02/09/2011 05:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Handicapping the Likely GOP Presidential Candidates

Expect a bruising campaign season. And brace yourself. It has already started.

With 2010 elections now well behind us, jockeying for the Republican nomination for president begins in earnest. GOP control of Congress and the White House will largely hinge upon how well Republicans manage their new majority in the House, and how successful they are at conveying to the American public that with the Democrats still in charge of the Senate and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, their hands are pretty much tied.

Those realities won't keep a bevy of politicians (and perhaps one or two non-politicians) from entering the race to oust Barack Obama. But a bruising campaign season full of fund raising, list building, town hall meetings, and media interviews will ensue first - long before the GOP crowns its nominee in Tampa in the summer of 2012.

Irreverent View takes a look at the hopefuls

Currently perceived to be "Top Tier" candidates

Sarah Palin - the former Alaska Governor who was selected by John McCain to be his VP nominee for one simple reason: she has a nice pair of glasses, a friendly smile, and a bubbly personality. She is currently the front-runner among conservative Republicans and the tea party crowd. Palin is currently a Fox News contributor, highly paid speaker, and Tea Party darling.

Strengths: Palin's biggest asset is her ability to relate to "average Joes and Jills." She's taken on the traditional "mainstream" establishment of the Republican Party as well as the liberal elites who hail from Boston, Berkley and Beverly Hills. The media establishment (and many Republicans) just don't understand the "Palin factor" - that is, that someone who appears to be so intellectually challenged could have such broad appeal.

Weaknesses: Palin's strength in a conservative Primary will be her death knell in a November General Election. She certainly wasn't selected by McCain (and now on the national stage) because of her ability to recognize and solve complex issues. Palin was picked because she's pretty, and quite frankly, American while voters tend to be shallow, they want more than just "pretty" in their president. If the GOP learned anything in 2010, it ought to be that fringe female candidates who appeal to the GOP base (such as O'Donnell and Angle) don't win elections in November. If Palin is nominated by the Republican Party, Barack Obama will have to be caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy to lose.

Mitt Romney - the former Massachusetts governor, and successful businessman was a Republican candidate in 2008. Many a Republican lament that Romney would have given Barack Obama a tougher fight for the White House than John McCain did. Okay, but he didn't and that argument is like saying the Patriots could have beaten the Packers in the Super Bowl if they had been in it. But they weren't.

Strengths: Romney is attractive, has a strong organization of mostly-former Bush loyalists, can self-fund if needed, and has strong name ID within GOP circles. He's been out on the GOP fundraising and grassroots circuit the last two years, and has developed strong relationships with party leaders from coast-to-coast. Romney looks good on TV and is a good communicator.

Weaknesses: In 2008 40 percent of Americans surveyed said they would not vote for a candidate who is Mormon. Romney is Mormon. Whether or not voter sentiment about a Mormon candidate remains in 2012, remains to be seen. Chances are, if the economy is still sputtering, they'll give one's religion a pass if they think the candidate will provide workable economic solutions. The other big ding on Romney is he's a flip-flopper. In fact, he's so unsure of where he stands on the issues, he can challenge former Florida governor Charlie Crist for the moniker "pander pants." Name an issue like taxes, healthcare, abortion, gay rights, or gun control and Mitt Romney has probably been on both sides of it within months of his last election. Sure we're all entitled to change our minds, but Romney is a man of 65 years and he should know where he stands on such things. Oh, and don't forget Romney was an advocate of "big government" style healthcare when he was governor of Massachusetts. If he's the GOP nominee, forget about Obamacare being Obama's Achilles heel.

Newt Gingrich - Former Speaker of the House, Gingrich led the GOP to its first majority in the lower chamber in over 40 years. He currently serves as chairman of a Washington think tank, and as a Fox News contributor.

Strengths: Newt is without a doubt the most visionary elected official Washington, DC has seen in a generation. He's a smart thinker who embraces new ideas. More importantly, Gingrich realizes the importance of good communications. That is, he understands how you say something is as important as what you say. And not only does Newt understand the power of communication, he knows how to deliver the message succinctly.

Weaknesses: Gingrich's biggest weakness is hypocrisy. During the Clinton impeachment saga, Gingrich was front and center attacking Bill Clinton for his affairs with Monica Lewinsky - meanwhile Gingrich was engaged in a little hanky-panky with a congressional staffer while still married to his second wife Marianne. On top of that, Gingrich's willingness to embrace new and often-times radical ideas to solve problems makes him a lightning-rod for every liberal special interest group. That's not a concern to conservative Republican voters or Newt's concern in landing the nomination, but if Republicans want to send Obama packing, they'd better think about Newt's baggage which is in more abundance than at an American Tourister factory.

Mike Huckabee is a conservative's conservative. He's probably the purest ideologue in the race. Unfortunately for him, Huckabee's fortunes took a turn south when Sarah Palin turned on the PR machine and stole the mantle of Tea Party/conservative heroine from Huckabee.

Strengths: Mike Huckabee is the real-deal. He has an easy-going, non-threatening demeanor and a gently folksy style that has broad appeal (if only that pesky Palin weren't around). At the CNN/YouTube GOP Primary debate in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 2008, Huckabee almost went to blows with some nut-job at a post-debate press avail when said whacko began harassing one of Huckabee's staffers. Huckabee (who was in the middle of an interview) caught the action out of the corner of his eye, bolted from the interview and confronted the protestor who was later escorted out of the building by St. Pete police. You can't fake that kind of devotion to your staff. In twenty-plus years of campaign work, I've never seen a candidate take such swift and seemingly sincere action. This is the kind of guy you want in a foxhole with you.

Weaknesses: Like Palin, Huckabee is something of an outsider. The difference is, 1) he's an outsider who has more intellectual capacity than an undercooked pancake, and 2) he has the potential to become or at least fit-in with party insiders (Palin does not). If Palin runs, she will be his biggest obstacle to getting to the convention. But Palin in the race shouldn't discourage him from running as it's only a matter of minutes from her last gaffe before Palin commits her next one.

Others to watch

Haley Barbour - I like Haley Barbour. In my previous life in Washington, DC Barbour actually helped me collect a bad debt from a rogue former client. I'll be forever grateful to him for it. But Barbour isn't a serious contender because he tends to be too insensitive about things such as race. I don't believe Barbour is a racist per se, but he definitely needs some sensitivity training. Here is what I wrote about him in June of 2008 when his name came up as a potential running mate for John McCain:

"He's been a great governor. After hurricane Katrina, when the Democrats in Louisiana stood around pointing fingers at each other and wondering why they didn't use the 1,127 parked school buses to evacuate poor people with no car from New Orleans, Governor Barbour got to work to clean up the mess in his state. As governor, he's fought for lower taxes, individual rights, and "right-to-life" issues - all red meat stuff self-defining conservatives say is necessary to be a true conservative. Barbour also brings a lot of experience schmoozing the Washington establishment (an area where McCain is arguably weak). Barbour would certainly fill a void with the inside-the-Beltway crowd. He is the former head of the Republican National Committee, is a former lobbyist, and he has one of the most extensive Rolodex's in GOP circles. But that strength of Barbour's is also his weakness. The Obama campaign would paint him as another fixture of the Washington establishment. Barbour also has a couple of incidents in his background that a less-than-ethical political campaign consultant would use to paint him as a racist. As I understand them, they are very insignificant and certainly don't make Barbour a racist. But it may be enough to keep him from consideration."

This was before his latest gaffe on the subject when he said, he didn't remember the South's Citizens Councils as being that bad.

Jon Huntsman -- According to Newsweek, Huntsman is the man David Plouffe, Barack Obama's chief campaign guru, said is the only Republican who made him "a wee bit queasy." Huntsman resigned his position as governor of Utah (yes he's Mormon) to become Barack Obama's Ambassador to China - arguably one of the most important American diplomatic posts. Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin and has performed admirably in China is widely rumored to resign from his post in the coming months.

Strengths: Huntsman is a practical moderate who could bridge the gulfs between the two parties. Trouble is, he has to convince conservative GOP Primary voters he thinks more like one of them than what his record reflects.

Weaknesses: Huntsman is a billionaire, a Mormon (polls indicate it is a concern), mostly moderate (not a plus in the Primaries), and could be perceived as a turn-coat having taken an appointment from Obama.

Rudy Giuliani - The former Mayor of New York, 2008 Republican presidential candidate and Time magazine's 2001 "Person of the Year" currently runs a security consulting business and is partner in a large law firm.

Strengths: Giuliani was on his "A" game following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He's a bare knuckles fighter when he has to be, and a visionary who embraces new ideas - but not without checking with his pollster first. Giuliani is the type of Republican candidate who would have broad appeal in a General Election. Giuliani's problem is he has to get through a GOP Primary.

Weaknesses: Giuliani's list of problems include: marital infidelity; close association with questionable characters such as convicted felon Bernard Kerik who was Giuliani's NYC Police Commissioner and personal friend. In a GOP Primary, Giuliani will also be vulnerable to attacks of being a liberal - with less-than-conservative views on issues such as gun control and abortion. Additionally, Giuliani's campaign team is overly-insulated and arrogant in a "New Yorker's know-best" kind of way, and has demonstrated a less-than-stellar ability to identify sound winning strategies on the campaign trail - putting all of Giuliani's eggs in the Florida basket in '08 being a good example. In addition to his unsuccessful bid for president in '08, Rudy has considered running for governor of New York, and the US Senate - twice. He hasn't actually won an election since 1997. I doubt he will run again.

John Thune may very well be the sleeper candidate in this race. At 6'4" he is the tallest guy in the race, handsome, and genial. In 2004 Thune defeating then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle -- the first time in 52 years that a sitting Senate Leader was defeated.

Strengths: Thune has been quietly travelling the country visiting with GOP leaders and money men and amassing a quiet army of supporters (a list of over 100,000 supporters thanks to his high-profile race against Daschle, and a campaign account of $7 million - not a large sum, but it wouldn't be a bad start). Thune has been a party-insider his entire career in politics, but he's never been the face of the party or its problems. He's conservative enough to court social conservatives without looking like Pat Robertson's bag boy at a pro-life rally to the rest of the country. As columnist David Brooks said, "When [Thune] criticizes the Democrats, it is for mixing big government with big business: the bailouts of Wall Street, the subsidies to the big auto and energy corporations. His populism is not angry. He doesn't rail against the malefactors of wealth. But it's there, a celebration of the small and local over the big and urban."

Weaknesses: Despite having his MBA, Thune's private sector business experience is probably limited to setting up a lemonade stand as a young boy. He's been an elected official, party staffer, or political appointee his entire life. As Jonah Goldberg of the National Review put it, "Thune is the GOP version of John Kerry: a candidate with very presidential hair who seems 'electable' despite not having done much of anything." Ouch!

If he can convince GOP big wigs and Primary voters he's the real deal, his lack of business experience won't be a liability - remember Barack Obama's resume was thinner than the matchsticks he uses to light his Marlboros with.

Tim Pawlenty the former two-term Minnesota governor recently placed third in a New Hampshire straw poll. How meaningless are these polls? Ron Paul finished second.

Strengths: Hailing from the mid-west, Pawlenty is a social conservative who could have appeal to the evangelical base of the GOP's southeastern base.

Weaknesses: Pawlenty is hardly a household name and his record on fiscal issues (of significant importance to Tea Party voters) is mixed at best. As governor, he balanced Minnesota's budget, but critics note he raised fees (which many argue is a tax increase) and used one-time federal dollars and accounting tricks to do it (sounds like Charlie Crist).

Mitch Daniels - while far less conservative than John Thune, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is the type of political leader America needs. He's a practical realist who will give what they need, not just what they want. This is evident by Daniels' record of raising taxes, cutting budgets, and privatizing government services in order to balance the state's bloated budget. As Daniels applied his practical conservatism he angered just about everyone (Republicans who loath taxes, Democrats who have privatization efforts, and just about everyone who felt the budget cuts). Daniels and his actions in Indiana represent what America needs to accept must come on the federal level if the country is to avoid bankruptcy.

Strengths: Daniels has both public and private sector experience. In addition to being Indiana's governor, he was director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush. His private sector service includes President of North American Operations (1993-97) and then to Senior Vice President for Corporate Strategy and Policy (1997-2001) for Indianapolis based pharmaceutical Eli Lilly.

Jim DeMint is a hardcore fiscal and social conservative. He has warmly embraced the tea party and is consistently ranked by National Journal as one of the most conservative members of Congress.

Strengths: You've got to hand it to DeMint, he's not afraid to speak his mind or take a risk. He was one of the first members of Congress to support Marco Rubio in his uphill senate race. In an era when politicians are afraid to do the right thing or take a risk, DeMint demonstrates a willingness to lead.

Weaknesses: DeMint's penchant for risk taking and calling it like it is, also has its downside. In his 2004 campaign, he took his social conservatism to an extreme when he said, "openly gay people should not be allowed to teach in public schools" and also stated that single mothers who live with their boyfriends should also be banned from teaching. DeMint later apologized for the remarks, but the mark was made: DeMint is your man if you share these hardcore conservative views. A former market researcher, DeMint obviously knew the electorate in South Carolina as he defeated his Democrat opponent by nine points. Ultimately DeMint is realistic enough to recognize his Jesse Helms brand of conservatism won't appeal to mainstream General Election voters and it is unlikely he will actually run for president.

Rep. Ron Paul - God bless Ron Paul. He's right about things most of the time. Paul's trouble is he hasn't yet figured out that success in national politics is more about the sizzle than the steak.

Where are they now?

While no longer a Republican, he was once a shining star in the GOP. But former Florida Governor Charlie Crist proved to be his own worst enemy when he and his state party chair pal Jim Greer tried to ruin Marco Rubio. Had Crist left Rubio alone, he would have likely coasted to the U.S. Senate and been able to set his sights on Washington. Instead, Crist bolted the GOP, lost his independent bid for the senate and is now going to work for liberal trial lawyer/ambulance chaser John Morgan. They both claim to be "for the people" so it's a marriage made in heaven for the two old chums.

Fred Thompson ran one of the worst campaigns for president in modern political history. He took star-power, a booming voice, and a confident persona and turned it into a big ol' pile of stinky stuff. Today, Thompson's political career is over - and apparently his acting career is as well. He's currently peddling "reverse mortgages" to seniors on infomercials late at night. Good riddance Fred.

Too untested

Marco Rubio - Rubio is now seen as the brightest star in the GOP which demonstrates the GOP apparently has a lot of dim bulbs. Rubio is completely untested on the national stage and has been dogged with questionable judgment, and an inability to recognize right from wrong. But Rubio is an incredible communicator who knows how to punch all the key words at the right time. He will no doubt become a star in Washington. But his longing for the perks and the purses that come with being in politics will ultimately be his undoing. His close association with freshman Republican David Rivera warrants close attention. More than just pals, they've been political confidants, business partners and roommates. Don't be surprised when Rubio's name gets dragged into the Rivera mess - or worse.

Michelle Bachman -- the Minnesota Congresswoman is the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus. She knows how to throw around conservative "red meat" including tort reform to end frivolous lawsuits, and claiming global warming is a "hoax." Bachmann is great for TV talk shows because she's prone to gaffes. Ultimately her resume is thinner than Marco Rubio's RPOF credit card and is not a serious candidate.

Who we need, not who we want

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County, Arizona - This guy has the biggest cojones in U.S. politics - he, and to a lesser extent Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida are exactly what America needs. That is, a dose of hard medicine. Give us what we need sheriffs, not what we want. Sorry though, neither could probably get elected because Americans like handouts more than hard truths.

Has-beens and wannabes not worth mentioning

Rick Santorum - big ego, and hard to get along with.

Donald Trump - bigger ego and even harder to get along with, and really bad hair.

Still denying interest, but still being talked about

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida.

Who else is thinking about running?

Every other member of the U.S. Senate not previously mentioned (whether they'll admit it or not).

No doubt some of these characters will not run, while others with perceived "star power" will fizzle, and still others not yet seriously considered may yet emerge. However, in the high-stakes game of presidential politics, time is of the essence and if your name isn't in the game already, it's probably to late for 2012.

Chris Ingram is the president and founder of 411 Communications a corporate and political communications firm, and publisher of Irreverent View. Ingram is a frequent pundit on Fox News and CNN, and has written opinion columns for the Washington Times, UPI, and National Review online. He is the Republican political analyst for Bay News 9, the only 24 hour all news channel in Florida's largest media market. The opinions expressed here are those of author and do not represent the views of Bay News 9. E-mail him at: