08/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Just You Wait, Barack Obama, Just You Wait

Is it 2012 yet? It sure seems so. Just go online, pick up your newspaper or click on the TV or the radio and speculative stories, largely spurred by Sarah Palin's resignation as the governor of Alaska, abound on President Obama's likely 2012 Republican rival.

For some thoughts on this sudden hot news issue, I rang up Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, viewed by a number of Washington pundits as one of academia's brightest political minds.

The last time I caught up with Sabato was a few months prior to the Democratic national convention. At the time, it was pretty widely accepted that Clinton would be the party's presidential nominee. Sabato had his doubts, telling me she was anything but a shoo-in and suggested I don't underestimate Obama, the man who came from practically out of nowhere.

As of now, Sabato sees three frontrunners. His trio -- in order of his assessment of their chances of capturing the nomination -- are Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Mr. X.

Sabato gives Romney, whose chief broad appeal is his business and economic savvy, barely a slight edge over the little known Pawlenty. The academic notes that Romney has been around the track, has national recognition and did reasonably well in 2008, although the Republican party has never fully accepted, embraced or been excited about him. Still, he believes the fact that Romney -- who more or less placed second among the Republican presidential nominees to winner John McCain -- puts him in a good position to snare the 2012 nomination. (Huckabee, incidentally, claims he was the actual runner-up to McCain).

One public relations man who worked for the governor in his losing 2008 presidential campaign, tells me "Romney is hungry for the 2012 nomination, he's actively engaged in laying the groundwork for it and he's convinced he's going to get it and be the next president."

Pawlenty, who was elected governor twice in heavily Democratic Minnesota and has a blue-collar background, is viewed by Sabato as a candidate who offers broad appeal and would be a compelling figure in a general election. Right behind Pawlenty is a mystery man, Mr. X, who, Sabato says, could be anyone, namely a senator or governor, who wins big in the 2010 elections.

What about Palin, who said the other day that all cards are on the table for 2012 and is viewed by some in the Republican hierarchy as a virtually certain presidential candidate that year? Sabato's view: "I doubt if she will run; Americans have concluded she does not have presidential stature, and Republicans will not want to nominate a loser."

Why her resignation as governor? Speculates Sabato: "I think she's fed up, is thin skinned, faces a lot of ethical suits, and that's it."

My wife, Harriet, who has been uncanny in projecting winning political candidates -- she was certain early on that Obama would beat out Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination -- picks Mike Huckabee as the Republicans' next presidential standard bearer. "He's got a great forum and national stature with his Fox TV show. He's friendly, homespun, everybody likes him and he has the same Southern charm that helped put Bill Clinton in the White House."

Sabato and Harriet, though, are on different wavelengths. While he rates Huckabee with his fundamentalist base as a possible candidate, he doubts he could gain the nomination because he lacks presidential stature. Meanwhile, some folks at Fox disagree, with a couple of officials there essentially telling some outsiders we have the next president of the United States working for us.

Sabato figures that if Palin should decide to jump into the race, she would unquestionably hurt Huckabee because they both cater to the same base and many people find her much more appealing.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich is viewed by many as a potential presidential nominee, but Sabato rules him out because, he says, "he's deeply flawed."

Some New Yorkers wonder if there could be another run by Rudy Giuliani even though he performed poorly in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes. The former New York mayor, who has put on a fair amount of weight, actually looked like a campaigner for something at a recent dinner at a Manhattan Chinese restaurant as he took the initiative and shook the hands of some patrons who recognized him as he wandered around the restaurant.

Sabato's view: "It is highly unlikely to the vanishing point that Rudy will be back. His 2008 campaign was a total failure and there just isn't a market in the GOP for his social liberalism despite the appeal of his 9/11 image. He may run for governor in 2010, but that's about it."

One major George Bush supporter thinks it would be a mistake to rule out brother Jeb. Sabato says Jeb Bush would instantly become a major candidate if he decided to run because of the family name, money and connections. But he doubts Jeb would do well, observing it's too soon after his brother's unpopular presidency. Even if he got the nomination, Sabato says, "He would be his brother's keeper, he would be held accountable for George's mistakes and he would be a general election loser."

Is there any way Obama could be deprived of the 2012 nomination? Sabato doesn't think so. "Only by an act of God," he says. Of the opinion that the 2012 presidential election campaign will be focused on three major issues -- "the economy, the economy and the economy" -- Sabato, pointing to such consumer concerns as the jobless rate, inflation, debt and income growth or the lack of it, does think, though, Obama could be vulnerable in a general election if the economy continues to sink.

Likewise, he thinks some shockers -- such as a possible terrorist attack, either domestic or foreign, or a national disaster, like Katrina or a devastating earthquake in California -- could change the voting complexion.

Of course, 2012 is a long way off. Maybe Doris Day summed it best with her hit song in Alfred Hitchcock's The man Who Knew Too much: Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be.

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