More and more, 2012 speculators are backing away from the notion that the 2012 campaign will feature a robust battle between the popular faces on the three-headed frontrunner that is Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. None have officially declared, but you can be all but certain that Romney's in. Huckabee occasionally grouses when the press starts to fail to take him seriously, but he's done very little groundwork in Iowa, and the specter of his inability to adequately fund a race continues to crop up again and again. Sarah Palin is still mostly inside her social media bunker reacting to events, though she will be jetting off to India soon.
Perhaps most significant are the moves that Fox News made in suspending the contributor contracts of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, but not those of Palin and Huckabee.
After months of polling showing Romney, Huckabee, and Palin each drawing the largest chunks of national Republicans, any dropouts would have strong implications for the second tier of possible candidates who do not have previous experience from 2008, such as Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, and Rick Santorum. Huckabee or Palin's absence would free up a large chunk of socially conservative and evangelical voters, who are a key demographic in Iowa and who Romney struggled to court in 2008. If doubts from the previous election linger in 2012, these voters could prove a force by consolidating behind one of the less established candidates, elevating one of them into a two-man race with Rommey.
The past few weeks have offered a solid preview of how this dynamic might look against Romney, especially for Pawlenty. The Minnesota governor slammed the health care reform law's individual mandate in his keynote speech at CPAC last month, which many interpreted as a dig at Romney's similarly crafted health care law in Massachusetts. Pawlenty is going out of his way to court Tea Party activists, speaking at a national convention in Arizona recently while local activists say his are aides aggressively courting the grassroots in Iowa. He's also made religion a major theme in speeches and with Mike Pence out of the race, a candidate many considered especially well-suited to court Iowa evangelicals, there's an even greater opening for him to woo social conservatives unsure about Romney.
Your conventional wisdom circa now would tell you that topping Romney in Iowa is critical to anyone who wants there to be an anti-Romney candidate. Once the race moves to New Hampshire, you enter territory on which Mitt has got an iron lock ... for the moment, anyway.
- In news that will inevitably become a fixture of the next thousand-or-so Maureen Dowd columns, Mitt Romney is taking fashion advice from his wife, which apparently includes "skinny Gap jeans." Beyond MoDo, I'm quite sure that every political tout who cracked wise about Al Gore's alpha-male makeover is preparing to dip their quills into the poison inkwell, right? [Los Angeles Times]
- In other Trump news, the Donald made some minor news today when he got into a spat with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who declared that Trump was "famous for being famous" and also "not going to be president." Trump responded in kind, saying Alexander had "done very little over the years and he does not seem to be an important player in Washington." Is it possible that Trump was not moved by plaid-clad Alexander and his famous "Lamar!" signs? (Actually, probably yes.) [The Hill]
- Dick Morris called in to do an interview with Peter Schiff today, where his plans to plug his book in softball fashion went awry when Schiff called him out for his criticism of Ron Paul. Points to anyone who can plausibly explain to me why Dick Morris thought the matter would not come up in conversation with one of Paul's former campaign advisers. [Politico]
- Tonight is a good night to whet your appetite for the 2012 campaign as C-SPAN broadcasts the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum tonight beginning at 8pm. "It's not a debate," says Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition head Steve Scheffler. (But it basically is.) [The Hill]