After months of uncertainty, the Republican presidential primary field is all but set. Rick Perry's arrival has transformed the dynamic of the campaign, with polls showing him the clear front-runner and muting the momentum that Michele Bachmann experienced with her Iowa Straw Poll victory. Mitt Romney, who has been at the top of our rankings all year, slips to the No. 2 spot, and now must consider shifting strategy as he campaigns as the underdog instead of the favorite.
Perry’s late-summer entrance jolted the race to life, and the pace will continue to pick up from here. Beginning with the Sept. 7 NBC/Politico debate in Simi Valley, Calif., Republican presidential candidates enter a grueling six-week stretch during which they will debate five times, in venues from Orlando to Las Vegas.
They'll also pound the ground in key primary states such as Michigan, host of September's Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference that will feature dueling speeches from Romney and Perry. (Hotline is conducting the presidential straw poll at Mackinac).
Florida, too, will be flooded with candidates seeking a strong showing at the Presidency V Straw Poll.
This political endurance test will provide a unique challenge for Perry. His opponents will try to blunt his momentum at the debate, and he can expect plenty of not-so-friendly fire coming his way. Romney isn’t wasting time; the former Massachusetts governor is already raising questions about Perry before the newcomer has a chance to define himself.
With Labor Day past, the mission for the top three Republican contenders is: Compete for the big-dollar donors who are ready to step to the plate; continue building strong, grassroots-driven organizations in the must-win early primary states, and avoid gaffes that can quickly become fodder for the media and political opponents.
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: Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich
FALLING: Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Sarah Palin
ARRIVALS IN TOP 10: None
DEPARTURES FROM TOP 10: Tim Pawlenty
|RICK PERRY (previous rank: 2)
Perry has dethroned Mitt Romney as our front-runner only weeks after entering the race, thanks to both excellent initial polling and a well-demonstrated appeal to the key constituencies responsible for determining the Republican nominee. Like Romney before him, however, Perry is by no means a prohibitive favorite to keep the No. 1 spot. He's a natural retail politician, with excellent people skills to complement his Texas swagger. It's that cowboy attitude, however, that leaves Perry prone to undisciplined and off-message moments, which he needs to minimize in order to prove his staying power to a skeptical GOP establishment.
|MITT ROMNEY (previous rank: 1)
Romney's strategy of running a general-election campaign -- focusing his fire on President Obama while allowing his primary opponents to battle -- has worked well thus far. But Romney can't stay above the primary fray forever, and with Perry already proving eager to spar over their comparative executive records, the Romney camp has to develop a plan for eventual counterattack -- and quickly.
|MICHELE BACHMANN (previous rank: 4)
Bachmann peaked with her victory at the Ames Straw poll. Perry’s announcement that weekend stole her thunder, and he’s been ahead of her ever since. With her campaign shakeup over the weekend, and her stagnant poll numbers, this could quickly become a two-person race if she doesn’t retool quickly. Already Gallup shows Perry with a commanding lead over Bachmann among tea party voters.
|RON PAUL (previous rank: 9)
His ceiling remains low, but Paul's strong showing in the Iowa straw poll -- losing to Bachmann by less than 200 votes -- confirms that his message continues to resonate and suggests he'll have an impact on the state's caucuses next year. Paul's campaign condemned the scant media coverage of his near-victory at Ames, but the subsequent wave of sympathetic stories will be more helpful in the long run. Most importantly, he continues to raise the money needed to stay competitive: He celebrated his 76th birthday by organizing a $1.8 million "Money Bomb."
|RICK SANTORUM (previous rank: 7)
As usual, it's good news and bad news for Santorum. Good news: He finished fourth in the straw poll despite spending very little. Bad news: With Bachmann already big-footing the evangelical vote, now he's competing with Perry, too. But Santorum won't be pushed aside without a fight, as he showed by dialing up his criticism of Bachmann heading into Ames. Similarly, his attacks on Perry -- both before and after the Texan waltzed into the race -- demonstrate Santorum's awareness that his back is to the wall and he that needs to build momentum before it's too late.
|JON HUNTSMAN (previous rank: 5)
After a sloppy campaign launch and several months of dreadful polling, Huntsman needed a strong debate performance in Iowa to prove his viability in a contest that seemed to be slipping away from him. It didn't happen. Now, with his "adult in the room" message stalling and his campaign mired in internal sniping, it's time for Huntsman to consider a change in direction. Taking off the gloves is a good start, but he'll need more than sharp rhetorical elbows to have a prayer of competing with Romney in New Hampshire.
|HERMAN CAIN (previous rank: 8)
There's no question that Cain has surpassed our expectations -- and perhaps even his own -- by remaining competitive for this long in the absence of any serious campaign cash or early state organization. But nothing lasts forever, and Cain's disappointing fifth-place showing at Ames marks the beginning of the end for his campaign. Cain already was scrapping for survival, battling with Bachmann and Paul for tea party votes; Perry's entrance into the race makes Cain's path impossibly narrower.
|SARAH PALIN (previous rank: 6)
Palin still wants to steal the show, but she's having a harder time now that the campaign has gained real clarity for the first time. Palin's decision to resurrect her "One Nation" bus tour on the same weekend as the Iowa straw poll backfired -- twice -- as Bachmann's victory and Perry's campaign launch overshadowed her brief foray into Iowa. She's headed back to the Hawkeye state in September, but activists on the ground there are proceeding under the assumption that Palin won't play anything more than a supporting role in this drama.
|NEWT GINGRICH (previous rank: 10)
After an embarrassing three-month stretch in which Gingrich saw his campaign implode after a mass exodus of top staffers, we didn't think things could get any worse for Newt from a P.R. standpoint. We were wrong. On the heels of an awful showing in Ames -- where he couldn't afford a plot from which to sway voters -- Gingrich traveled to the critical primary state of Hawaii, where he screened one of his documentaries. He may be selling movies, but no one should be buying his presidential prospects.
|THE OTHER GUYS
Gary Johnson. Thad McCotter. Buddy Roemer. Heck, even throw in Rudy Giuliani and Fred Karger. What do they all have in common? Two things: a) they're either considering or have already launched a campaign for president; and b) the closest they'll ever get to the Oval Office is on a visitor's tour. But hey, this is America, land of opportunity -- who are we to trample their dreams? Here's to a Roemer-McCotter ticket in 2012!
Photos (top to bottom):
Perry: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Romney: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Bachmann: Getty/Mark Wilson
Paul: Getty/Alex Wong
Santorum: Getty/Chip Somodevilla
Huntsman: AFP/Getty/Liu Jin
Cain: Getty/Brendan Smialowski
Palin: Getty/William Thomas Cain
Gingrich: Getty/Chip Somodevilla