Newt Gingrich’s resignation last week as a contributor to Fox News in order to set up a political exploratory committee for president establishes him early on as a serious contender for the GOP nomination. Insiders say he is genuinely interested in running, and is not doing it for the publicity. Gingrich has remained relevant in his post-Congressional years with numerous ventures including writing books, forming PACs, and becoming a frequent contributor to Fox News. He raised $20 million last year, more than any of his Republican rivals. However, he will need to overcome a perception that he betrayed the Republican Congressional freshman class of 1994, and convince conservatives that two messy divorces do not undermine his conservatism.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is leading in most GOP presidential primary opinion polls, with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney close behind. Both are the only candidates polls show who can defeat Obama. However, Huckabee does not perform as well in some of the smaller polls of party faithful and Tea Party activists, and has not definitively attained front-runner status. Gallup reports that in most presidential races dating back to 1952, there was a clear front-runner at this stage, who usually won the nomination. There have been few exceptions. In 2007, Rudy Giuliani was well ahead of John McCain, but McCain ended up winning the nomination. Early front-runners tend to attract more negative attention. A populist, Huckabee has gained traction over the past couple of years due to the constant exposure provided by his folksy Fox News TV show. The evangelical base loves the fact he is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. However, he will need to convince Republicans that he is conservative enough. He has supported tax increases, opposed tax decreases, granted clemency to numerous violent felons, and promoted tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants.
Mitt Romney has avoided discussing whether he will run, but his fundraising and frequent appearances around the country all but confirm his intent. He has raised more money than any other potential Republican presidential candidate except Gingrich. His Free and Strong America PAC raised over $5.5 million last year, with $800,000 left at the end of the year. Romney’s chances of winning the nomination depend in part upon whether he can distinguish Romneycare from Obamacare, since Obamacare has become one of the biggest negatives for GOP voters. Romney must show that the Romneycare he crafted with the help of the Heritage Foundation is not the same as the MassCare it morphed into after the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts legislature tweaked it. There is also the hurdle that as many as 35% of registered voters polled say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. So far, Romney has downplayed his religion, which has appeared to quell much of the opposition based on early presidential polling.
Sarah Palin is playing coy about whether she will run, but she showed up in Iowa, early presidential candidate territory, to speak at the Republican Party’s Ronald Reagan dinner. As she signed autographs, she tellingly said, “I want to get back to Iowa soon.” Her Sarah PAC raised $3.5 million last year. After running for Vice-President on McCain’s ticket, she has continued to galvanize the conservative base by supporting Tea Party candidates around the country, often against the GOP establishment. But the left has gone after her so viciously over the past couple of years it may have hurt her viability.
Huckabee, Romney and Palin are currently considered the top three contenders, with Gingrich likely breaking into the top tier. Other candidates interested in running will need to raise their profiles in order to become competitive. The candidate most likely next to break into that tier is Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. After Gingrich, Romney and Palin, Governor Pawlenty has raised the most money, $2.1 million last year. Pawlenty did not run for a third term as governor last year, and has appeared at numerous high-profile GOP events recently, evidence he is seriously considering a run. He was one of five potential candidates who spoke at this past week’s Faith and Freedom convention in Waukee, Iowa. In order to win, however, Pawlenty will need to explain away some of his less conservative positions on issues like mass transit, education, global warming, cigarette taxes and funding for public stadiums.
Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota could be a dark horse in the race. Tea Party-backed, fiery, female and young, she could bring the kind of excitement to the race Sarah Palin does without Palin’s negatives. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a surprising breath of fresh air as a conservative politician in a liberal state, could also bring similar new excitement to the race, but most political analysts predict he will not run.
Businessman Hermann Cain, although relatively unknown, is wildly popular with the Tea Parties, and has been gaining momentum speaking around the country. The former chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, he announced in January that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee.
Representative Mike Pence of Indiana said in January that he would not be seeking the nomination. Pence is a favorite of bloggers and political activists, known for saying he is a Christian first, then a conservative, then a Republican. However, some conservatives are wary of his support of a guest-worker program.
Representative Ron Paul of Texas, the libertarian paleocon who ran for President previously as both a Republican and Libertarian, has not decided yet whether he will run again. Although he has a strong, active following, reflected in his frequent straw poll victories, his isolationist views on foreign policy, especially terrorism, and libertarian views on most social issues have marginalized him among Republicans.
Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi has agreed to appear at the Conservative Principles PAC this March in Iowa, and there are plenty of other indications he is interested in running. He is perceived as conservative but opponents will tear him up as a Washington insider. Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is also speaking at the conference. Santorum has angered conservatives by endorsing liberal Republican Senator Arlen Specter for reelection in Pennsylvania, contributing to the defeat of the more conservative Pat Toomey.
Former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer filed a presidential exploratory committee last week and headed to Iowa. While considered fairly conservative, he has practically no name recognition.Former Utah Governor John Huntsman is resigning his position as U.S. Ambassador to China in order to explore running for President. Besides the fact he has little name recognition, he is considered far too liberal to win the GOP nomination.
Other names floating out there who have not actively expressed an interest in running yet include Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, General David Petraeus, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, former Governor George Pataki of New York, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Senator John Thune of South Dakota announced in January that he would not be running. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is edging away from running.
The winning candidate will most likely be the one who raises the most money. There is always the Trump card -- although some mock the chances of Donald Trump has of winning the nomination, due to his tendency to speak off the cuff and socially liberal leanings, if he can convert the $2 billion he is reportedly worth into liquid assets, he could buy the presidency.