Presidential primary season is finally in full swing, and less than two months out from the Ames Straw poll, the Republican nominating contest continues to be defined by uncertainty.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is finally acting like a front-runner, but he’s yet to encounter any serious and sustained attack from his rivals. The upper class of serious contenders appears to be well established, but intriguing second-tier candidates are working to transcend traditional ceilings and make things interesting. The field seems settled, but the sudden entry of someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry (which we expect) or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (which we don’t) could instantly turn the race -- and all conventional wisdom – on its head.
At this point, only one thing is certain: The gloves are coming off – and quickly. The field has for months largely taken its cues from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had been the most vocal proponent of observing Reagan’s 11th commandment. Pawlenty’s post-debate transformation into full attack mode against Romney opened the floodgates for other candidates to directly criticize each other. This sudden shift in attitude and strategy demonstrates that the “invisible primary” has yielded to a full-fledged campaign. Lightweight sparring has now given way to heavyweight boxing, and candidates won’t be pulling many punches from here on out.
The Republican nominating contest remains volatile. This summer stretch heading into Ames is a critical one; the next several months will separate the pretenders from the contenders.
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: Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul
FALLING: Newt Gingrich
ARRIVALS IN TOP 10: Rick Perry, Herman Cain
DEPARTURES FROM TOP 10: Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels
|MITT ROMNEY (previous rank: 1)
Romney is emerging as a sturdier front-runner than many expected. His performance in last week's debate seemed to solidify the notion that his rivals can't just assume health care will take him down; they actually have to make the case. No wonder, then, that attacks have stepped up. Romney’s raising big money (can he outraise the rest of the field?), he's polling well, and he has unmatched organizational strength across the board. But his biggest asset continues to be the stagnant recovery, which allows him to aggressively pursue his offensive against President Obama while avoiding what Tim Pawlenty calls "ObamneyCare."
|TIM PAWLENTY (previous rank: 2)
Is Pawlenty showing signs of panic? He missed a golden opportunity to position himself as the clearest alternative to Romney when he backed off his health care assault, then doubled back days later after he realized he'd made a mistake. His decision to put television advertisements on air in Iowa so early, something finances won't allow him to sustain, hints he might be worried about low poll numbers. Ads are a good way to quickly bolster numbers. Still, TPaw continues to pick up endorsements in early states.
|RICK PERRY (previous rank: NR)
Evidence is mounting that the four-term Texas governor is preparing to enter the race, and unlike other potential late entrants, he'll be an obvious top-tier candidate and a real threat to Romney's front-runner status. Perry has an appeal to the kinds of voters whose power is ascendant in Republican primary politics. The only reason we're keeping him out of the top two is because his top adviser, New Hampshire strategist Dave Carney, says the chances of Perry's mounting a bid are only 50-50.
|MICHELE BACHMANN (previous rank: 6)
Nobody doubts Bachmann’s fundraising prowess, or her ability to attract top campaign talent, as we've seen lately. But the question persists: Does she possess the necessary gravitas to run with the big dogs? If last week's debate or last weekend's Republican Leadership Conference were any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. Bachmann stood out among other second-tier contenders, and while it’s dangerous to read too much into one early debate and one cattle call, she's starting to look like the second tier's best alternative.
|JON HUNTSMAN (previous rank: 7)
Who is Jon Huntsman? Is he the former Obama appointee who's following in John McCain's footsteps, or the pragmatic conservative who can appeal to independent voters and disaffected Democrats? How voters in early primary states answer that question will determine whether Huntsman is a real factor in the race or merely a creation of media hungry for a good story. With the field shifting rightward, there’s a vacuum for a centrist candidate, though Romney may be interested in that mantle. Huntsman can blow away the field on foreign policy credentials, but does anyone care?
|SARAH PALIN (previous rank: 9)
Her "One Nation" tour did little to distinguish whether she’s auditioning for a presidential run or a cable news show, and apparently she's quit that early, too. But the tour served as a useful reminder that Palin retains an unparalleled grip on the American political imagination. The media’s obsession with Palin – look no further than the number of big-feet reporters dispatched to Alaska to sift through her e-mails – affords her a world of free publicity, something most presidential contenders would die for.
|RICK SANTORUM (previous rank: 8)
With Bachmann now occupying much of the same ultra-conservative, proudly evangelical platform Santorum claims, the former senator will have an even harder time standing out. And he's not doing himself any favors: Did anyone else think for a second that he may have left the debate a little early last week? Even when afforded a golden opportunity to play attack dog – he was essentially asked to call out Romney’s flip-flopping on abortion – Santorum politely passed. That would score points with Reagan, but not with voters hungry for Reagan's heir.
|HERMAN CAIN (previous rank: NR)
Riding high after a strong performance in the first Republican debate in South Carolina, Cain undoubtedly lost some of his luster after a forgettable follow-up performance in New Hampshire (Bachmann's strong performance didn't help him either). Cain’s oratorical gifts have helped guide him to second-tier status in the minds of some observers, but speaking skills are no substitute for serious, substantive policy views. Cain is the media's go-to candidate when they need someone to oppose Sharia law. That doesn't make him a serious contender.
|RON PAUL (previous rank: 10)
We never thought we’d say this, but Ron Paul doesn’t stand out like he used to. It's ironic: As more contenders adopt his policies (Huntsman wants out of Afghanistan, Gingrich is all for auditing the Fed), Paul is becoming increasingly marginalized. Even Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, is winning media attention for stands Paul advocated years ago.
|NEWT GINGRICH (previous rank: 5)
Newt was never a serious threat to win the GOP nomination. But nobody could have predicted just how quickly – and publicly – his campaign would fall apart. Gingrich is destined to remain the Republican Party's big thinker; he won't be their presidential nominee. Sometimes, a candidate can kill his chances simply by waiting too long to run.
ON THE BUBBLE: Rudy Giuliani, Gary Johnson, Thad McCotter, George Pataki, Buddy Roemer
Photos (top to bottom):
Romney: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Pawlenty: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Perry: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Bachmann: Getty/Mark Wilson
Huntsman: AFP/Getty/Liu Jin
Palin: Getty/William Thomas Cain
Santorum: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Cain: Getty/Brendan Smialowski
Paul: Getty/Alex Wong
Gingrich: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
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