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2012 Republican Presidential Field Update

Posted: 07/18/11 08:51 PM ET

Since it's been over a month since we last took a look at how the 2012 Republican presidential field is shaping up, we're overdue for an update. Or, quite possibly, I am just tired of writing about the Kabuki theater nature of the debt ceiling debate, which looks to continue for at least another week... sigh. In any case, let's cast an eye over the Republican nomination landscape and see what there is to be seen, shall we?

In the past few weeks, one rising star has appeared in the Republican firmament (or two, depending on how you count them), and more than a few have begun fading -- perhaps permanently -- from center stage. But the field itself is not yet set (in terms of who is actually running and who will sit this one out), as the Republican Party continues to search for the perfect candidate to defeat President Obama. In fact, two of our four frontrunners this time around have not even announced their candidacy yet -- showing how volatile the entire race still remains.

As always, we have arbitrarily divided the candidates into a few categories, to better focus on the candidates who have the highest chances of winning (at least "at this point"). We had quite a bit of movement between these categories this month, which isn't all that surprising since our last column was written before the New Hampshire televised debate.

As always, candidates are listed within the categories in alphabetic order, to avoid favoritism in placement.

White Horses

There is really only one candidate left who fits this category. Others mentioned in the past as possible "white horse" candidates who could ride in to save the day have either completely faded in the public eye, or have unequivocally announced they are not going to run (such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan).

The only one left who can still be described by the phrase "many Republicans are pinning their hopes on him" is now getting closer and closer to actually throwing his hat into the ring -- Rick Perry of Texas. Perry seems to generate a lot of support both from the Republican voting public and from the "establishment" Republican Party bigwigs. But we'll examine Perry's chances in more detail, as he can now be listed in another of our categories here.

The real news in the "white knight" department is that there don't seem to be any additional names being offered up. This is the first true sign that the candidates' slate is almost full. No matter how Republicans feel about the possibilities so far, they seem to have run out of viable options in terms of talking anyone else into the race. In fact, unless another white charger appears on the horizon, we may do away with this category altogether next time around.

Dark Horses

There are three additions this time around to our previous list of dark horses (which contained the following names: John Bolton, Gary Johnson, Fred Karger, Andy Martin, Jimmy McMillan, Roy Moore, and Buddy Roemer). There even, in fact, may be other names which should appear on this list, as presidential contests always draw a number of "candidates" who have no conceivable chance of winning even a single state's primary (much less the nomination).

From the people who have already been mentioned in other categories, however, there are three which have fallen to "dark horse" status this time around: Rudy Giuliani, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum.

Rudy Giuliani -- Giuliani was never officially a candidate, and moves over from the "white horse" category. Apparently Republicans not named "Rudy Giuliani" are just not that enthused about him entering the race. He could still throw his hat in the ring in the hopes of making a splash in New Hampshire, but at this point even that should be seen as a longshot. Even if he does decide to enter the race for purely egotistical reasons, he's not going to win over many social conservatives with his new stance that Republicans should just throw in the towel and stop opposing gay marriage. That sort of thing, to be blunt, just doesn't go over all that well in Iowa and South Carolina.

Jon Huntsman -- Huntsman's meteoric fall simply never had a rise to precede it. The former Utah governor's cheering section in the Republican Party has, so far, been confined to inside-the-Beltway conservative pundits. Or perhaps "establishment pundits." There was much excitement among this crowd for Huntsman's campaign, and sweeping predictions were made of how enormous his chances of beating Obama would be. Unfortunately for Huntsman, the voters never got this memo. His polling has been, in a word, dismal. He regularly polls at significantly less than 5 percent (1 percent is more common), and in Iowa he is currently polling at a whopping zero percent. He is doing slightly better in New Hampshire, but at this point, it's just not enough. To be fair, Huntsman has just gotten into the race and hasn't ever even appeared in a debate, so conceivably he might move back up to the "B" team category (where we put him last time), but until he shows some actual widespread support among the Republican primary electorate, he has to be seen as a dark horse with little (if any) chance of actually winning the nomination. Sorry, Beltway pundits....

Rick Santorum -- Rick Santorum, unlike Huntsman and Giuliani, has been out there campaigning his little heart out, for months. However, he doesn't have much to show for his efforts in terms of support in the polls. His numbers are a little higher than Huntsman's, but that's not saying all that much at this point. Santorum never seemed to gain that much traction overall with the voters. The problem with Santorum may be how broad the selections are for social conservatives this time around. Santorum has been trying to position himself as the Tea Party candidate for a long time now -- in fact, since before there even was a Tea Party. But the choices these voters have this time around are so wide that Santorum seems to be getting lost in the shuffle. Of the three candidates who moved down to "dark horse" status, Santorum probably has the best chance of moving back up to the "B" team, but until he starts showing some stronger polling, we're going to leave him here for now.

The "B" Team

The "second tier" list of Republican candidates has shrunk considerably since last time around, down from seven names to four. One former "B" team candidate moved up to frontrunner status, and the two we just mentioned (Huntsman and Santorum) moved down to the "dark horse" level. But this category is still mighty volatile (and the frontrunner category rather large this time), so further movement both into and out of this category should be expected for some time to come.

Herman Cain -- Herman Cain may be the first Republican candidate who truly did enjoy a fast rise in the polls, only to be followed by a fast retreat. Choose your own metaphor -- Cain was the first "shooting star who fell back to Earth," or perhaps even "flavor of the month" for Republicans. After a strong performance in the first televised debate launched his candidacy from longshot to actual possibility, Cain seems to now be receding fast. Some interviews he has given have exposed a certain "not ready for primetime" quality to Cain, and it seems the voters have noticed. Or perhaps they have just moved on to a new insta-favorite, and will return to the Cain fold eventually. While his national polls have shown a downward trend, he still occasionally polls well in Iowa and New Hampshire, so we'll have to wait and see if Cain truly does have staying power or not.

Newt Gingrich -- Newt Gingrich is teetering on the edge of dark horse status, after his disastrous campaign rollout. His campaign (what is left of it, after most of the top folks walked out on Newt) is reportedly a million bucks in debt, to finance private planes for Newt to travel around in. He is obviously going to hang on in this race, for at least a few more debate performances, but at this point it looks like the chances for a Gingrich presidency are fading fast.

Ron Paul -- Ron Paul is likely going to stay in the "B" team category for quite some time. This is due to two facets of his support -- its fervent nature, and its low ceiling. Paul supporters are absolutely convinced he is the right guy for the job. Most of the Republican electorate isn't, but that does not dissuade the true believers in the least. Paul, of course, has been around this particular block before, and consistently scores in the 5-to-10 percent range with Republican primary voters. He is, quite likely, never going to rise above that level, but he is also likely never to fall below that level either. Which will leave him stuck, for the foreseeable future, on the "B" team. Paul has announced he is not going to run for another term in Congress, so this election may indeed be the Ron Paul swansong.

Tim Pawlenty -- Pawlenty is another candidate who is in serious danger of falling into the dark horse category for good. Like Jon Huntsman, Pawlenty was an early favorite of the inside-the-Beltway Republican crowd. Also like Huntsman, Pawlenty never translated that elite support into actual voter support. Positioned to be the best of the anti-Romneys in the race, Pawlenty stumbled in the debate last month when he refused to directly attack Romney on health care (after coming up with a truly amusing putdown only hours before, calling what Romney did in Massachusetts "Obamneycare"). Pawlenty's star has been fading ever since -- not that it had gotten that high in the first place. Pawlenty desperately wanted to be the "I'm not Romney" candidate, the Tea Party candidate, and the favored establishment Republican candidate -- all at the same time. So far, this hasn't noticeably worked out for him. Pawlenty's big problem at the moment is that if Rick Perry jumps in the race, Pawlenty's chances could disappear entirely.

Frontrunners

The field of what can even remotely be called "frontrunners" in the Republican race has doubled, from two candidates to four. To be technical, though, two of these people aren't even officially candidates yet, although one of them is getting closer and closer to making some sort of announcement.

Michele Bachmann -- Michele Bachmann has had the best month, overall, of all the Republican candidates. She turned in a respectable debate performance, and since then has appeared on every political television interview which will have her (which, in and of itself, differentiates her from many of her fellow Republicans who shun the mainstream media like poison ivy). In these interviews, Bachmann has made a mighty attempt to reposition herself as much more mainstream than her past fire-breathing persona as self-proclaimed leader of the Tea Party. So far, this seems to be having a positive effect on her polling, to say the least. The media has woken up to her campaign, and is just now beginning to delve into some of her past questionable statements, but so far none of it has appeared to stick to Bachmann (at least in terms of voter support). Nationally, her poll numbers have shot up into double-digits since the debate, and in Iowa she's actually beating Romney in the last three polls. Even in New Hampshire, she's solidly in second place. Bachmann's meteoric rise could still stall (she could fall back to ground much like Herman Cain has done), but so far she shows no signs of such weakness -- meaning she has muscled her way into the frontrunner ranks, for now.

Sarah Palin -- The continuing saga of Sarah Palin toying with the 2012 race... will continue for a few more months, apparently. Her on-again-off-again (mostly off-again) bus tour seems to have fizzled out, for now (who knows what tomorrow could bring, with Palin). She recently committed to announcing her decision whether to run or not after the summer's over, in perhaps September or so. I guess she didn't read my article on her chances versus Bachmann's, at the end of last month. Because the way I see it, Bachmann has been (so far) very successfully eclipsing Palin -- with Palin's own core audience. The more Bachmann rises, to put it another way, the more support she will siphon off from Palin. Palin, however, may be playing the "long game" and waiting in the wings to see if Bachmann (or any other Tea Party favorite) stumbles badly in the next month or so. Palin may sense the race opening up suddenly if some media circus flares up or some scandalous gaffe is uttered, and she may be waiting for just such an opportunity to develop. Or, quite possibly, Palin's not even serious about running, and is just using the whole tease with the media as contract negotiations for her own television future (much like Donald Trump successfully did, earlier this year). Palin still polls reliably in the double digits, which puts her ahead of most of the rest of the Republican pack, but she is slowly being eclipsed by both Bachmann and Rick Perry in such polling. Her window of opportunity may be shut by the time she actually makes up her mind, in other words.

Rick Perry -- Rick Perry has come out of nowhere to vault into frontrunner status. And he hasn't even announced his candidacy yet. On our lists, he started as a dark horse, moved into white horse status last time, and now finds himself comfortably in the front ranks. That's a pretty impressive rise for someone who has yet to declare, it has to be said. The polling on Perry is somewhat incomplete, since he just began being mentioned as a possibility by the pollsters. So far, though, he's doing just fine -- polling neck and neck with Michele Bachmann for second place, while both eclipse Sarah Palin's formerly solid hold on second. Of course, the problem with late-entry white horses is that sometimes they don't live up to expectations (as happened to Fred Thompson, for instance). Perry has reportedly been making the rounds of the big Republican donors, to gauge what sort of support he might find there (always an important metric for a possibly candidate to consider). The news from the money men (and women) appears to be good, because almost all the pundits now expect him to run. Perry, many in the party hope, could have the crossover appeal that Pawlenty was striving for: being acceptable to Tea Partiers, establishment Republicans, and the actual primary voters -- all at the same time. While Perry has yet to announce, he already seems to be drawing support from the Bachmann/Palin voters, which could bode very well for him if he does commit to a run.

Mitt Romney -- Romney is, once again, the unquestioned frontrunner in the Republican race right now, leading every national poll for months. His support seems to be slowly growing, as his poll numbers have finally broken the 30 percent mark in two recent polls. He could be in trouble in Iowa (Bachmann seems to be eclipsing him), but he may have decided to write Iowa off in his campaign strategy already. Romney is following what might be called the "frontrunners' playbook" so far, and has thus mostly been keeping his head down. He has not entered into the fray of the fight over raising the debt ceiling, for instance, because he knows that whatever position he stakes out could come back to bite him later. This isn't exactly leadership, but it is the tried-and-true way frontrunners normally campaign. If the economy weakens further, Romney may start to look better and better to Republican primary voters as the best chance to actually beat Obama next year. In other words, Romney may end up winning the "Most Electable" contest among the voters, in terms of the general election campaign. Many Republican primary voters may have learned a valuable lesson from the candidacies of Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle in 2010 -- sometimes "boring, yet electable" is a better choice than an exciting candidate who has no prayer of winning over independents.

 

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