GOP 2012 Presidential Rankings -- Updated!

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How can I know when they’ll declare? I’ll explain. Pay attention, because this is worth knowing -- so that for the next 12 months, you can feel intellectually superior whenever some reporter or pundit thinks it’s significant that someone won’t say whether they’re running for President. And you’ll have me to thank for that moment of self-satisfied smug superiority.

Declared Presidential candidates raise money through a campaign committee. But the maximum contribution to a federal campaign committee is $2400. A so-called “Leadership PAC” can raise in $5000 chunks. That’s better.

Thus, in 2010 Mitt Romney will raise money through his “Free and Strong America PAC,” and use that money to pay for staff and travel, and to contribute to Republicans and GOP committees, particularly in key early-primary states. Tim Pawlenty will do the same through his “Freedom First PAC,” James DeMint through his “Senate Conservative PAC,” John Thune through his “Heartland Values PAC,” and so on.

The catch is that you can only use one of these PACs to promote your ideas and values and whatnot -- but not your own federal candidacy. And the FEC takes that seriously. If the FEC determines that one of these guys is running for President -- say, if they tell a reporter that yes, I’m expecting to throw my hat in the ring -- the FEC will make them stop using the Leadership PAC.

That’s why all year these candidates will publicly maintain the fiction that they have not made any decision about running for President.

But next January, they will all abandon their Leadership PACs and open campaign committees -- and start openly talking about themselves as candidates.

That’s because beginning in January the year before the election (ie, January 2011), contributions to Presidential campaign committees are eligible for federal matching funds. That’s free money, which is even better than high contribution caps.

It’s true that sometimes candidates declare earlier, giving up their Leadership PAC and opening a campaign committee. Howard Dean did, in the summer of 2002. That was because A) he was raising so little money through his Leadership PAC that he wasn’t really giving anything up; and B) he was so far behind in name recognition that he needed to start openly talking like a Presidential candidate to get anyone to pay attention to him.

We could see one or more candidates do that this year. But for the most part, they will refrain from saying anything that sounds like they have decided to run for President -- and now you’ll understand why.

Now, on to the rankings! (Previous ranking in parentheses.)

1) Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota. Since announcing in June that he won’t run for re-election, Pawlenty has visited 17 states and six foreign countries, according to reports. That includes New Hampshire, in December, for the first major visit of the 2012 cycle. He’s also come out for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, which figures to be popular in the party. Just confirmed to speak at the big, big Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC), in New Orleans in April. (1)

2) Mike Pence, US Representative from Indiana. His Leadership PAC is called “Principles Exalt a Nation PAC.” He seems to be uninterested in lesser opportunities (ie, Senate against Evan Bayh, Governor 2012), and yet according to Politico he has hired serious new national-level campaign staffers, and according to Chris “The Fix” Cillizza he’s gathered a circle of advisors that includes Phil Gramm, Ed Meese, David McIntosh, and Tony Perkins. Hmmmm.... (2)

3) Jim DeMint, US Senator from South Carolina. I dropped him from #2 last time, but I may have been too rash. The conservatives love him, and he’s willing to take up any fight for them. It will be interesting to see whether he uses his PAC to help candidates and GOP committees in key outside-the-South states (like Iowa and New Hampshire).(4)

4) Rick Perry, Governor of Texas. Texas Monthly has just put Perry on the cover under the headline “Perry For President?!?”  I’ve said all along that he’s in my top five if he wins re-election, and with the primary less than two months away, it’s starting to look really likely that he will. Oh, and later this month he’s hosting a “blogger summit” with some of the bigwigs of the right-wing blogosphere. (7)

5) John Thune, US Senator from South Dakota. Conservative Matt Lewis and moderate David Brooks have both touted him -- what’s that about? Plus, he got in a high-profile fight with Al Franken, which has got to be good for one’s conservative cred. If he delivers a standout speech at CPAC or SRLC, watch out. (3)

6) Mitt Romney, former Governor from Massachusetts. More evidence of my theory that Romney is pursuing a “blue-state strategy” that surrenders the South: Romney is not scheduled to speak at SRLC. That’s a big, big one to skip. (5)

7) Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi. His Leadership Pac is called “Haley’s PAC,” but his more important one is called the “Republican Governors Association.” (6)

8) Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives. He has yet another new Leadership PAC -- American Solutions PAC -- and a speaking slot at SRLC. Move him up! (11)

9) Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana. He keeps getting talked about, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t have a Leadership PAC. How do you run for President without a Leadership PAC? (8)

10) Eric Cantor, US Representative from Virginia. His Leadership Pac is “Every Republican Is Crucial PAC,” which spells ERIC PAC. Clever, huh? Clever or not, it’s the biggest money-raising Leadership PAC in the country. (12)

11) Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida. He’s becoming more visible and the idea of him running is getting taken more seriously by GOP insiders.(14)

12) Luis Fortuno, Governor of Puerto Rico. With one of those squiggly things over the ‘n’ that I don't know how to make on this blog. And no, I’m not making this up. I keep saying Republicans are dying to support a minority candidate, and apparently they had to go outside the 50 states to find one. (--)

13) Jon Kyl, US Senator from Arizona. He’s been awfully quiet. I have to drop him a few notches. (9)

14) Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana. I’m thinking more and more that he’s angling for VP ’12. (10)

15) Dan Quayle, former Vice President. He just endorsed conservative Ovide Lamontagne against GOP establishement favorite Kelly Ayotte in the New Hampshire US Senate primary. Why would someone insert themselves into New Hampshire Republican politics, I wonder? He’s been running in investment-banking circles, which are great for fundraising. Just 62 years old. (--)

16) Bob Corker, US Senator from Tennessee. His Leadership PAC is “Rock City PAC,” which apparently refers to a place in the Tennessee mountains known as Rock City. More to the point, he’s done little to suggest a 2012 run. (13)

17) Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas. His Leadership PAC is "HUCK PAC," but I don't think it stands for anything, so that's not very clever. On the patented Gore Scale, his waistline is clearly at "not a candidate." But his proxies are reportedly keeping very involved with the RNC primary-scheduling process.(15)

18) Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska. Signing a multi-year deal as a FOX News contributor says no 2012; so does not visiting New Hampshire on her book tour. But headlining SRLC (with no fee!) says maybe. (16)

19) Rick Santorum, former US Senator from Pennsylvania. His Leadership PAC is called America’s Foundation. It’s been very very quiet, and he’s been indiscrete about his 2012 plans -- which leads me to think he’s going the Dean route of declaring for President this summer. That gives him a year to work on winning the Iowa Straw Poll, thus catapulting him to be this cycle’s Huckabee. Huckabee lost, of course -- and that’s Santorum’s best-case scenario.(17)

20) Kay Bailey Hutchison, US Senator from Texas. Brilliantly poised if she comes back to beat Perry in the Texas guv primary. If. (21)

21) Paul Ryan, US Representative from Wisconsin. “Prosperity PAC” -- not bad, huh? Coming to New Hampshire next month, which would normally move him up a few spots, but I think he’s looking at 2016. Recently put out a statement saying “There is a zero percent chance I will be seeking the Republicans’ nomination for president in 2012.” He might even mean it. (18)

22) Marco Rubio, former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. The way his stock is rising among the movement conservatives, he might be able to run even if he loses the Florida Senate primary. (24)

23) George Pataki, former governor of New York. In the last Presidential cycle, Pataki was the very first to rent space in Manchester, NH -- terrific space, best available. Then he couldn’t raise any money so he didn’t make it to the starting line. He did a NH visit in November, and reportedly thinks things would go better this time without a better-known New York Republican in the race. I doubt it. (--)

24) Dirk Kempthorne, former Interior Secretary. Still quiet, still rumored. (19)

25) Chuck Grassley, US Senator from Iowa. “Hawkeye PAC.” Generally speaking, I like naming your Leadership PAC for your home state this way. But what if conservatives think it’s Alan Alda’s PAC? (20)

Dropping off the list: Michelle Bachmann, Lindsey Graham, Joe Scarborough


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