Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Seventeen months before Americans go to the polls to elect their next president, the field of Republican candidates is rapidly being winnowed down to its strongest contenders.

While the national news media, especially network news shows, have been focusing on a handful of dubious Republican candidates (most of whom were best known as TV celebrities), three or four former or present governors have emerged as the leading men in the race.

They are former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Wisconsin, John Huntsman of Utah and possibly Mitch Daniels of Indiana. There are others in the race or who are given virtually no chance of succeeding: Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, making his third libertarian run for the presidency; Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a leader in the tea party movement, who is ubiquitous on the TV talk shows, but was turned down for a leadership post in her party; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the GOP out of 40 years in the wilderness to take control of the House, but whose shoot-from-the-hip speaking and his own personal life (including three wives), was one of almost constant controversy and turmoil.

No sooner had Gingrich announced his candidacy than he had to defend his statement that Americans should be required to carry health insurance, a pivotal Obamacare issue now being fought out in the federal courts.

Lately, less attention is being given to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, who is making her living as a reality TV personality, author and speaker. She fled her state's governorship under Democratic fire before her term was up, and has made no serious effort to put together a campaign organization.

In the space of about a week, three hopefuls have dropped out of the presidential marathon: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and TV reality show host Donald Trump.

Barbour, arguably the GOP's best strategist who governed one of the poorest states in the country, said he did not have "the fire in the belly" for a grueling presidential race. His wife told a Mississippi TV station that the possibility of a national campaign "horrifies" her.

Huckabee, who surprised everyone by winning a handful a GOP primaries in the 2008 race, did not want to give up his lucrative Fox TV show. As the deadline neared on a decision to stick with Fox or run, he made a bread and butter decision.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.