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.
Trump, more of a TV impresario and self-promoter than anything else, was not a serious contender. Making Barack Obama's birth certificate his opening issue just to seize TV attention, when voters are mostly focused on 9 to 12 percent unemployment and a weak economy, signaled he was in it solely for the media attention. When he abruptly dropped out this week, polls found that nearly two-thirds of the voters surveyed said they would never vote for him.
In the end, he chose to stay with his NBC TV show, "The Celebrity Apprentice," a title that would have defined a Trump presidency as much as it defines the one we have today.
Meantime, at least three former governors were putting together major campaign organizations and raising money for what will likely be the costliest primary campaign in American history.
Obama is planning to raise, by some estimates, $1 billion for his coming campaign, a daunting obstacle to overcome, even for the most serious of his challengers.
Romney, who has kept his head down for much of this year, has been focusing on meetings with donors and building his war chest. He collected $10.2 million Monday in a nationwide, one-day, phone-bank fundraising effort, a sign of his strength at this early stage of the 2012 election cycle.
Huntsman, the Obama administration's ambassador to China, is also expected to enter the race soon. A successful, telegenic, two-term governor, who, as a Morman, could draw votes away from Romney.
Pawlenty also is running at full throttle, with early appearances in the first caucus and primary states. Daniels, a low-key personality who is well liked by party conservatives for cutting spending and taxes, is still mulling over whether he will run, admitting that his wife is not enthused by the idea and that, in the end, she will determine his decision.
But these candidates have been getting little to no attention on the nightly news, which tends to focus on the sensational rather than the serious candidates with something to say. A headline over a story about Donald Trump's decision to drop out of the race that ran on Politico's web site Tuesday said his "exit signals end to silly season."
Nearly a dozen candidates have been or are now running for the right to take on Obama next year, but the network news shows have given overwhelming attention to candidates who are, or were, more celebrities than candidates worthy of consideration.
The focus now turns to the three or four candidates who actually have executive experience, who have run state governments and balanced budgets. And who oppose the failed policies Obama has pursued over the past two years, from Obamacare to $1 trillion-plus deficits to an economy most Americans say is still in a recession.
One of them will be the Republican party's nominee.