Five of this group are unlikely to last long as serious contenders, not least because talk-show and grass-roots popularity doesn't necessarily win in the "money primary."
Paul's issues -- gutting the Federal Reserve, shrinking government, foreign policy noninterventionism, drug legalization -- are the ripest they've ever been in the GOP. But, at 75, that's just about the only way "ripe" and "Ron Paul" can be used together in a sentence.
Thune will probably discover early that his Senate colleagues telling him to run isn't necessarily a compliment. In many respects, Thune is the GOP version of John Kerry: a candidate with very presidential hair who seems "electable" despite not having done much of anything.
Bolton, the famously mustachioed and gruff former U.N. ambassador (like Gingrich, a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, where I'm a visiting fellow), is a tireless and brilliant guy, but he's never run for federal office. Presumably he wants to highlight national security issues and, I hope, duke it out with Ron Paul.
Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, is a charismatic superstar on the Tea Party circuit and in many rank-and-file conservative circles. An African-American who likes to joke about his "dark-horse candidacy," he's a lot more than merely a sane Alan Keyes. But it's hard to imagine him amounting to more than an exciting also-ran.
Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and a keynoter at last weekend's KushCon II, will focus attention on pot legalization. Meanwhile, Santorum, a former senator, will focus attention on Rick Santorum.
That leaves us with a top tier of five front-runners: Romney, Palin, Gingrich, Pawlenty and Daniels. Romney is the organizational front-runner; Daniels is the first pick of wonks and D.C. eggheads; Palin probably has the most devoted following among actual voters; Gingrich will dominate the debates; and Pawlenty (vying with Daniels) is the least disliked.
And, of course, all of this is subject to change.
(Full disclosure: Jessica Gavora, an author and speechwriter, not to mention my wife, has worked with Gingrich and, more recently, Palin. My views here are my own.)