The potential candidate who sparks the strongest emotions is Sarah Palin. But her non-spectacular showings in polls suggest that many Republicans, while agreeing that she has been unfairly treated by the press, believe she cannot win. The fates of Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell may have been instructive here.
The candidate whom some pundits call the front-runner, Mitt Romney, is hobbled by the fact that the agenda he put together in 2005-06 for his 2008 candidacy contains elements that are undercut by his previous record (on abortion, for example) or are out of line with Republican voters' current thinking (Romneycare).
Romney and Mike Huckabee, good-humoredly fluent and seemingly happy as a Fox News host, both lost the 2008 nomination to a candidate whose strategy was to wait for all the other candidates' strategies to fail. Not a good augury for 2012.
Others carry baggage from the past. Newt Gingrich is sidling up to a candidacy with, as always, a raft of new ideas, many of them good, and some brilliantly penetrating insights, but not much discipline. Rick Santorum, having lost his Senate seat by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin in 2006, is campaigning on the conviction that cultural conservatism will be as important to Republican voters in this cycle as it was from 1988 to 2000.
Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels approach running with records as two-term governors and with the chance to propose fresh agendas. But for the moment they're overshadowed as congressional Republicans try to seize the initiative on major policy.
It is easy to see at least one reason why each of these potential candidates must lose. But our unsatisfactory nomination process, for all its faults, is a zero-sum game in which one player must win.
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