Less than two weeks ago, I first wrote about the Republican field of candidates for the upcoming 2012 presidential primary season. Somehow, it seems a lot longer ago than that, because of all the activity since -- which has included many surprises as to who will and who will not be running.
With all this frantic jumping in and out of the race, I thought it was time to take another look at the Republican field to see how it is shaping up. At this point, there are only a few holdouts left on the sidelines, as most of the bigwigs (and some decidedly "smallwigs") have made their intentions known.
Within each of the rather broad categories below, the names are presented alphabetically, to avoid showing any sort of favoritism. For a full list of who isn't running and who has even been mentioned, see my previous column (as time goes on, we'll be paying less and less attention to people who simply have no chance whatsoever).
This is where most of the surprising news comes from, as the people who have made a formal announcement in the past few weeks to declare their candidacy were all widely expected to run (no surprise there, in other words). The Republican field opened up considerably with the news that the following three people had decided against a run.
Mitch Daniels -- To the dismay of many Republican pundits and much of the Republican Party establishment, Mitch Daniels announced (in the middle of the night) that his wife and daughters had vetoed his ambitions to run for the highest office in the land. Daniels was seen by much of the Washington Republican chattering class as their best hope for the general election campaign against President Obama. Daniels was seen as the ultimate guy on a white charger who could ride in to save the day, but now it looks like that white horse will have to be ridden by someone else (if anyone -- that horse might just stay in the stable this time around).
Mike Huckabee -- Out of the three announcements from people who have decided not to run, Mike Huckabee's may eventually have the most impact on the primary race. Unlike the other two, Huckabee not only has run a national campaign before, but he started with fairly solid support in the Republican voter base. He could quite easily have won two of the four early primary/caucus states (Iowa and South Carolina), and was regularly polling in the top three among Republican voters nationwide. But Huckabee is happy with his new job at Fox News, and is going to take a pass on the campaign this time around.
Donald Trump -- [Cue: "Money Money Money Money" theme music.] To the dismay of late-night comedians everywhere, Donald Trump decided not to toss his hat in the ring. While I mistakenly expected Huckabee to make a run, I called the Trump situation exactly right. Two weeks ago, I wrote: "The only reason Trump doesn't rate the top tier is that I really don't think he's going to make a serious run. Oh, sure, he may make some sort of wild announcement on the season finale of his reality show, but I think his entire 'candidacy' is nothing more than a bargaining tool to be used with NBC, during next year's Apprentice contract negotiations." Which is about all that needs to be said about The Donald, at this point.
We're slightly revamping our categories this time around, because of the new dynamics of the race. With Huckabee and Daniels out, the hue and cry among establishment Republicans for someone to ride up on a white horse and save the 2012 nomination race from itself is only going to grow louder and louder, at least for the next few months. Most of these people are swearing up and down that they have absolutely no intention of running, and that wild horses (no matter what color) couldn't drag them into the race. But their names are going to be on a lot of radars, so we'll very briefly list them here:
Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan.
Of these, Bush, Christie, and Ryan are the three whose names are getting mentioned most frequently. All three have repeatedly said they are not running, and will not run under any circumstances. But, in politics, such statements can easily be disavowed later -- and the pressure is on all three from certain Republican circles to mount up that white charger and gallop into the fray, so we'll see if any of them are persuadable.
This category might have been called "no chance whatsoever," but we thought "dark horses" was more polite. Eventually, this category will be dropped altogether, but is included here for completeness' sake. I gave slightly more detail on each of these in my previous column, but I'm just going to provide a list of them today. Some of these people are definitely running, some have just expressed interest in possibly running, but (at this point) none of these people is going to win the Republican nomination. The full list of dark horses, so far:
John Bolton, Gary Johnson, Fred Karger, Andy Martin, Jimmy McMillan, Roy Moore, Rick Perry, Buddy Roemer.
The "B" Team
Which brings us to the top two categories -- the candidates with a real chance at winning the nomination race. Deciding who was in the top tier and who remained secondary was hard to do this time around, because there haven't been any national candidate polls reported since the eighth of May -- a lifetime ago in political news. Watching the polls is going to be very interesting now that the field is truly settling down, because it will be fascinating to see where the Huckabee and Daniels voters migrate to in the coming weeks. But without hard data, at this point we can only guess. This has left us with a large "B" team, and a very small group of frontrunners -- which is almost certain to change when the poll numbers come in.
Michele Bachmann -- Bachmann has not yet announced whether she's running or not, so there's a case to be made for including her name among the white horses. But she shows every indication of running, so for the time being we're just going to assume she's in. Bachmann's natural base overlaps almost perfectly with one other person's, who has also not announced her intentions. If Sarah Palin jumps in the race, then Bachmann may have serious second thoughts about running in 2012, but if Palin stays out, then my guess is that Bachmann will formally become a candidate.
Herman Cain -- Cain formally announced he's in the race, which was no surprise as he's already participated in a televised Republican debate. Cain could benefit from Huckabee staying out of the race, and he could easily become the Tea Party favorite if Bachmann and Palin either don't run or damage their candidacies in some unforeseen way. For now, though, he's still a longshot. It'll be interesting to see if Cain soon shows a bump in the polling, though.
Jon Huntsman -- Huntsman has also indicated he's in the race, to absolutely nobody's surprise. The Obama White House, in particular, has been expecting him to run since about 2008 (which is why they made him Ambassador to China). Huntsman is one of two people in the "B" category who may soon move up to the frontrunners, if the pundits are to be believed. Huntsman could easily occupy the space Mitch Daniels was supposed to be in, at least with the Republican establishment -- who is looking for a candidate moderate enough to actually win in a general election, and not just the primaries. But it remains to be seen whether Huntsman -- who is not widely known outside the Beltway -- will catch on with the Republican primary voters. Working for Obama is going to be a pretty big hurdle for him to get over with many of them.
Ron Paul -- Due to public outcry from my last article, I've moved Paul up to the "B" team from the "dark horse" category. I still don't think he's got much of a chance, but with Huckabee and Daniels out of the race, Paul's polling numbers are strong enough (at this point) to justify him a valid shot at the nomination. He's polling better than several others on this "B" list, so it's only fair to include him here this time around.
Tim Pawlenty -- Pawlenty has been described as the "Michael Dukakis of the race," which I'm sure he wasn't happy to hear. The reference is to being the "last man standing" -- the one candidate seen by the voters as not as flawed as the rest of the field. Pawlenty has ratcheted up his rhetoric to Tea Party levels of frenzy, but it still hasn't done him much good in the polls (which are, to be fair, completely out of date at this point). But Pawlenty could benefit enormously from Daniels pulling out of the race, if he's seen as the only candidate acceptable to moderate Republican donors. If Huntsman is seen as unacceptable (because he worked for Obama), then Pawlenty could become the semi-official "establishment" candidate. By doing so, Pawlenty could easily vault into the frontrunner group. But he's still got a long way to go in terms of firing up voters in any significant way.
Rick Santorum -- Santorum is teetering on the edge of being sent down to the "dark horse" category. His name is rarely mentioned when pundits discuss the race, and he has never gained any degree of support in the polls. His chances, at this point, have to be seen as the longest of longshots.
There are three frontrunners, at the moment (we changed this category from "Top Tier," to continue the annoying "horserace" metaphor). One of them isn't yet in the race, and may not even run.
Newt Gingrich -- Newt's foibles over the past two weeks could fill volumes, so we're just going to take a quick overview. Gingrich had what one pundit recently described as "the worst first week in a campaign I've ever seen." But while everyone is writing Newt's entire campaign off as dead, what a lot of people haven't grasped is that Gingrich isn't just good under fire, he absolutely thrives on being the center of adversity. There's another interesting thing about what Newt has been saying the past two Sundays that few have noticed -- Newt is positioning himself as the moderate centrist in the Republican Party. Anyone who remembers Newt's term as Speaker of the House will be stunned to hear this, since Newt prided himself on being the most radical of the radical Republicans back then. But the Republican Party has shifted significantly since then. Lost in all the Republican recriminations over Newt's choice of words is that he's staking out a position in the middle, which may actually appeal to a lot of independent voters. Listening to Newt speak on Meet The Press a week ago and Face The Nation yesterday was like listening to a candidate in a general election, not a primary. If Newt keeps this strategy up, it will be interesting to see what the Republican primary voters think. More of them than many pundits expect may want to hear someone say "we've got to meet in the middle." Positioning himself in the center may be seen later as politically suicidal or politically brilliant. But, true to form for Newt, it certainly is risky.
Sarah Palin -- Palin's been pretty quiet through all the hoopla over the past few weeks. But at this point, she's got to be looking at the Republican field shaping up and thinking to herself: "I could beat those guys!" With Huckabee and Trump out of the race, Palin is one of only three or four people left who have shown they can even consistently break ten percent in the polling. That's a pretty low bar, to be sure, but it has been a fairly crowded field. Now that the field is thinning out, Palin's chances look better and better. But nobody knows the answer to the "Will she or won't she?" question, at this point. She's being pretty coy, although she did recently admit she's got plenty of "fire in the belly" should she decide to go for it. Palin is unique among those who haven't declared their candidacy yet, though, because she could enter the race quite late and still have a huge impact. So Sarah may be content to sit back and watch the game play out, at least for the next few weeks. The White House would dearly like Palin to run, I should mention. An unidentified Obama campaign staffer was recently quoted saying "Unless it’s Palin or Gingrich, we expect a very close race no matter who emerges." Which covers two out of three of our frontrunners, at this point.
Mitt Romney -- The one true heavyweight in the race is Mitt Romney. Mitt's been seriously running for president since the morning after the 2008 election. Romney is the "next in line" for the Republican nomination, which is how the party usually chooses its nominee. Everyone is saying "this year will be different," but the Republican rule of thumb may prove to be correct once again. Romney did two things of note in the past few weeks. He gave a speech desperately trying to create some daylight between "Obamacare" and "Romneycare," without much noticeable success. Republicans did give him some credit for not flip-flopping on the issue, but they still don't like his stance. In fact, the entire rest of the primary race at this point seems to be a frantic search for "Anyone But Romney." But Romney also flexed his political muscle a week ago, when he held a one-day fundraiser that pulled in over ten million dollars. That's an impressive haul for so early in the race, and for a single day's fundraising. There are two races being run right now -- one in public with the voters, and one in private with the financiers. Mitt showed how strong his money-raising abilities are, which may cause some party regulars to give him a second look.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant