If slow and steady wins the presidential race, Mitt Romney has a ticket as the Republicans’ presidential nominee. With less than two months to go until the first caucus in Iowa, Romney has distinguished himself as the front-runner through strong debate performances, a disciplined campaign team that’s made few mistakes—and a little luck, too. A handful of potentially strong challengers—Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan—decided not to run, leaving a field of flawed (at best) second-tier candidates looking to emerge as the anti-Romney.
The biggest surprise in the last two months is that Rick Perry didn’t live up to his potential as a serious, conservative Romney alternative. The Texas governor stumbled at debates, alienated conservatives with his position on immigration, and didn’t give the Republican establishment much reason to think he’d be a strong nominee against President Obama. He’s raised $17 million last quarter, giving him plenty of money to mount a counter-offensive, but time is running out.
Herman Cain has emerged as the grassroots conservative favorite, and that’s lasted (so far), even with news of the sexual-harassment allegations he faced over a decade ago when heading the National Restaurant Association. But his bigger long-term problem is his lack of organization: He’s spent more time lately in Washington, D.C., fueling the media firestorm instead of meeting with interested voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. In states like Iowa where organization is paramount, that will matter as the caucuses and primaries draw closer.
So with apologies to Buddy Roemer, Gary Johnson, and Fred Karger—none of whom make the cut—here’s the latest edition of Hotline’s Presidential Power Rankings.
We rank the leading 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: Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich
FALLING: Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann
DEPARTURES: Sarah Palin
|MITT ROMNEY (previous rank: 2)
Read Romney's steady plod one of two ways: He's either got a hard ceiling he can't break through among the primary electorate, or he's the most consistent candidate in a remarkably inconsistent field. The truth is probably a little of both. And all the evidence we need of his front-runner status comes from Chicago, where President Obama's reelection campaign is hammering the candidate they perceive as their most likely foe.
|RICK PERRY (previous rank: 1)
Perry's late-starting campaign will serve as a lesson for future candidates: Debates matter, and preparation makes all the difference. For all his successful campaigning in Texas, Perry started off painfully unprepared for the presidential spotlight. If he's going to hit his stride again, he'll need a jumping-off point. His campaign is playing big in Iowa, but he's still below double digits in recent polls. We wait with baited breath to see if his initial advertising blitz can give him a boost.
|HERMAN CAIN (previous rank: 7)
There's a huge drop-off between Romney, Perry, and the rest of the field. And revelations about sexual-harassment allegations seem destined to create a wider gap. Cain wasn't going to win the nomination anyway; his deficiencies as a candidate have been exposed by his lack of infrastructure and inconsistent messaging. The fact that he's been thrown off-message—probably for good—raises the possibility that he doesn't make it to the first primary contests.
|RICK SANTORUM (previous rank: 5)
Give Santorum an "A" for effort: He's now visited each of Iowa's 99 counties. And he continues to make his presence felt on the debate stage. Still, Santorum has never been able to engage his core audience in the way Mike Huckabee or Pat Robertson did. Santorum seems destined to be the candidate who never realized his full potential.
|NEWT GINGRICH (previous rank: 9)
Gingrich's third-place standing in the polls is deceptive. He has no money, he's barely campaigning in early states, and the biggest news he's made lately is to defend his buddy Cain. Spending a decade on Fox News will get anyone to 10 percent in a Republican primary poll. Don't buy talk of NewtMentum: It's not going to happen.
|RON PAUL (previous rank: 5)
No one has influenced the debate, and the direction of the Republican Party, more than Ron Paul has in recent years. His fans in 2008 were the first sign of an angry electorate. But those fans aren't representative of the tea party movement as a whole. Give Paul credit for running a more professional campaign this time around than he did last time, but he's the perfect example of a message candidate who doesn't move beyond a small, loyal fan base.
|JON HUNTSMAN (previous rank: 6)
It's never good when the buzziest thing about a campaign is the candidate's daughters poking fun at the process—especially when the candidate himself has a penchant for telling bad jokes. Huntsman appears to be positioning himself to be a short-lister for secretary of State in the next Republican administration. But his animosity toward Romney doesn’t help.
|MICHELE BACHMANN (previous rank: 3)
Just as a focus on one's daughters isn't good, neither is a former manager sticking a fork in his ex-client's campaign—doubly so when that former manager, Ed Rollins, is a frequent presence on CNN and MSNBC. Bachmann has until June 5 next year to file for her congressional seat, plenty of time to gracefully exit the presidential race and rebuild her campaign war chest.
Photos (top to bottom):
Romney: AP/Paul Sancya
Perry: AP/Paul Sancya
Cain: AP/Paul Sancya
Santorum: AP/Richard Shiro
Gingrich: AP/Richard Shiro
Paul: AP/Paul Sancya
Huntsman: AP/Richard Shiro
Bachmann: AP/Paul Sancya