The first presidential debate took place last week, yet the Republican field of candidates looking to challenge President Obama still is highly unsettled. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have formed exploratory committees, but two other governors -- Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- are on the verge of deciding whether to jump in.
With Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour deciding not to run last month, a vacuum remains for a southern candidate to jump in the field, which makes a campaign from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee all the more enticing.
And given how wide-open the GOP field is, there’s room for plenty of surprises. Businessman Herman Cain’s well-received performance in the first debate raised the possibility that an under-the-radar tea party candidate could gain momentum. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has been drawing loads of media coverage, and could become a major player in Iowa and South Carolina -- if she runs.
Our new edition of Presidential Power Rankings reflects these known unknowns. Romney and Pawlenty remain locked in the top two spots, but the remaining spots in the top 10 underscore the volatility of the field.
We rank the top 10 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: Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul
FALLING: Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin
ARRIVALS IN TOP 10: Ron Paul
DEPARTURES FROM TOP 10: Haley Barbour
|MITT ROMNEY (previous rank: 1)
Romney is still the front-runner for the nomination, even though he hasn't been heard from much. His health care speech this week is a seminal moment for his campaign. How he handles his own record could very well determine how long he continues at the top of the heap. Romney doesn't want to engage just yet; he's not going to unless other contenders force him into a more public phase of his campaign.
|TIM PAWLENTY (previous rank: 2)
Pawlenty is the most serious contender not named Romney. Despite the understated performance in the first GOP debate, Pawlenty came away looking the most presidential of anyone on stage. He's steadily building a team, and keeps attracting supporters in key early states. But he's trying to be everything to everyone; Romney did that in 2008, and it might have hurt more than it helped. When Pawlenty drops the Lady Gaga references, we'll know he's learned he doesn't have to check every box, so long as he's checking enough boxes well.
|MIKE HUCKABEE (previous rank: 6)
We hear more mixed messages from Huckabee fans than from anyone else. He's either got too many personal financial commitments to take a year off to make the race, or he's receiving staff commitments and is set to get in the race any day. The one thing we're sure of: There's an unmistakable vacuum waiting for a a southern conservative appealing to evangelical voters to step in. The rule of thumb in GOP primaries is that the guy who finished second last time wins the next time around. Are we certain that it's Romney who should be considered the 2008 runner-up, and not Huckabee?
|MITCH DANIELS (previous rank: 5)
Without Barbour in the field, Daniels is the media's favorite contender. And though he's hemming and hawing over running, Daniels has taken a few major policy steps toward a bid, like passing sweeping education reforms and signing a bill restricting funds for Planned Parenthood. Watch closely on Thursday, when Indiana's first lady, Cheri Daniels, addresses state Republicans. Daniels aides are saying the speech won't make news, but the subtleties will tell us a lot about whether she's okay with her husband running for president.
|NEWT GINGRICH (previous rank: 4)
Gingrich officially launched his campaign this week, and already his biggest problem has become apparent; the New York Times wasted no time running a front-page story examining his (third) marriage. His biggest challenge is proving he's more than a sideshow. His biggest asset is the fact that, to this day, no one comes up with more policy ideas than Gingrich. But the stumbles have to stop before he gets really serious. And, as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley put it, Gingrich must prove he and his ideas are still "relevant" to the GOP after 13 years away from electoral politics.
|MICHELE BACHMANN (previous rank: 8)
Bachmann may be the most unlikely contender in the field, but she's got a fan base among conservatives and a dedicated following among tea partiers. She's also a proven fundraiser; no other House member can say he or she matched Bachmann's $13.5 million raised for her own campaign. Bachmann has said she’ll make a final decision by June, and her schedule for the latter part of May includes trips to both Iowa and New Hampshire.
|JON HUNTSMAN (previous rank: 9)
Huntsman is playing a dangerous game: He's appealing to Republican primary voters by showing off his electability (Read: Ability to appeal to the center), but whether the right accepts that argument seems a dubious prospect. But his advisers are convinced they need to offer a different kind of politician. Huntsman has only just hit the trail, but already he's facing attacks over his past positions on gay rights, immigration, and climate change.
|RICK SANTORUM (previous rank: 10)
Herman Cain proved his debate prowess last week. Rick Santorum reminded us he's pretty good on the stump too. But we're always surprised how many voters are aware of Santorum's last electoral effort -- an 18-point drubbing in 2006, when he lost his seat to Sen. Bob Casey. Santorum brags about how often he shows up in early-primary states; when will it actually pay off for him?
|SARAH PALIN (previous rank: 7)
Palin's relevance, and subsequently her role in the Republican primary, appear diminished every week. The last time she actually looked interested in running was about three months ago, when she hired a well-known operative to run her PAC. Since then, Palin's role in the news cycle has been limited to lawsuits, tell-all memoirs written by disgruntled former staffers, and her unabashed support for Donald Trump’s birther crusade. Palin looks more like a future conservative talk show host and less like a real candidate.
RON PAUL (previous rank: 12)
|Special Bonus Sleeper: PAUL RYAN
Yes, we know: Ryan has said repeatedly that he will not run for president. But he should. After all, his budget proposal has ensured that he's the face of the GOP, for better or worse (Make no mistake, some GOP strategists are on the "worse" side). Paul presents a good image for the GOP. If they're going to be weighed down by his plan, maybe he should be the one defending it.
ON THE BUBBLE: Herman Cain, Rudy Giuliani, Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer, Donald Trump
Photos (top to bottom):
Romney: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Pawlenty: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Huckabee: AFP/Getty/Toshifumi Kitamura
Daniels: Liz Lynch
Gingrich: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Bachmann: Getty/Mark Wilson
Huntsman: AFP/Getty/Liu Jin
Santorum: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Palin: Getty/William Thomas Cain
Paul: Getty/Alex Wong
Ryan: Getty/Alex Wong