Much has happened in the two months and change since my last rankings, but my Top 3 remains the same: Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, and Mitt Romney.
I wrote at that time that I could only see realistic chances for five people -- those three, plus John Thune and Rick Perry. Thune has since opted out, and Perry has made very clear that he's not running. So we're really down to three.
Sure, there are others with a possibility of winning the nomination. But it seems to me the GOP nominee is very, very likely to be one of those three.
I would argue that if one candidate wins both Iowa and South Carolina, that candidate will go on to win Florida (assuming it's moved to be next) and then have it in the bag. If Barbour wins Iowa, that's him. If Pawlenty wins Iowa, Barbour probably fades away and Pawlenty wins SC, and it's him.
Romney's strategy seems to be that different candidates will win Iowa and South Carolina -- let's say T-Paw in Iowa, Barbour in SC -- while he takes New Hampshire and Florida, setting up a long grind where his money and strategic advantages will win the delegate hunt.
I don't buy it. For one thing, I don't think Florida GOP primary voters are all that different from those in South Carolina -- the former is split between Bible-huggers and transplanted Northeasterners, the latter split between Bible-huggers and transplanted military.
But that doesn't mean he can't win. He only needs to beat two guys, neither of whom is a world-beater. It's easy for me to imagine Republican voters -- wherever they may be -- coming around to the idea that Romney is their best bet.
One more thing: there are renewed whispers about a late-entering candidate; supposedly a wealthy businessman whose name has not been previously floated but who is stealthily preparing to jump in after the field of regular pols is settled -- a Fred Thompson-type candidacy, but with actual campaigning. I have long theorized that such a candidate could be a major player in this race, so I'm not writing it off. In fact, I would suggest that the Donald Trump faux-campaign sets the stage perfectly for a serious version of him to run.
Anyway, here are the new rankings, with previous rank in parentheses. I have given up on making it to 25, so I decided to stop when I had nobody left with a better chance than Trump. Enjoy!
1) Tim Pawlenty, former Governor of Minnesota. Making the kinds of hires that suggest he's secured the kind of fundraising to run a full-fledged campaign. A first big test will probably come in the early June debate, where we'll begin to see how he holds up to attacks. His M.O. so far has been accept-and-shrug-off, as when he says that he was wrong to have once championed cap-and-trade. Don't know how that will play. (1)
2) Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi. One of the big inside-baseball newsmakers was Barbour's hiring of Sally Bradshaw, to run Florida for him. Bradshaw, considered a Jeb Bush loyalist, led Romney's Florida effort in '08 -- so naturally, people like me wonder if Jeb (and more broadly, the Bushes) are now anti-Romney the way they were anti-McCain last go-around. Romney people say not to read too much into the Bradshaw move, but it's hard not to. (2)
3) Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts. He's made it official, so for the next few months he'll be changing a lot between the casual plaid shirts and jeans/chinos he wears to campaign, and the tailored suits he wears to fundraise. (3)
4) Jon Huntsman, former US Ambassador to China. Looks like he's going to run as Romney without the pro-choice history. Could work I suppose. (6)
5) Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana. He's making some squeaks like he might still run. If so, and if he can raise the money, he could become a factor. (7)
6) Rick Perry, Governor of Texas. My new theory: Perry's propping up Gingrich as part of a secret plan to make the field of candidates look as absurd as possible, so he can ride to the rescue, looking relatively mainstream joining the race in September. OK, it's a stretch, but it could happen. (5)
7) Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives. The Newt's-a-fraud crowd will howl over this high ranking, but it's not that hard to imagine the scenario where he's the guy who wins Iowa and South Carolina, and it's too late for the GOP establishment to stop him. Worth noting also the Rick Perry people suddenly on his team, which could mean many things, including access to Perry's huge Texas donor pool. (12)
8) Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas. All along I thought he wasn't going to run, and the Al Gore Waistband Indicator still says Huck's out. But lately it sounds like he might be rethinking purely out of annoyance over not being taken seriously enough by pundits ranking likely nomination winners. That's not the worst motivator in the world. I still say he sits out, but who knows? (11)
9) Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska. I have consistently predicted that she wouldn't run, too. And about a month and a half ago you could almost feel the collective sigh of relief as the national Republican establishment reached the same conclusion. But if she decides to go after all, she can't be taken lightly. (10)
10) Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida. See my Rick Perry theory, except Bush would be propping up Barbour so he can ride in looking relatively less Southern. (8)
11) Rick Santorum, former US Senator from Pennsylvania. The Republican establishment views him as just straddling the fence between acceptable and fringe. It's possible, although awfully unlikely, that he could surge with the religious right in Iowa while convincing the insiders he's OK. (13)
12) Herman Cain, businessman. I don't know why, but he really does get the base excited. (24)
13) Bob McDonnell, Governor of Virginia. He's much more realistic a candidate than Chris Christie, who people seem to think is a realistic candidate. (15)
14) John Kasich, Governor of Ohio. I suppose at some point I have to give up on this idea -- at which point I'll immediately begin my 2016 rankings, where he's in my top 5 for sure. (22)
15) Jim DeMint, US Senator from South Carolina. I still don't understand why he doesn't run, so maybe he will. He'd be a major player, despite the institutional dislike of him. (9)
16) Michele Bachmann, US Representative from Minnesota. Just in case anyone might try to take her seriously, she proclaimed -- twice, publicly -- New Hampshire to be the home of the Revolutionary Battle of Concord. This is like showing up for your date and calling her by the wrong name. And telling her you like redheads, when she's a blonde. And talking about the sex you had with her that you really had with somebody else. No, actually, it's still worse than all of that. (20)
17) Donald Trump, businessman. I agree with those who have pointed out that, on the off-chance that Trump is actually serious about running, he will eventually see the required financial-disclosure form and change his mind. (14)