I've been doing these rankings for two years now, starting on the final day of 2008. Looking back at that first list, seemingly so early in the cycle for speculation, what's remarkable to me is how little things have changed since then.
Sure, a few have dropped off the list -- Mark Sanford, most notably, as well as his fellow adulterer John Ensign; also Kay Bailey Hutchison and Charlie Crist, both of whom got humiliatingly rejected by conservatives in their home states this year; and a few of my thinking-outside-the-box names like Bill Frist and Tom Ridge.
But all the major names you're hearing now, barely a year before the first caucuses and primaries, were on my list right after the '08 election. (Or, in the case of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, were left off then and now because I don't believe they have any chance of winning the nomination.)
There just haven't been any new (significant) names floated since then. I'm surprised. I thought we were likely to see a business tycoon looking at it (I even put that as my #25 on that first list), but at this point it seems very unlikely -- if someone like that was seriously considering it, they would have done something to float their name by now. A lot of GOP insiders were sure a candidate would emerge from the '09-'10 election cycle, particularly given the Republican hunger for a fresh face. I've been pretty generous about ranking such possibilities, and you'll see a few on this update, but I don't see any serious movement for any of them.
So, at this point we're pretty much looking at the group we were looking at four two years ago, with the order flipped around a little, mostly based on my perception of their odds of running. Haley Barbour, for instance, started at 14, but has climbed steadily as he's made his intentions clear -- while Bobby Jindal's insistence that he's running for re-election as governor in 2011 has seen him drop from his heady #8 debut.
Anyway, here are the new rankings, with the last ranking (from after the November mid-terms) in parentheses.
1) Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota. Well, former governor, as of this week. I think people underestimate how extensively he's been preparing for the run, and how aggressive he plans to be. Apparently he won't officially get in until after his upcoming book tour. I still think he's in the best position to cobble together a winning coalition. When he does announce, the key to watch will be his initial list of finance co-chairs; my sense from people I talk to is that he might have a mighty impressive batch of bundlers on his side, but that a lot of them aren't ready to commit until they have a clearer sense of who else is running. He started as my #3 on that first list, but has held the top spot since Sanford, um, you know, went astray. (1)
2) Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi. Started as my #14 two years ago. Unlike some other folks, I don't think his recent racially insensitive remarks were a deliberate play for the racist primary vote. I do think, though, that he knows full well that his way of viewing race -- that it was a historical bump we got past and shouldn't have to keep thinking about -- is perfectly attuned to those voters. I was prepared to move him down a few notches, but I think he remains a strong player for the Bob Dole '96 role. (2)
3) Mike Pence, US Representative from Indiana. People laughed when I ranked him #2 two years ago. Maybe they're still laughing now. But I think he's running (he's putting together too good a team for a mere governor's race), and I think he's got a great chance. (4)
4) Rick Perry, Governor of Texas. Continues to swear on a stack of bibles that he is not now, nor has he ever been, interested in running for President. And I continue to say that's all to make it plausible to Texas voters when he announces for President and says he didn't intend all along to immediately abandon them, but finally gave in to the need to help save the country. He started at #4 for me, and is still there, despite all his denials. One worrisome item though: he's not listed as an invited speaker at CPAC, which is only six weeks away. Not that he needs to go, but I would think he would. (3)
5) Jim DeMint, US Senator from South Carolina. Started at #6. He's really acting like he wants to be kingmaker, rather than try to be king himself -- which is why I have him below Pence. But I don't see why he wouldn't run. In my opinion, his decision is second only to Palin's in terms of affecting the nature of the race and the decisions of the others on this list. BTW, Human Events just named him Conservative of the Year. (6)
6) Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts. Man, oh man, the blogosphere conservatives hate him -- scan the comments on sites like HotAir or freerepublic sometime. That doesn't necessarily kill his chances; in fact, accepting that he can't win them over could free him to be far more effective as the grown-up choice. Regardless, it's a very tough road to the nomination for him, as I've written before; he started at #5. (7)
7) Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana. He started as my #10, and I'm surprised at how seriously a lot of insiders still take his chances despite his doing virtually nothing visible in these two years to earn it. On the plus side, I think it's a big plus in this race to remain as blank a slate as possible, for as long as possible. Note that he's a confirmed CPAC speaker; that could be his unofficial coming-out. (8)
8) John Thune, US Senator from South Dakota. A lot of GOP establishment insiders seem, more than ever, to believe that Thune will end up with the nomination. I suspect that's partly wishful thinking; the establishment insiders A) don't want one of the crazy conservatives getting the nomination; B) would prefer not to have a Southerner get it; and C) really don't like Mitt Romney, and/or are on the outs with him and thus would not get jobs in a Romney campaign or administration. Big Q on Thune: will he come out against raising the debt limit, to get back in the good graces of the movement conservatives who have deserted him over previous votes? Started at #7. (5)
9) Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida. Funny how in December 2008 I could barely bring myself to put him on the list at all, at a lowly #21, but over time the stigma of his name seems ever less likely to be a total disqualifier (in the primaries, at least). He's keeping a public presence, particularly on safe issues like education. Question: if he wants to run in '16, will he see a run this year as a positive precurser for that, or as wasting his one shot? (9)
10) Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas. He's been creeping up my list over time, after starting at #18, as I've become more convinced that he really does want to run. I still think he'd have a very tough time putting together the coalition he needs; the business-establishment Republicans don't trust him at all. I think he'd be smart to not run, and play kingmaker among the serious candidates (Pawlenty, Thune, etc.) for his church-based conservative organization in Iowa and the South. (13)
11) Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska. Like Huckabee, creeping up; she started at #15. I think her path to the nomination is very, very tough -- but everybody else is terrified of her. As one Republican operative said to me, there's no way to attack her. Any competing candidate who attacks her will lose popularity among the base; any independent-group attacks on her will only make her more popular among the base. It's a whole different race if she's in or out -- which is the main reason the campaign is off to such a slow start, while everybody awaits her decision. (17)
12) John Kasich, Governor-elect of Ohio. He's the top-ranked potential candidate who was not on my list two years ago -- and he's obviously a longer-then-long longshot. His name still comes up among GOP insiders, though, as a 2010 winner who could turn around and mount a serious campaign. (10)
13) Bob McDonnell, Governor of Virginia. Once the Christie talk dies down, and the absence of "fresh name" candidates becomes clear, I expect McDonnell's name to start resurfacing. He's got the incentive -- Virginia has a single-term limit -- and the conservative cred, as well as some very well-connected DC-area fundraising types. And, note what I said above about the desirability of a blank slate. Can't understand why he's not listed as a CPAC speaker (right in his backyard), but I assume he'll be there. (18)
14) Pat Toomey, US Senator-elect from Pennsylvania. It makes so much
sense, I can't understand why there's absolutely no sign or talk of it
at all. He'd be an instant Top-5 if DeMint endorsed him. (14)
15) Marco Rubio, US Senator-elect from Florida. You would think that if Jim DeMint is not planning to run himself, he should be convincing Rubio to strike immediately, a la Obama. I don't get the sense that's happening, though. (12)
16) Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey. This snowstorm thing doesn't help -- suddenly a whole bunch of his constituents are realizing that Christie's tough-love, small-government, "you're on your own" philosophy applies to them, too. D'oh! More importantly to outside-Jersey Republican primary voters, it suggests that he's not actually a good manager. (11)
17) Jon Huntsman, Ambassador to China. He dropped off my list for a long time, after debuting at #12 -- but he's back! That's thanks to a new article in Newsweek suggesting that he may be planning to run after all. Downside: nobody believes it, and nobody thinks he'd win the nomination anyway. Oh, and apparently he listens to John Weaver. (--)
18) Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana. Still time for him to renege on that re-election promise, but I don't sense much enthusiasm anywhere in the party for him if he does go for a '12 run. Started at #8 on my list, but he's given them too much time to consider other options. (21)
19) Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House. Every two weeks or so we get somebody reporting that Gingrich is totally serious about running this time, for realz. Whatevs. Started at #13, which was too high. (22)
20) Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State. She can jump in late, so there's no rush -- but if she was at all thinking about it, I would think she would have used her news-making endorsement of New Start to really put herself out in the public eye. Still, one of the few people who can put together a run at the last minute; also, the only non-Palin woman on the list. (19)
21) Paul Ryan, US Representative from Wisconsin. His name comes up a lot, but I think he's actually interested in legislating, which inevitably leads to electability problems -- as Pence wisely realized, hence his resigning his leadership position. (23)
22) Jon Kyl, US Senator from Arizona. Showing no signs of running -- but also showing no signs of running for re-election in 2012, as Politico recently reported. Which could mean any number of things, but it's enough to keep him on the list. (15)
23) John Cornyn, US Senator from Texas. Also showing no signs of running. But he can raise a ton of money in a hurry, especially if Perry is out and he has Texas to himself. (16)
24) Rick Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania. I am moving him up from the bottom spot. I hope he appreciates it. (25)
25) Herman Cain, radio talk host. He's running -- really, seriously running. They'll have to let him into the debates and everything. He'll get some support. He'll raise some money from those conservative blogosphere types I mentioned earlier. And, it is theoretically possible that nobody else will run and he'll win the nomination by default. (--)
Falling off the list: Dan Quayle, Scott Brown.