It’s going to be a while before there’s anything solid here; this far in advance, there is still too much room for unforeseeable factors to skew the races.
The big question we can get a start on, however, is:
Who will be the GOP candidate?
So here are some of the possible contenders.
Barbour: Currently Governor of Mississippi, formerly in Congress. Smooth political operator, conservative enough to appeal to the base without necessarily taking a full slate of hardline positions. Previously a lobbyist, which may or may not come back to haunt him.
Bush (Jeb): Despite W’s tanking approval ratings, Jeb was widely considered to have done well in his tenure as Florida Governor. The family certainly has a few pennies to finance a campaign with, too – but is the Bush name simply too tainted right now for 2012 to be realistic?
Crist: Jeb’s successor as Governor of Florida, and a more moderate face within the GOP. He’d need a running mate who could energize the base. Also, since he is running for Senate in 2010, it’s hard to see him get to DC and immediately pack his bags for Iowa. Maybe in 2016 after a full Senate term.
Daniels: Currently governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels’ term will be ending in 2012 – will he look higher? He’s gained the Hoosier State voters’ respect on economic and health care issues, and crafts policy based on solid data rather than untenable ideological grounds. That said, he may come off as too wonkish and boring to capture the imagination of primary voters.
Ensign: Nevada senator. Recently embroiled in a sex scandal, which may doom his chances before any real campaign could get off the ground.
Gingrich: Former House Speaker and a (mostly) respected voice within the Republican Party. Went somewhat off track with his outspoken criticisms of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, which may cost him points.
Huckabee: As we saw back in the early primaries for ’08, Huckabee has a lot of verve and pizzazz. (Perhaps it’s an Arkansas-governor thing.) He can doubtless energize the base, but may have trouble winning over the independents.
Huntsman: Utah Governor. Named as Obama’s ambassador to China, which may keep him out of the public eye too much to make a 2012 run credible. There is also a question of how readily the party will throw their support behind someone who has accepted a position with Team Obama.
Jindal: He’s young and energetic, and moderate enough to appeal to the center – but he is also still inexperienced on the national scene and may find it hard to recover from gaffes in the rebuttal speech he gave when he followed one of the post-war period’s more dazzling oratorical acts.
Palin: What can I say about Palin that hasn’t been said a thousand times? In her favor, she’s smarter than many people give her credit for, and certainly has the charisma to fire up the base. It might be prudent, however, to mount a serious challenge in 2016. By that time, pregnant teenage daughters, Troopergate and mavericks will be a distant memory, and she can direct herself better if she learns to pick her battles more carefully.
Pawlenty: Minnesota Governor “T-Paw” has a lot of potential, and certainly has the savvy to bring it to fruition. His big obstacle, however, may be that he’s somewhat bland in both his look and his approach – the former is hardly his fault, but he’s going to need to develop some inner fire.
Perry: Governor of Texas. Not too many people have raised the notion of Perry as a serious contender, but he likely has what it takes to carry the South, where a Northeastern candidate like Romney could have a lot more difficulty appealing. Perry is something of a loose cannon, though – perhaps a good choice for second billing on a Romney or Pawlenty ticket.
Romney: I would say Romney is the favorite for the nomination right now. He’s strong on economics, he’s got credibility and charisma, and he packs an impressive résumé. The question in his case may come down to whether his Mormonism will work for him or against him.
Sanford: Former Governor of South Carolina. Good luck, Mark. Dereliction of duty in furtherance of an extramarital affair? Not likely to win too many people over. A shame, since you might otherwise have had a fighting chance.
Steele: Yes, Michael Steele, the embattled RNC chairman. Notwithstanding his messy disagreements with Rush Limbaugh, there are still a significant number of Republicans who see Steele as a voice of reason and a possible GOP standard-bearer. He’s got the savvy to pull votes from the center without alienating the base, too – but can he hold onto enough credibility? Perhaps he too would be better off consolidating his position and holding out for 2016.
Looking at this, I think the odds are relatively good for a Romney/Barbour ticket – but there aren’t many names I’d completely count out yet, and there may yet be some unexpectedly strong candidates still to emerge.
Update 1/17/2012: Evidently I had a fair number of misses in this post; certainly I did not foresee that Ron Paul would make quite such a splash this time around. I also felt that Rick Santorum would never overcome the double-whammy of an 18-point defeat in his last Senate race and his infamous Google problem. Congratulations to both of them on their unexpectedly strong showings. As far as their chances at the nomination…
Paul: Still doesn’t have enough support to clinch the nomination – his devotees are perhaps the most loyal to be found in American politics today, but 21 percent support is likely to make him merely the ‘nearly man’ in most of the primaries. Still, he will certainly be gathering delegates as he goes, and thus stands to be something of a power broker. I sometimes wonder whether he is angling for a VP spot, but I think he might be too much of a wild card to be a palatable running mate to the eventual nominee.
Santorum: Strong evangelical support, and still largely managing to keep a nice-guy image (in sharp contrast to Gingrich, who has apparently opted for the Angry Old Bastard approach to the primaries.) If he can siphon off enough of the Gingrich and Perry vote to win South Carolina, he might just be able to burst Romney’s “inevitability” bubble and make a serious run for the nomination. My money’s still on Romney, though.