Well, it's been a month since the last time we checked in with the Republican presidential nomination race, and with so much movement among the players of late, we've simply got to take another look at the way things are shaping up.
Almost a full month ago, I placed four names in the "Frontrunners" category: Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney. This list hasn't changed at all, although Palin will fall back the next time around if she doesn't announce in the next three or four weeks (more on this in a bit).
What has changed this time around is the field itself is tightening up. As a result, we're dropping one category entirely ("White Horses"), since there's only one left and she's already listed with the Frontrunners. Also, the "Dark Horses" category is going to shrink as well, and may disappear altogether over time.
As we get closer and closer to the actual voting, we're going to be paying more and more attention to the people in the race who actually have a shot at winning it. This means less space for those who do not, as a result.
While which candidates fall into which categories is a completely arbitrary decision based on all sorts of factors, the order in which they appear within each category is, as always, alphabetical -- to avoid showing favoritism within the categories themselves.
Tim Pawlenty -- The biggest news to come out of this weekend's Iowa Straw Poll was Tim Pawlenty calling it quits, after a better-than-expected third-place finish. Pawlenty followed the same playbook (on a much smaller scale) that Hillary Clinton followed for Super Tuesday four years ago -- by putting all his chips on Iowa, Pawlenty was hoping a big finish would prime the pump of fundraising to allow him to surge forward. This didn't happen, and doubtlessly Pawlenty's big fundraisers made it abundantly clear to him that they were pulling up their stakes and moving on.
To be fair to Pawlenty, he did finish a lot better than the very-low expectations his campaign had set ("we want to finish better than sixth"). But the difference between the headline "Pawlenty Loses Straw Poll" and "Pawlenty Crushed In Straw Poll" was simply not enough to justify continuing his campaign.
In the end, Pawlenty is figuring out the same thing which Jon Huntsman really should have figured out by now -- that his natural constituency consists solely of inside-the-Beltway pundits who sit around in bull sessions spouting ideas like: "Hey, wouldn't Tim Pawlenty be a dandy Republican candidate? Gosh, he'd be perfect for our inaccurate mental picture of what the Republican electorate would support! We could even give him a pseudo-cool Hollywood name like 'TPaw' because that'll make all those voters out there we are imagining swoon over him!"
TPaw has now figured this out, and done the smart thing by getting out fast rather than just embarrassing himself further on the national stage.
Of course, there are some people who have not figured out the lesson Pawlenty just learned. This is their category.
Last time around, we had a list of unknowns and three additions to this category. Only the three who got added last time even merit mentioning again: Rudy Giuliani, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum. Giuliani isn't even running (at least, yet), and Huntsman and Santorum are about to disappear from the political world's radar very soon now. Santorum's high point is going to be his fourth-place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll, with a respectable 1,657 votes (the winner only got 4,823, to put this number in perspective). But that's not much to continue campaigning on. Huntsman only got an embarrassing 69 votes in the poll, but then he wasn't even participating, while Santorum was.
This time around, we've got one addition to this category (Pawlenty avoided being our second, by quitting the race).
Newt Gingrich -- It's becoming painfully obvious that Newt is on nothing more than an extended vacation/book tour. At this point, he will stay in the race precisely long enough to retire his campaign debt (if he can). The only other thing which would force Newt out of the race is if they start un-inviting him to debates. Newt enjoys the debates immensely, and to deny him of this national platform would be the ultimate insult. But whether Newt stays in the race until he pays off his campaign debt or until they bounce him off the debate stages, there is simply no possible path to victory for him at this point. In 2008, Fred Thompson was the vanity candidate on the Republican side. This time around, Newt took the vanity candidate consolation prize.
The "B" Team
Our second tier has shrunk considerably this month. We're down to just two names, in fact. Of course, as we get closer and closer to the actual election, this category will likely disappear, as the field gets set more and more concretely.
Herman Cain -- There's an argument to be made that Herman Cain is really a dark horse at this point in the race. But we're keeping him in the "B" team for now, mostly because he has been "flavor of the month" in the media once before in the race -- a claim some others cannot make. What this means is it is conceivable he could bounce back into the center ring again very easily. Cain only managed fifth place in the Straw Poll, with 1,456 votes. But being a wealthy businessman, Cain has the resources to say in the race as long as he likes -- and from what I saw of him this weekend, he seems to be having a great time out on the campaign trail. Cain's campaign is teetering on the edge of the dark horse territory, but for now he's still on the second tier, waiting for an opening if one or more of the frontrunners hits a bump in the road.
Ron Paul -- No matter where I put Ron Paul, his supporters are never happy about it. As with Cain, an argument can be made that Ron Paul doesn't have a chance and deserves to be in with the dark horses. But, Paulites will counter, there is another argument that since Paul took second place in the Straw Poll, he deserves frontrunner status. Neither is a convincing argument, at this point, as Paul stays on the "B" team of candidates. His showing in Ames was impressive enough -- he won second place with 4,671, only 152 votes behind Michele Bachmann. But, as with Santorum, this is likely to be the highest point his campaign will ever reach. The media will never take Paul's campaign seriously, and most Republican voters see him in the same light that Democratic voters now view Ralph Nader. Ron Paul has a committed, fervent base of supporters who will back him until the end. Their problem is, not many other Republican primary voters are going to.
Which leaves us with the same four names out in front of the pack as the last time around. One of them hasn't even declared whether she's running or not, but all of them command media attention, large campaign chests, and voter support far in excess of the other candidates in the race.
Michele Bachmann -- Bachmann is riding high this time around, coming off her impressive victory in Iowa to do what is called the "full Ginsberg" the next day (appearing on all five Sunday morning network political shows). Also largely deemed the winner of last week's candidate debate (where Pawlenty, also, was deemed the big loser), Bachmann is on a roll. She's gotten a lot more polished in television interviews and on the debate stage. It just goes to show what a little political coaching can accomplish, with someone who is willing to take advice and learn how to play this particular game. Even the fact that Bachmann readily gives mainstream media (other than Fox, of course) interviews is telling in 2012 Republican politics. Bachmann is unafraid to take the tough questions, and then give the answer to the question she would have preferred to have been asked. That sounds demeaning, but it is actually a plus for politicians today. Her answer to the "submissive wife" question just proves this, because it was nothing short of a masterful reframing of the issue from one of "submissive" to one of "equal respect." What we should expect from Bachmann in the near future is that she's going to get better and better at this game, especially now that the media is treating her seriously.
Sarah Palin -- Sarah Palin, by all rights, should not be in the category of Frontrunners. After all, she hasn't even announced her intentions yet, and continues to play coy whenever asked. But with just one post to her social networking page, Palin could leap into the headlines for quite a few news cycles, if she does announce her candidacy. Anyone doubting this should look at the media frenzy over Rick Perry right now. It is not "too late" for a well-known candidate to jump into the race, in other words. Even that bastion of conservatism, the Wall Street Journal editorial page seems to still be wistfully searching around for other viable Republican candidates, at this late date. But this window is going to close for Palin, in roughly one month. To date, she's given only vague deadlines about the "end of the summer" or "September" for when she'll finally make up her mind. This should be seen as the outer limit of when she could viably get into the race, because after that point she won't have enough time to raise the money necessary for a truly national campaign. Palin, unlike Perry, can jump into the race later because everyone already knows her name, and knows who she is and what she represents. She will not have to "introduce" herself to the voters, since they already know her. My guess, at this point, is that Palin is waiting to see whether either Perry or Bachmann (or both) stumbles badly in the next few weeks as they begin to attract more national attention. If such a stumble occurs, Palin will likely jump into the race almost immediately afterwards. If this stumble never appears, Palin may decide to jump in anyway, or she may just sit back and enjoy her "kingmaker" status (or should that be "grizzly-mama-maker" status?). Either way, for the next month (or until she announces), Palin will still have the ability to command the media's attention any time she wishes to. Which is a huge asset for any prospective candidate.
Rick Perry -- Rick Perry sure did rain on Michele Bachmann's parade this weekend, didn't he? By scheduling his entry into the race for the same day as the Iowa Straw Poll, Perry assured himself of equal time on that night's news cycle. These likely won't be the only toes Perry steps on in his race to the nomination. Perry is now (sorry Michele) the "flavor of the month" in the Republican world (and in the media world). Because he will have to go through an "introduction" phase, there is a chance he could stumble badly in the next few weeks. His rough Texan persona almost lends itself to saying something that's going to offend a large group of Americans. The problem with being a media favorite is that too much media exposure sometimes shines the spotlight on a candidate's flaws too early. But I'm not counting Perry out, by any means. From people who know Perry's political career, he is said to be an excellent campaigner. He seems to truly enjoy the race and knows how to win, from all accounts. The media right now is mostly focused on Perry as the candidate who can bridge the current factionalism within the Republican Party -- which makes him more interesting than any of the other candidates who merely appeal to the Tea Party Republican faction (Bachmann, Palin) or the establishment Republican faction (Romney). Also a huge plus for Perry is the fact that he's from the biggest solid-Republican state in the presidential election -- Texas is to Republicans what California is to Democrats, in other words. This not only gives him home-state advantage in both the primaries and the general election, but also gives him a solid donor base to build his campaign chest around. All in all, Perry is going to mount a serious challenge for the Republican nomination. And he's got a decent shot of winning, as well.
Mitt Romney -- Not much to say this time around about Mitt Romney. He's been awfully quiet in the media, and didn't participate in the Iowa Straw Poll (where he came in a dismal seventh place with 567 votes, behind even Rick Perry's 718 write-in votes). This is pretty standard stuff for a candidate who is not just "a" frontrunner but has been "the" frontrunner for months now. Frontrunners typically try to pivot absurdedly early to the "general election campaign strategy" of attacking the other party's candidate -- and ignoring those of your own party. In other words, to pretend the Republican nomination race is already over, and your only focus is on your Democratic opponent. So far, this has worked well for Romney, and will likely continue right up to the point that Perry or Bachmann starts reliably topping Romney in the national polls. Then maybe Mitt will come out fighting, but not until. However, such a boring strategy doesn't leave us with much to say about Mitt this time around.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant