activists know what happened to him the last time he was on a general-election ballot.
|RUDY GIULIANI (previous rank: 15)
“America’s Mayor” is acting like a candidate lately, but the question remains: If Giuliani couldn't translate his huge popularity in 2008 to anything more than a single delegate, what makes him think he can do anything different this time around? He hinted at the answer recently during an appearance in New Hampshire – a state he abandoned in 2008 but promised to barnstorm in 2012 if he runs again. Giuliani is critiquing his rivals like a serious candidate would, but we're waiting for signs that he's getting the gang back together before we buy his candidacy.
|RON PAUL (previous rank: 13)
Paul is guaranteed to have a following wherever he goes, and his foreign-policy isolationism may get a renewed hearing now that Obama has involved the U.S. in another war in the Arab world. Between that and fresh anxiety over government spending, Paul's message should resonate with elements of the base louder than ever before. But even with the big crowds he attracted in 2008, he wasn't a huge factor come Election Day.
|HERMAN CAIN (previous rank: 14)
Cain's biggest contributions to the campaign may be to provide an eloquent presence in debates and to raise some uncomfortable questions about race (he's tiptoed up to the line on race a few times already). But then, Huckabee was supposed to bring little more than a good voice to debates in 2008, and he ended up winning the Iowa caucuses.
|DONALD TRUMP (new to rankings)
We still think Trump is milking the presidential speculation for publicity, but he’s been taking steps beyond the trash talk that suggests he’s serious, including June visits to Iowa and New Hampshire (post-Apprentice finale) and recently dispatching an aide to Iowa to meet with several of the state’s powerbrokers. Until he actually shakes the hand of a Hawkeye State voter, however, we'll remain extremely skeptical.
|JIM DEMINT (previous rank: 11)
Consider our calculation: DeMint's chances of getting into the race are very low. But if, say, Palin and Bachmann take a pass on running, he might not see any ideological kindred spirit in the race. If he decides that's a deal-breaker, DeMint might just reconsider. And if he does decide to get in, he'd have a following. DeMint is heading to Iowa on Saturday, and, to quote our friend Chris Cillizza, no politician goes to Iowa by accident.
ON THE BUBBLE: Bobby Jindal, Gary Johnson, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Buddy Roemer
Photos (top to bottom):
Romney: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Pawlenty: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Barbour: Liz Lynch
Gingrich: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Daniels: Liz Lynch
Huckabee: AFP/Getty/Toshifumi Kitamura
Palin: Getty/William Thomas Cain
Bachmann: Getty/Mark Wilson
Huntsman: AFP/Getty/Liu Jin
Santorum: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Giuliani: Getty/Chris Hondros
Paul: Getty/Alex Wong
Cain: Getty/Brendan Smialowski
Trump: AFP/Getty/Emmanuel Dunand
DeMint: Getty/Chip Somodevilla