- Mitt Romney – Gov. Romney remains in the best position to win the GOP nomination, however the fallout from Gov. Mike Huckabee’s clemency of a cop killer may hurt Romney as well. If the clemency problems force Huckabee out of the race, then Gov. Sarah Palin could consolidate social conservative support in the early states and pose a serious threat to Romney’s chances. On the other hand, Romney has held steady throughout the year, experiencing none of the problems that have plagued his potential rivals. That doesn’t mean that trouble isn’t rearing it’s head around the corner. Gov. Romney’s healthcare plan will likely loom large throughout the next year, with the New Hampshire Union Leader firing the first major shot across the bow in a recent article that also showed signs of support for another Romney rival, Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Although this is a major hurdle, Romney’s rivals also have major obstacles, from Gov. Palin’s resignation, Gov. Pawlenty’s cap-and-trade problems, to Gov. Huckabee’s clemencies. Whomever handles these problems the best will likely be the front-runner. The slow and steady approach of Gov. Romney has earned him the top spot in the final rankings of 2009.
- Sarah Palin – After taking hits early on, Palin has stormed back with her wildly successful book, Going Rogue, and has seen a marginal increase in her numbers among republicans and independents. But the success of her book is not the most important factor in her return to contention, but rather the damaging clemency revelations that could mortally wound Gov. Huckabee’s political career. With her chief rival for social conservatives badly damaged, Palin has become the top rival to Gov. Romney at this point. Palin can now galvanize the social conservative movement behind her, making the former Alaska governor the overwhelming front-runner in the all important Iowa Caucuses. This potential, as well as a natural base of support in South Carolina, could help the governor build an unstoppable momentum towards the nomination. For now, she lacks the organization and staff to compete with Romney, but retains far greater grassroots support.
- Tim Pawlenty – Minnesota’s governor has made some significant moves in his pursuit of the 2012 nomination. He has created a PAC, Freedom First, and announced several major hires from previous campaigns. He has also taken direct aim at both Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan, likely to be a favorite line of attack as Pawlenty sets out to overtake 2012 frontrunner. He is quickly becoming an establishment alternative to Romney, and attracting early insider support. His efforts have earned him some early praise from key players in 2012, namely an early indication of support by the influential New Hampshire Union Leader.
- John Thune – Senator Thune continues to quietly build for a 2012 run. While having no announced opponent yet for his 2010 reelection bid, Sen. Thune still has amassed an impressive war chest, retained a top-level campaign manager, started a PAC, and fundraised for candidates in Iowa. Slowly but surely the media is beginning to catch on, with new profiles about the junior senator from South Dakota appearing on CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Thune’s social conservative credentials could also allow him to join the chorus of candidates likely to benefit from Huckabee’s problems. Thune brings both the social conservative credentials needed to win over the early states like Iowa, as well as significant establishment support that is needed for overall success in the primaries.
- Newt Gingrich – The former Speaker may have lost some face with the conservative base in endorsing Dede Scozzafava in the NY-23 election, but he may have gained support from the crucial GOP establishment. Despite the Speaker’s impressive resume and historic electoral successes, his bombastic past still leaves many in the establishment wary. But being a team player in NY-23 may get the establishment on board the Gingrich train, granting the former Speaker a chance to make history and complete a legendary comeback. Nixon accomplished it, and Newt may be next.
- Haley Barbour – Governor Barbour is perhaps the greatest strategist in the party. He showed off that talent earlier this month, helping to lead two GOP candidates to victory in Virginia and NJ, a great start for the head of the RGA. With his sights set on major races all over the country in 2010, from California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Florida, and Texas, Gov. Barbour could not only continue to help revive the party but could also collect enough chits along the way to make himself a strong contender in 2012. With Speaker Gingrich’s mishap in NY-23, it could be Gov. Barbour who emerges as the 1994er to lead a new generation of Republicans back to power, and himself to the White House.
- Mike Huckabee – The former Arkansas governor has run into serious trouble with the revelation that he granted clemency to notorious cop-killer Maurice Clemmons. The revelation has opened a Pandora’s Box of information on Governor Huckabee’s history with pardons and clemencies. The sheer amount of clemencies and pardons is jarring, with the governor having granted more clemencies and pardons then several surrounding states’ governors combined. The volume alone would lead you to believe that Clemmons will not be the last we hear of the people released or commuted by Governor Huckabee. While Huckabee’s die-hard supporters will likely stick by their man allowing his poll numbers to hold steady, this will certainly come back to haunt him, as rivals hammer the former governor with his poor judgment in these cases. A GOP establishment already wary of Huckabee now has the last reason they will ever need to abandon him completely, and will work to force him from the 2012 race. If Huckabee was reluctant to leave his TV show before this news broke, I imagine his Fox News deal will grow only more enticing as the primaries get closer.
- Rick Perry – The long serving Texas Governor has bounced back from poor early polls to take a solid lead in the GOP primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. A successful primary followed by likely reelection will help raise Gov. Perry’s profile further in the national party. He is already winning populist support for his anti-Washington screed, and won the endorsement of Gov. Palin. But it’s his state’s strong economy that just might push the Texas Governor into contention. As blue states like California and New Jersey head into spiraling fiscal crisis, Texas stands as a strong example of successful conservative economics in the face of a President pushing tax-and-spend liberalism. This factor, combined with a long, experienced career can put Perry in a very strong position. The uniting of the Tea Party base and his large, deep-pocketed Texas donors would give him a strong chance in the early states.
- Mitch Daniels - A very successful Rust Belt governor, Mitch Daniels proved himself by running what many call the best governor’s campaign of 2008 despite the dreadful climate for republicans. He is a graduate of Princeton and Georgetown, and served as Director of the OMB, while also sitting on the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council. Oh and he’s Arab-American(Syrian to be exact), proving once again that the GOP is far more inclusive then advertised. Recently Daniels has stepped up not only his criticism of Obama’s policies, but of the GOP’s current standing too, sounding a lot like someone who wants to lead the party out of the wilderness. The Blade’s continued economic success during a period of recession continues to earn him praise, and despite his denials, inspires hope that the Governor will consider running for higher office in 2012.
- Rudy Giuliani – America’s Mayor is potentially gearing up for a run against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010, and if that race happens, a likely victorious Senator Giuliani could instantly be back among the front-runners in 2012. Rudy remains a popular figure in polls both among Republicans and independents, and in an environment of a poor economy that is likely followed by high crime rates, the former mayor and potential senator could find himself in a strong position. Lessons learned from 2008 could serve Rudy well in the early states, and with no McCain to compete with he could become the consensus leader among the GOP’s moderate and national security wing. If another Presidential bid isn’t in the cards, a VP slot may not be far off, helping to balance the ticket with a more conservative nominee.
Honorable Mention: Jeb Bush, Eric Cantor, Mike Pence, Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal
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