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Presidential Possibilities - A First Line-Up of 2012

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Precisely two years from today, America will be inaugurating a president. But much sooner, the full-blown contest for the White House will begin.

Just a year from now, we'll all be watching presidential candidates slog through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire (with sunny side trips to Nevada and South Carolina). There is only one guarantee: It will be a year full of tumult and unexpected developments.

Presidential general elections are often far more predictable than the nominating contests. Why? The general elections are shaped by fundamental factors (shape of the economy, war and peace, scandal, presence of an incumbent, etc.), and these are not easily altered and can be seen–to a certain degree–well in advance. But nominating battles are very different. The vast majority of the voters agree with the vast majority of the candidates on a vast majority of the issues. They all share the same party label. So differences in personality and character, sectionalism, campaign spending, alliances with key constituencies, and other factors substitute for the fundamentals of a general election.

Voters try to pick a candidate (1) who can win in November; (2) with whom they agree on issues; and (3) whom they like. And choosing among friends in the primaries is much more painful than the easy selection of friend versus enemy in a general election.

While President Obama may or may not have one or more Democratic primary foes, he is a lead pipe cinch to be the Democratic nominee for president, and to win the party nod by a mile. At this point, there is nothing to analyze, except to say that Obama will want to stave off a challenge if possible. Major intra-party challenges to the incumbent president in 1968 (Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy for LBJ), 1976 (Ronald Reagan for Gerald Ford), 1980 (Ted Kennedy for Jimmy Carter), and 1992 (Pat Buchanan for George H.W. Bush) all helped to send presidents into early retirement.

In 2011-2012, the nominating action is on the Republican side, and a vigorous “invisible primary” contest is already underway. The term “invisible primary” refers to the early, pre-primary accumulation of money and endorsements, the building of organizations in key states, the management of a campaign infrastructure, and the shaping of issue positions and public relations among the various real and possible presidential candidates.

The GOP field is not set. The contenders are in various stages of undress as the strip tease proceeds. So we begin with a catch-all listing of those clearly running (such as Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty); those seriously toying with running (Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, etc.); those who might be persuaded to run (such as Chris Christie and Marco Rubio); and those who are running but tilting at windmills (Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, and so on). In total, we evaluate nineteen actual or potential candidates here.

There may be more to come. Somewhat inexplicably, Rudy Giuliani is ruminating about another White House bid, though he crashed and burned in 2008–and has the very same problems (such as liberal positions on social issues) for 2012. This time around, Rudy isn't even assured of being in Tier 2. Reality will dawn at some point and the former New York City mayor will probably stay out. Several state governors, such as Rick Perry of Texas and Bob Riley of Alabama (who just left the executive mansion after eight years), are mentioned here and there, but so far no signs have emerged to suggest a serious effort. And let's not forget about ex-Gov. Buddy Roemer of Louisiana, who is toying with a candidacy though not by popular demand. He's been out of office since his reelection defeat in 1991, but the fires of ambition are never extinguished for some politicians until the cold of the grave.

At the starting gate, all we can do is offer a preliminary assessment of their chances for the Republican nomination by weighing their advantages and disadvantages. The general election is another story. Some candidates who have a good or fair chance to be nominated will be hard-pressed to win in November. Yes, Sarah Palin is a prominent example of the latter principle.

No one can be rated as having an “excellent” chance at winning the nomination (yet someone will eventually win). Mitt Romney, widely considered to be leading the early pack, starts out as a weak frontrunner. Six actual or possible contenders are placed in the First Tier; four more in the Second Tier: four in the Third Tier; and five in the Fourth Tier. Obviously, the nominee is likely to be found in Tiers 1 and 2.

There is only one more thing we know for sure. The ratings will change. Presidential primaries are a demolition derby. Even the top-of-the-line cars can occasionally be put out of commission by a junk heap. To switch political metaphors, dark horses (at least those in Tiers 1 and 2) cannot be written off with anything near certainty. A few actually win, and others run a much stronger race than expected, upsetting the field's line-up.

It's a terrific spectator sport. Prepare to be amused.

GOP Presidential Possibilities

Mitt Romney: If the Republican field has a frontrunner, it is Mitt Romney, but he's a very weak frontrunner. Republicans by nature are hierarchical, and in the modern era they have usually nominated the next-in-line prince. Romney and Mike Huckabee were, for all practical purposes, tied as the number two to McCain in 2008, but Romney had a more traditional and effective campaign operation and fundraising machine. As expected, Romney is running a frontrunner's campaign in 2012–keeping aloof from many day-to-day controversies, funding allies across the country and especially in early primary and caucus states, and trying to maintain the flexibility to position himself when it really matters for the nominating process. However, at this early stage, no one is going to put a heavy bet on a Romney nomination. He has too many weaknesses, from policy (healthcare in particular) to politics (little common touch or populist appeal) to religion (Mormonism remains controversial with the GOP fundamentalist Christian base). For the moment, Romney is methodically running down the checklist for a serious presidential candidate: traveling abroad, raising money, assembling a team, trading endorsements, and the like.

Mike Huckabee: No one is sure if Mike Huckabee is going to mount a second bid for the White House in 2012. He would have to give up a lucrative FOX contract in order to do so, and he would also have to find a way to raise much more money than he was able to do in 2008. At the same time, Huckabee has substantial residual support in Iowa, South Carolina, and other places where fundamentalist Christians are a big part of the GOP base. Huckabee is a blue-collar Republican rather than a blue blood one. It is no surprise, then, that Huckabee and Mitt Romney do not like one another very much; it is far more than a policy dispute between the two. No doubt, Huckabee will do what he can to stop Romney from getting the Republican nomination, whether Huckabee runs or not. Another difficulty for Huckabee is that he draws support from many of the same individuals and groups that back other candidates, including Sarah Palin. Huckabee has pointed out that he has actually led some of the very early presidential polling, for whatever that is worth, but it is obvious that he is of two minds about making the race. We will just have to see what he decides, presumably by spring. Whether he wants to weigh this factor or not, Huckabee should be concerned about some controversial pardons he issued while governor of Arkansas. It won't be easy to sell his lenient actions to a Republican electorate that is traditionally “tough on crime” and once supported George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis because of Dukakis's furloughs of convicted criminals.

Sarah Palin: One of the most famous pre-candidates in recent presidential history, Sarah Palin continues to dominate a campaign she has not entered and may never enter. It is impossible to know whether Palin will become a candidate. In selecting her as his 2008 vice presidential nominee, John McCain made her a national star and also immensely wealthy, and she is now a business empire with few precedents in America's political history. Of course, all of that has come at a considerable price. Beloved by the Tea Party and other conservatives, Palin is highly controversial, divisive, and polarizing. Should she enter the 2012 contest, Palin will instantly become one of the frontrunners. But is she really interested in giving up the empire she has built to trudge through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and endure the indignities that come automatically to all candidates, famous and obscure alike? The record is not encouraging, given her midterm resignation from the one significant office she has ever held, that of Alaska state governor. No one will be surprised if she takes a pass on the campaign, after having teased and tweaked and twittered about it for as long as possible. It is a smart thing to draw out the attention and maximize one's influence on the process. If Palin does end up running for president, she will benefit from a split field of GOP candidates–for as long as that lasts. Yet even in the Tea Party, Palin is viewed in a mixed way. The activists appreciate what she stands for, but wonder whether she can win a general election–and her poor handling of the Tucson shootings has only added to the deep doubts about her. Virtually every poll shows her losing to President Obama by the widest margin of any major Republican contender. This worry about Palin is widespread and discussed privately everywhere. As long as Republicans believe they have a strong chance of winning in 2012, they may hesitate to put forward a candidate who will have great difficulty capturing moderates and swing independent voters. No one is foolish enough to underestimate Sarah Palin, but few political analysts can currently imagine her being elevated to the Oval Office either.

Tim Pawlenty: The former two-term governor of Minnesota is by all accounts a dark horse for the GOP nomination. Even Pawlenty would agree with that. But there are long longshots and short longshots, and Pawlenty is in the latter category. He has been out in the field early and often, most recently promoting a new book, and while he has not made much of a splash, he has made progress. Pawlenty hopes that his blue-collar background will contrast with the Bluenose candidacy of Mitt Romney, if indeed Romney is able to maintain his front-runner status. Perhaps a little suspect because he was governor of a state with a liberal image, Pawlenty has insisted, maybe a little too strenuously, that he has been comprehensively conservative during his public life. As his supporters would suggest, at least he didn't pass a version of Obamacare in Minnesota. Pawlenty is understated, with a wry sense of humor, and he hasn't yet left much of an impression on the nascent campaign. But there is plenty of time, and as long as he can keep up his fundraising, Pawlenty can hope that the GOP field shakes out just right for an acceptable if bland Midwestern conservative. Stranger things have happened in presidential politics.

Haley Barbour: Republicans regard Haley Barbour as one of their historic heroes, having laid the organizational groundwork for the 1994 GOP takeover of both houses of Congress. Barbour has also made the unusual transition from party operative and Washington, DC lobbyist to elected official, having served two terms as governor of Mississippi. There is no question that he is a Republican senior statesman, and having been so close to power for decades, he naturally looks in the mirror and asks, “Why not me?” There is no better political strategist in the party, and no one who understands Republican politics discounts him. Potentially, he would have strong support in the South, which is the most powerful region in the GOP nominating process. Nonetheless, Barbour has a mountain to climb in winning the nomination and, along the way, convincing Republicans he can win the general election. Tea Party activists are naturally suspicious of his senior lobbyist status, and unquestionably he is a charter member of the Establishment rather than a pitchfork populist. Barbour bears the burdens of Mississippi, too. He has badly mishandled a recent racial controversy about what he recalls from the Magnolia State's sad civil rights past, and pardoning a couple of convicted African-American sisters at Christmastime is unlikely to change his image. Mississippi is also nearly last in almost everything, and he would be called to account for that, much as Bill Clinton had to explain why Arkansas was in such poor shape in almost every respect in 1992. Of course, that didn't stop Bill Clinton, and it may not stop Haley Barbour.

Mitch Daniels: Here is another accomplished governor from a vital Midwestern swing state. Unlike Pawlenty, Daniels has not thrown his hat into the ring and may never do so. In an old-fashioned way, he has been testing the waters, dipping a toe in here and there, dropping hints and suggesting that he might, just might, try for higher office. Again, it is impossible to get into the head of a potential candidate, though the old political rule of ambition usually applies: you have to want the White House so badly that the fire in your belly can substitute for heating oil all winter long. If Daniels does run, he has an impressive record to tout. Daniels has been a very popular two-term governor in Indiana, and his earlier service as head of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush White House potentially qualifies him to make a case for reducing yawning national deficits and debt–although he can also be accused of having helped to create the debt mountain. The problem for Daniels is that he may be viewed as more of a manager than a potential president. In addition, while Daniels fits the old definition of conservative to a T, he is not much of a revolutionary from the Tea Party perspective, and he is suspected of having moderate tendencies on both about the possible need to raise taxes in order to reduce the deficit as well as the kind of priority a president should give to controversial social issues. Daniels is leaving office in 2012 since he cannot run for a third term, so the timing of a presidential campaign is perfect–if he really wants to spend his last couple of years as Indiana's chief executive roaming the nation in an extended, humbling job interview.

Newt Gingrich: Other than Sarah Palin, no candidate in the 2012 GOP field is as well known as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As with Palin, however, 100% name recognition is a mixed blessing. Republicans will always appreciate Gingrich's role in the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress. His relentless drive and cornucopia of policy ideas helped to restore a party's confidence after 40 years out of power in the House. But it was all downhill from there. Gingrich didn't understand the difference between holding the speakership and being president of the United States. He badly overreached, led the Republicans into a disastrous government shutdown, and helped to restore the tattered Clinton presidency. More than any single individual, including 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, Gingrich created the conditions for Clinton's reelection. Then his disagreements with other Republicans and bad judgment calls were a factor in the disappointing outcome (for Republicans) of the 1998 midterm election. The GOP actually lost House seats when they had had the opportunity to increase their numbers substantially. Once again, Gingrich had overreached in seeking the impeachment of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Almost unbelievably, during the very time when Gingrich was capitalizing on Clinton infidelity, Gingrich himself was having an extramarital affair which inevitably became public. His three messy marriages are part of the heavy baggage Gingrich would carry into the 2012 Republican nominating battle. At the age of 69 in 2012, it will be difficult for the polarizing, controversial former House Speaker to present himself as a winning alternative to President Obama. Overall, Gingrich does poorly in the general election matchups with Obama, and this undoubtedly will influence many Republicans during the primary season. No one underestimates Gingrich's ability to dominate the political debate with new ideas and clever soundbites, should he choose to run. Gingrich has toyed with the idea of running for president for years, but has never done so. His close associates say he is closer than he has ever been before to getting in, but time will tell.

Mike Pence: The odds are that Congressman Pence will be running for governor of Indiana in 2012, and he has a good chance to win that. The presidency is very probably a bridge too far. First, it is exceedingly difficult for a member of the House to move directly to the Presidency. Only James A. Garfield has managed that in American history. All recent House candidacies, such as that of former Democratic House leader Richard Gephardt, have failed. Yes, Pence is well respected, especially among the fiscal and social conservatives who dominate many of the early Republican caucuses and primaries. But those activists will have a wide choice among better-known and funded potential nominees.

John Thune: Another dark horse who is receiving attention, at least inside the Beltway, is South Dakota Sen. John Thune. This picture–perfect, made–for–TV politician has a lot of experience to back up his good looks. Having been involved in politics and government since the 1980s, Thune has made a career of service in both houses of Congress. Thune served in the House from 1996 to 2002, when he mounted an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. It was a nailbiter, decided by about 500 votes out of over 330,000 cast. Undeterred, Thune turned right around and challenged Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004, and defeated Daschle by about 4,500 votes. This victory made Thune a giant–killer, and it was a headliner race around the nation, and one of the most expensive. Remarkably, Thune ran unopposed for reelection in 2010, and thus he is tanned, rested, and ready should he decide to run in 2012. South Dakota is a small base from which to launch a presidential campaign, though that didn't stop George McGovern. One advantage is that Iowa is nearby, and Thune would have to do well in Iowa to survive and fight in other states. Thune knows he will be an asterisk in the polls unless and until he wins a major caucus or primary state, and it is still uncertain whether he will run at all. Should the planets and stars align for Thune in the GOP process, however, he has the potential to be a formidable foe for President Obama.

Marco Rubio: The new senator from Florida is much more likely to end up on the 2012 GOP ticket as vice president. It will be a shock if he is not on the eventual nominee's shortlist. He's got it all: high office from one of the premier swing mega–states, good looks and rhetorical flourish, and ethnic membership in arguably the most significant political group of the 21st century, Hispanics. Rubio is new to the national scene, but had a career as speaker of the state House of Representatives–no minor position. And after Barack Obama's meteoric rise, Democrats would be in no position to question Rubio's experience. However, similar to the circumstances facing Chris Christie, when you're hot you're hot, and it is difficult to keep the griddle warm. Will Rubio find a way to achieve quick prominence in the Senate, and decide the Republicans need him in order to defeat Obama in 2012? Once again, Obama has blazed the trail for very junior senators, so this is not as unthinkable as it once might have been.

Chris Christie: Sometimes an unexpected politician comes out of nowhere and captures the public's imagination. Chris Christie has done just that, especially within the universe of the Republican party faithful. Elected governor of New Jersey in 2009, Christie has become a hero to the Tea Party movement, and his blunt confrontational style–especially about government spending–has resonated deeply. Christie says he isn't running, and we believe him. There is no such thing as a presidential draft these days, so Christie would have to change his mind about seeking the White House in 2012. In doing so, he would probably damage severely his gubernatorial reelection prospects in 2013, should he still be in New Jersey. The rule in politics is that you run while you are hot, and it's doubtful that Christie can maintain a high temperature all the way to 2016. (Maybe the poor snow removal and Christie's absence from New Jersey during the Christmas blizzard of 2010 will cool him down quickly.) But let's see if Christie gets Potomac fever. If he does, Christie is not to be underestimated in a large field that may become very fractured during the nominating process.

Rick Santorum: This is an unusual case of presidential fever. Santorum, a two-term senator from Pennsylvania, lost his seat in 2006 by a massive 18 percentage points. Not many would consider this a qualification to run for president, assuming a party hopes to win in November. But Santorum is self-confident and determined to spread his socially conservative views to an attentive audience in the Iowa caucus, which is dominated on the Republican side by fundamentalist Christians. To his credit, he is already on the campaign trail working as hard as any other candidate–harder than most, in fact–but so far his appeal is limited. Oddly, Santorum's case was undermined by the election of Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in 2010. If anything, Toomey is more conservative than Santorum, and yet he won in Pennsylvania, albeit in a better year for the GOP. President Obama would probably make quick work of Santorum in a general election, and this is obvious to most Republican activists. A decent early showing in Iowa is a real possibility, but it is difficult to see how Santorum becomes the nominee of a party that thinks it can win in November 2012.

Jon Huntsman: A surprise, possible new year's entry is Huntsman, currently serving as the Obama administration's ambassador to China. Huntsman resigned his governorship of Utah just over a half-year into the second term to which he was elected in 2008 to take the ambassadorship. Well regarded as governor and very popular in the Beehive State, his ambassadorial appointment was seen at the time as a clever move by Obama to remove a potential 2012 GOP rival from seeking the White House. Apparently, that calculus may have assumed less ambition than Huntsman possesses–if in fact the reports of Huntsman's interest in a presidential bid are true. It may be a feint, after all, designed to keep his name out in public and associated with the GOP. Within the Republican party, he has all but disappeared as a force, and is viewed as someone working for the enemy. Maybe Huntsman can sell this to a politics-weary nation as bipartisanship, but we doubt a conservative GOP electorate is going to buy that. Adding to Huntsman’s woes is that he has taken a number of moderate-to-liberal positions on gay rights, environmentalism, and other subjects, none of which are helpful in running for a Republican party nomination. Huntsman’s family wealth is enormous, but money can only carry you so far in nomination politics. The former governor is being pushed by ex-McCain associates viewed as moderates within the GOP, another fact not likely to sell well in Iowa or South Carolina, just to pick two early contests. Finally, Mitt Romney has a big head start in nailing down the Mormon political activist corps of volunteers and contributors. Huntsman will inherit the problems of being a Mormon candidate in a conservative Christian party without the same benefits as Romney. This is a strange development, and while Huntsman's assets mean he certainly cannot be written off, assuming he's running, he will have to quickly exit the China post and get to work mending fences if he is to be taken seriously.

Michele Bachmann: Just elected to her third term in the U. S. House representing Minnesota's conservative Sixth Congressional District, Bachmann had been thought to be aiming for the Senate seat of freshman Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar in 2012. But apparently, her ambitions are still greater. While she has given no firm indication of a White House candidacy, there have been hints, including a scheduled trip to Iowa. Bachmann is a Tea Party favorite, and she has been a fierce advocate for virtually every socially and fiscally conservative position, from opposing abortion and gay rights to promoting property rights, stringent debt reduction, and lower taxes. Bachmann has a controversial style, and she is no favorite of the House Republican leadership. But if she played by the rules, this junior congresswoman wouldn't be on this list of possible presidential candidates. The most conservative activists love her, and she isn't about to step aside easily for the former governor of her state, Tim Pawlenty, or another woman with even higher visibility in the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin. (Pawlenty in particular must be unhappy with Bachmann's maneuverings.) We believe that gaining the GOP nomination for president is a bridge too far for any House member, including Bachmann. But she would certainly stir the pot; more accurately, she would be a stick of dynamite in the Republican pond.

Ron Paul: The 11-term Texas congressman, whose congressional career has stretched (intermittently) from the mid-1970s to the present, may be better known nationally as the father of new Tea Party Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Like father, like son; both are firebrands. As politicians go, Paul is about as principled as one can find. He's a mixture of traditional GOP, isolationist, libertarian, and Tea Party–an unconventional and occasionally unpredictable mix, for sure. In fact, he was the Libertarian Party candidate for president in 1988, garnering 432,000 votes in the George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis race. Paul ran for president again in 2008, but this time as a Republican. He actually finished fourth, with 1,165,112 votes (5.6%), behind John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. Any college professor knows he drew a fair number of young people to his banner, mainly young men who liked his anti-Iraq War stand and his staunch anti-debt positions. But Paul's time may have passed, and he himself says there's only a 50-50 chance he'll run in 2012. Just age 41 when first elected to the House in April 1976, Paul will be 77 years old in 2012. No question that Paul would enliven the GOP debates and would again be a youth and press favorite, but his chances of winning the Republican nomination for president are somewhere between very small and nonexistent.

John Bolton: A surprise entry into the GOP field, former UN ambassador John Bolton might be able to insure that foreign-policy is a major part of the discussion during the Republican campaign. That in itself is a useful contribution. But Bolton has no elective experience, no real political base, and likely no major argument for his possessions among the top Republican candidates. As he himself would probably admit, he is no populist, and comes across on TV as stern and academic. It is also difficult to see how he would raise the money for a credible bid. He may or may not run, and is still considering the race.

Gary Johnson: This two-term governor of New Mexico is almost totally unknown outside his home state. A wealthy businessman, he was something of a surprise winner in the Land of Enchantment during his years of service (1994 to 2002). Johnson is a most exceptional kind of Republican, a libertarian on many issues including drug legalization, and a Ron Paul supporter in 2008. He has practiced what he has preached, openly admitting to smoking marijuana with frequency for several recent years, as he sought to overcome residual pain from an accident. Much like John Bolton, but from a different direction, he will enrich the debate by being in the race. But Johnson's chances of nomination are mighty slim, and that is putting it kindly. Johnson probably hopes for a Paul endorsement if the Texas congressman does not run again.

Herman Cain: Another wealthy businessman, Cain is a favorite among some activists. An African-American and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, Cain often hosts conservative radio shows. He is a staunch critic of President Obama and has a blunt, no-holds-barred style. But as someone with no elective experience and the perception that he is too far right to win a general election, Cain is most unlikely to be the Republican presidential nominee, even as he appears to be moving forward to become an official candidate.

Donald Trump: As if the 2012 presidential election didn't have enough sass and color, along comes Donald Trump. He has not made a final commitment to running, but he certainly did sound interested in a recent Newsmax interview. Trump made his fortune in real estate, starting in Manhattan and extending to Las Vegas and multiple locations around the world. He is perhaps the premier celebrity businessman in the United States, and he has published best-selling books such as “The Art of the Deal.” Today he is best known for his hit TV series, “The Apprentice.” Millions have watched it for years, enjoying the competition among aspiring young business types, but perhaps taking the greatest guilty pleasure in hearing Trump say to one participant at the end of each show, “You're fired.” It is difficult to know whether to take Trump seriously when he suggests a presidential candidacy, and he has given himself until the summer–when the TV season concludes–to make a decision. Trump would have all the money he needs and could certainly draw a crowd wherever he goes. But like many celebrities who jump into politics, he will have difficulty being taken seriously, at least at first. Trump has never served in any public office, and he's no Dwight David Eisenhower. On the campaign trail, Trump could be a hit, or he could be a bust. Our initial suspicion is that the Republican primary voters will end up saying, “You're fired.” Turnabout is fair play.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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