This has been an unusual year, in terms of presidential campaign politics, because (so far) it has run counter to the conventional wisdom. A standard column for any pundit to write every four years is the "Campaign Starting Even Sooner!" article, in which you decry the fact that the presidential race is beginning earlier and earlier each cycle. Not many of those articles have been written this time around.
Consider that, four years ago, every single Democrat and every single Republican candidate were already in the race by February. A total of 19 serious candidates (both parties combined -- both parties had "open" races, I should point out) were already out on the hustings by March, 2007. The last time around, Republican candidates had raised around $50 million by this point.
This time, the story so far has been the lack of such a story. But all such good times must eventually come to an end, and I now find myself sitting down for the first time to assess the Republican field of candidates for 2012. It has become impossible to ignore any further, in other words. The first Republican televised debate happened last week, and today none other than Newt Gingrich officially jumped into the running.
But, because this is a first look at the race, I feel it is necessary to examine the entire field of candidates -- which is enormous, when everyone whose name has ever been mentioned as a possibility is added in. Even weeding out the obvious vanity candidates with no hope leaves over a dozen names, at this point -- and that's not even counting a few names some Republicans are all but begging to get into the race.
Because I'm trying to include simply everybody, this will necessarily have to be a very wide (and not very deep) look at all the possible candidates. It's going to be a lengthy article, folks, just to warn everyone up front. As the race heats up, I promise we'll get more detailed and more focused on the true possibilities. I've divided the candidates up into several categories, on mostly arbitrary criteria (in other words, some of these names could easily move around among the categories as time goes on).
We're going to begin with those not even in the race, and work up to the top tier of candidates. Within each category, candidates appear alphabetically (to avoid showing favoritism of any type).
This is the list of people who swear they are not running, and could not in any way be convinced to make a run. This list, and the next one, overlap somewhat with the other groups, for various reasons.
Republicans who absolutely swear they're not running (list is from Wikipedia, I should mention): Sharron Angle, Haley Barbour, Scott Brown, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, Bobby Jindal, Bob McDonnell, Carl Paladino, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, Rick Perry, David Petraeus, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, John Thune, Allen West.
The following names have been mentioned as possibilities, but only on the grounds of the sheerest possible speculation. It's a pretty safe bet that none of these will run, and if they do (with the possible exception of Eric Cantor), will never have the slightest impact on the race. This list is provided for completeness' sake only.
Republicans who have been mentioned as possibilities, but should in no way be seen as such: Joe Arpaio, Eric Cantor, Dick Cheney, Tom Coburn, John Cornyn, Charlie Crist, John Ensign, Luis Fortuño, Judd Gregg, Steve King, Stanley McChrystal, Thad McCotter, Bob Riley, Mark Sanford, Joe Scarborough, Gary Sinise, Clarence Thomas, Meg Whitman.
Very Dark Horses
There are three subdivisions within this category. The first is the people being begged by various groups (sometimes including the media) to jump into the race, but have so far either strongly said they're not running or shown no inclination to run. There are four of these. One by one:
Jeb Bush -- Some pundits on the Right really miss the magic of the "Bush" name. The public, however, may not miss it so much. Jeb shows no signs of getting in the race.
Chris Christie -- Many Righty pundits are tearfully prostrating themselves before the New Jersey governor, but he has said unequivocally that he's not running, and he seems to be quite serious.
Marco Rubio -- Clever Republicans hope Rubio will jump in the race, because he is an up-and-coming Latino within the party. A Rubio campaign might go a long way towards enticing Latino voters back to the GOP, but so far he shows no interest whatsoever.
Paul Ryan -- The thinking on Ryan goes: "Since Obama is already personalizing the Republican budget with Paul Ryan's name, Ryan should just meet the challenge head-on and run." Ryan shows no signs of doing so, though.
Then there are the folks who have convinced themselves (or are in the process of doing so) that the public is clamoring for them to run, despite all evidence to the contrary. There are five who fit into this category:
John Bolton -- Bush's U.N. Ambassador is apparently running, for some reason. A lack of other mustaches in the race, maybe? Hard to tell....
Andy Martin -- Um, who? Described in Wikipedia as: "Perennial candidate and Birther movement activist." Well, that just about sums it up, doesn't it? He's officially in the race, for those keeping score of who has actually filed election paperwork.
Roy Moore -- The "Ten Commandments" judge from Alabama has already announced an exploratory committee. Even though he has no chance whatsoever of winning. A vanity candidate at best.
Rick Perry -- Hey, the last Republican president was an ex-governor of Texas, so why not?
Buddy Roemer -- The former governor of Louisiana has announced an exploratory committee as well, despite the fact that not a soul outside of the Pelican State knows his name.
Then there is the final subgroup -- Republicans who don't really have a shot, but that do have high entertainment value. This means you'll hear these names a lot more in the coming months than any of the other dark horses in the race. There are four of these:
Gary Johnson -- The former governor of New Mexico might be called the "Straight-up, No-chaser Libertarian" candidate. At least, if Ron Paul hadn't already staked this spot out much earlier. Johnson has already participated in the first Republican debate, but Paul already has the Libertarian vote pretty solidly locked up. It was fun to see the two debate Libertarianism, though, and for that reason Johnson's name may continue to get occasional news coverage.
Fred Karger -- Republican gay rights activist who has officially declared his candidacy. Was not allowed on stage for the first debate, and will likely not be allowed on any debate stage to come. But, again, the "Republican gay rights activist" angle will likely not go entirely unnoticed by the press, especially on the Left. While Karger has zero chance of winning the nomination, he has a more-than-zero chance of being a favorite for the media to trot out, on occasion.
Jimmy McMillan -- Remember the "Rent Is Too Damn High!" candidate from New York City? Well, if Saturday Night Live has anything to say about it, you will hear about McMillan in the weeks to come. McMillan scores off the charts on the "entertainment value candidate" scale. Despite not scoring at all on the chart of "people Republican primary voters would actually cast a vote for." McMillan has officially announced his candidacy, to the delight of late-night comedians everywhere.
Ron Paul -- Ron Paul has formed an exploratory committee, so it's a pretty safe bet that he's in the race. Early speculation around "Which Paul will run -- Ron or Rand?" has been answered, as Paul the Elder throws his hat into the ring once again. Now, some might argue (some might strenuously argue) that Paul deserves to be in a higher category than "dark horse," but while Ron Paul has a fiercely loyal band of supporters who have the proven ability to fundraise online, he simply isn't credible as a viable candidate. His support will peak (as it did the last time he ran) in the low teens, which will fade by the time the primaries actually happen. Until he shows strong movement in the polls, he is still just the strongest vanity candidate out there.
The "B" Team
The "second tier" of Republicans is already quite large, even without Ron Paul. Many of these candidates will fall by the wayside as the race progresses, but (for now) each has at least earned serious speculation rather than being dismissed outright by the media.
At this point, I also hasten to point out, most of these candidates are running on name recognition alone -- either name recognition among the public, or name recognition among the punditry. Choosing who was in the top tier and who was in the second tier (and who didn't make the second-tier cut) was the hardest task in providing this overview. None of this is written in stone, in other words, and the placement (at this point) can be chalked up to simply my own gut feeling.
Having said that, let's take a look at the folks who could conceivably have a shot at the nomination, but probably won't make it that far for one reason or another.
Michele Bachmann -- Being touted as "Sarah Palin with a brain" (hey, I didn't make that up, don't blame me). Bachmann is counting on being the favorite-daughter Tea Party candidate (Bachmann is likely fervently hoping Sarah Palin won't actually run, I should mention). Her House district isn't that far from Iowa, which is where her whole presidential bet is staked. If she runs and Palin doesn't (Bachmann hasn't officially announced yet, but she's already running hard), she's got one single shot in Iowa, after which she will likely disappear from the race.
Herman Cain -- The "Godfather's Pizza guy," who also happens to be a black Republican (a rarity in the GOP, which will lead some to speculate what a presidential race between two black men would be like). Cain is likely to move down quickly to "vanity dark horse" candidate, and is only included here in the second tier on the strength of his debate performance (Frank Luntz' focus group loved Cain). And on the fact that he could self-finance his campaign for a while.
Mitch Daniels -- If this were "fantasy football," Daniels would be the candidate all the pundits would be fighting to back. He has not entered the race yet, but has been quoted saying he thinks he could beat Obama if he did so. Indiana's governor gets a lot of love from the "inside the Beltway" set, because they all see him as the ultimate "serious" candidate, among a crowd of people deemed not serious at all. He's going to have to jump in the race pretty soon, however, as outside his region (and Washington, of course) his name recognition is pretty low. He's also seen as so "moderate" that he might have trouble with fervid Republican primary voters.
Jon Huntsman -- Former governor of Utah and former (under Obama!) ambassador to China, Huntsman is also a favorite of the Washington punditocracy. He's got "serious" chops, in other words, according to those in the know. His problem, as with others, is that not a lot of other people know who he is. He does appear to be seriously considering a bid, though. His biggest flaw among the primary voters is going to be the fact that he was part of the Obama administration -- which they may find unforgivable.
Tim Pawlenty -- Pawlenty is definitely in the race, but the former Minnesota governor just isn't catching on with Republican voters. Despite being the only "serious candidate" at the first debate, Pawlenty didn't make much news other than apologizing for supporting an issue that Republicans used to widely support, but now do not (cap and trade). Pawlenty should, by all rights, be in the top tier (he's been campaigning quite hard), but until his polling numbers move into double digits, he's got to be seen as part of the "B" team.
Rick Santorum -- The former senator is also running very hard, but getting almost no traction. Republicans aren't big fans of people who have lost previous races, which may doom Santorum. If the field were less crowded with Tea Party types, Santorum might be doing a lot better, but he seems to be fading into the background with every passing day.
Donald Trump -- 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. Of course, Trump could surprise me and really run, but I don't think he's going to be willing to publicly disclose his financials, personally.
The Top Tier
I have to admit, my main criterion for inclusion in the top tier (at this point) is nothing more than name recognition. The following five names -- no matter when they actually jump into the race -- are going to immediately be seen as strong candidates. This doesn't really mean much, though, because most of the polls this early out show nothing more than name recognition to begin with. As the race progresses, other candidates will likely move up to the top tier (as voters get to know them and their policies), and some of these candidates will likely move down (due to flagging support, or due to announcing they're not running).
But, for now, here are my top tier picks for the Republican nomination:
Newt Gingrich -- Only one former Speaker of the House has ever become president in American history (James K. Polk, for those who care). Newt announced today that he aims to become the second. Newt's biggest perceived strength: the ability to speak at length about his "new ideas." Newt's biggest perceived weakness: what he actually says. Well, that's not being totally fair. His three marriages (and the disastrous end to the first two) are going to be a big issue for the religious Republican primary voters. But who knows -- Newt could surprise everyone, now that he's in the race.
Rudy Giuliani -- The only reason Giuliani is included in the top tier is that everybody in America already knows who he is. Giuliani's big problem, should he actually decide to run, is going to be his one-issue nature. When he ran last time, he was famously summed up as: "A noun, a verb, and then 9/11." With the death of Osama Bin Laden, Giuliani's signature issue is going to fade fast in the public's eye. Which will leave Rudy to explain his own personal problems from his divorce, as well as how badly he ran last time. My guess is that Giuliani will flirt with throwing his hat in the ring, but ultimately decide not to do so (after he gains as much publicity as he possibly can). But he could surprise me, and actually run. We'll see.
Mike Huckabee -- Huckabee is one of the two frontrunners in most polls (along with Romney), but he's being awfully coy about whether he's going to actually run or not. He seems to be having all kinds of fun on Fox News, and may be reluctant to give up this cushy gig. But he's got to be paying attention to the poll numbers which show how strong he's running -- before he even starts running. Huckabee's appeal this time around may be a lot broader than it was the last time, especially if Romney stumbles at all. But Huckabee has the luxury of being able to bide his time -- at least until he stops registering so high in the polls, which is where he'll be forced to make the decision whether to run or not. My guess is that Huckabee does actually get in the race, but very late.
Sarah Palin -- Palin also seems to be having all kinds of fun in her role as Republican "kingmaker" (or, perhaps more accurately and modern: "grizzly-mama-maker"). But predicting what Palin is going to (or not going to) do is a fool's game, because nobody really knows what she's thinking. If Palin jumped in, she would immediately be in the top three candidates in the polls, which is nothing to sneeze at. But Palin's negatives are so high -- even within her own party -- that she has to be seen as a real longshot at actually gaining the nomination. If she did jump in, though, the media would follow her every move with devotion. Palin, like Huckabee, is someone who could jump in the race very, very late and still have a high chance of doing well (again, because everyone already knows her name). My guess is that she'll flirt with it for as long as possible, but decide in the end not to run. But I wouldn't bet any money on that, and could easily be wrong.
Mitt Romney -- Romney has been the frontrunner all along, since he really started running the day after Barack Obama was elected back in 2008. But most Republican voters have not exactly rushed to support him. Romney is flawed as a candidate for a number of reasons, including the biggest one (which he's going to attempt to put behind him very soon) -- the fact that what Republicans call "Obamacare" is really the son of "Romneycare" in Massachusetts. Romney signed healthcare reform into law while governor, complete with an individual mandate. This could be a bridge too far for most Republican voters. If this were a normal year, Romney would be all but walking away with the nomination, since Republicans usually give the nod to the "next in line" guy. But this year is going to be anything but normal, as we've already seen.
Whew! That's a lot of candidates! I promise, though, that this will be the longest article I'll ever write examining the Republican field, because most of these names are going to fall by the wayside pretty soon. As the field tightens up, we'll take a much closer look at the folks who have any chance at all. But I wanted to write at least one all-inclusive article examining everybody, to kick the 2012 campaign season off. If you've read to the end of this, I have to compliment you on your stamina, in other words.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post