Romney Rises Again

After laying low during Palinpalooza, the former Massachusetts governor is back atop the GOP pack for 2012. Mark McKinnon's year-end rundown of who's hot (Tim Pawlenty) and who's not (Rick Perry).

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

After laying low during Palinpalooza, the former governor is back atop the GOP pack for 2012. Mark McKinnon's year-end rundown of who's hot (Rick Perry) and who's not (Mike Huckabee).

The way things are going, maybe we should go ahead and hold the 2012 elections after all—instead of just reappointing Obama president by acclamation.

As we head into 2010, it seems increasingly likely that the 2012 presidential contest will at least be competitive. President Obama’s favorable ratings are now consistently below 50 percent; no candidate has been elected president with a favorable of 47 percent or lower and the Rasmussen Poll this week has him at 44. He has yet to pass any signature legislation on the big issues on which he campaigned, and he now has Afghanistan strapped to his back like a political refrigerator.

More from McKinnon on the 2012 race Correspondingly, we’re seeing a lot of activity among prospective GOP players. By this time next year, the field will be largely set. What is most interesting, comparing the list today with the one a year ago, is who has fallen off it or otherwise lost altitude. Mark Sanford and John Ensign, once bright lights, have been doomed by the ancient curse of infidelity. Jon Huntsman got detailed to China. Bobby Jindal gave a painful speech which reminded voters of Kenneth from 30 Rock. And Mike Huckabee’s chances took a serious blow when a prisoner he freed as Arkansas governor allegedly shot and killed four policemen before being gunned down himself.

So where does that leave the field today heading into next year? Who’s up and who’s down? Four candidates who started the year on the list are off (Sanford, Ensign, Jindal and Huntsman), replaced by newcomers: Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Joe Scarborough, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry.

1. Mitt Romney

Republicans historically like an orderly process—handing the baton to the candidate who has patiently waited his or her turn in line. That guy, this time around, is Romney. He has been plodding and dutiful. He is tanned. He’s rested. He’s rich. And he appears ready for another round. There’s a great deal to be said for having been through the gauntlet before. He now has the experience and knowledge to navigate the treacherous and tricky waters of a Republican primary contest. He knows economics, has built businesses and created jobs both in the private and public sector, and he established health care reform in Massachusetts. And if he runs his race like he did the last month of the last campaign, true to who he really is, he should be the nominee.

2. Sarah Palin

Palin cruises around like she has a political jet pack on: powerful, fascinating, and crazily erratic, and you don’t know if she’s going to fly up into the stratosphere or hit a building. But, she is a force to be reckoned with. She says she looks for “open doors” to plot her political path. Well, alleged cop-killer Maurice Clemmons, granted clemency in 2000 by Mike Huckabee, might have just given her one to walk through for 2012—because Huckabee and Palin would clearly be fighting for many of the same voters, and the Clemmons incident could drive Huckabee from the race. Just a couple of weeks ago, Huckabee was leading the prospective field and polling within four points of Obama. Republicans primary voters are notoriously law- and order-obsessed, so Palin has virtually an open field in Iowa, South Carolina, and other primary states dominated by Christian conservatives.

Hot off her book tour, and the darling of the tea party crowd, Hurricane Sarah is blowing toward the 2012 shore.

3. Tim Pawlenty

Of all the prospective candidates, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been the most forward-leaning and aggressive. At times, he seems to have gone too far—clumsily kissing the right’s rings, just as Romney did four years ago (Pawlenty jumped out early supporting Joe Wilson after he called Obama a “liar”). But he’s raised his profile and is now viewed as one of the most likely presidential aspirants, which was hardly the case last January. As far as boosting his name ID is concerned, he’s doing everything right.

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As the country shifts focus toward budget and deficit issues next year (Obama will strategically try and shift course in this direction in his State of the Union address), Pawlenty is well-positioned to run on the economy and fiscal-discipline issues. In fact, the Democrats in his state are suing him for cutting last year’s budget to balance it (what a gift!).

He’s a conservative whose tone, personality and history help him draw support from centrists. He could end up everyone’s second choice (assuming Romney and Palin both run) and that’s a heck of a place to be in a crowed and wild primary.

4. John Thune

If he would run, John Thune could be the Bob McDonnell of the 2012 GOP field. McDonnell ran a textbook campaign to become Virginia’s governor this fall, helping to shut down the talk of that state turning permanently blue. Like McDonnell, Thune is clearly conservative, but in a pragmatic, rural/small-town way, not in a threatening ideological sense. The senator from South Dakota’s got central-casting good looks and comes across as humble and quiet; he has a Gary Cooper sensibility about him.

Thune is up for reelection next year, so he’ll put aside any talk about running in the near term. But if no one in the field is lighting up the boards by summer of 2011, look for a strong draft-Thune movement.

5. Mike Huckabee

Huckabee’s long string of luck ran out recently when Maurice Clemmons, a prisoner who was granted clemency by Huckbee in 2000, allegedly shot and killed four policemen in Seattle. It wasn’t his first time: Huckabee granted more clemencies and pardons during his tenure as governor than the three previous occupants of Arkansas’ statehouse combined (including Bill Clinton). I believe that effectively kills his chances. Rush Limbaugh is already comparing Clemmons to Willie Horton. And Pawlenty is already going after Huckabee’s clemency record, comparing it unfavorably to his own.

I would be very happy to be wrong. I think Huckabee made the right and humane call on Clemmons, who was sentenced to 108 years for crimes he committed when he was 16 and 17 (the worst of which were burglary and robbery). This issue will test Huckabee’s considerable oratorical skills. But the man is an ordained Baptist preacher, and it will be fascinating to see how he creates a narrative to respond to an issue he would face every day on the campaign trail.

Maybe he can create a serious conversation about the notions of redemption and forgiveness in our criminal justice system. Or not. In which case, he’ll probably always have a home at Fox News.

6. Joe Scarborough

Say it’s so, Joe. America could use a jolt of Morning Joe in 2012. The host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough, would be a terrific candidate. He’s young, articulate, and telegenic. He has core republican bona fides—but is also enough centrist ideas to appeal to moderates and young voters. And he plays guitar.

The problem for Joe is that he appears to be very happy with his current gig. And why not? He gets paid a lot of money to hang out with his charming sidekick Mika Brzezinski, shoot the bull with interesting and entertaining people and, at the end of the day, go home. And spend weekends with his family. Why give all that up?

Because in your heart and at your core you are a servant of democracy, Joe. The debate would be so much more interesting with you in it.

7. Haley Barbour

Don’t laugh. Haley’s as wily a fox as anyone out there prowling the political countryside these days. He’s smart, strategic and has been around the rodeo a very long time. Sure he’s a caricature of the classic Southern politician: old, large, white, honey-lipped, and a former lobbyist to boot. But if voters are really tired of Obama, they’ll be looking for the mirror opposite of the man occupying the Oval Office. And that would clearly be Haley.

8. Newt Gingrich

Newt is one of those candidates who always seems to encourage discussion of their candidacies—not so much because they necessarily plan to run, or even want to run, but rather because it’s simply good for business.

Gingrich is one of the brightest minds in the party—maybe even the brightest. And he’s damn good at starting revolutions at the grassroots level. But our bet is that while he may contribute in many ways and continue to tease, in the end he probably won’t go for the Full Monty.

9. Mitch Daniels

Daniels has been an extraordinarily successful and effective governor in Indiana, a state that has been recently more blue than red. A no-nonsense, tell-it-like-is conservative, Daniels cruised to re-election by 18 points last year when Obama was winning the state.

U.S. News & World Report maintains that Daniels has been consulting with veterans of national campaigns, including Dan Quayle, the former Indiana senator-turned-vice president. pointed out this week that Quayle said recently of Daniels, “he certainly would be fully qualified, very competitive and could possibly be the nominee and give Obama a good run.”

10. Rick Perry

The only real question about Texas Governor Rick Perry is why he hasn’t been on any lists until now. He’s already the longest-serving governor in Texas history and may be headed for his third term next fall. Veteran Texas political observer Paul Burka makes a compelling case for why he should be considered:

1. Unlike Huckabee, Romney, and Palin, he is still in office. 2. He is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. 3. He is governor of the biggest red state that sends the most delegates to the Republican convention. 4. He has the best conservative record of any contender. 5. He has assiduously courted key figures in the Republican establishment. 6. The Murdoch news empire loves him. He is the beneficiary of puff pieces in The Wall Street Journal and softball questions on Fox News. 7. He has an extensive fundraising apparatus in Texas that is capable of raking in enough cash to make the race, and he is now in charge of finance for the Republican Governors Association, giving him access to the GOP’s big national donors. 8. He has not one but two strong messages. The first: Washington is corrupt to the core and out of touch with Main Street. The second: the Texas economic miracle. 9. He was quick to understand the significance of the tea party movement and attended many of the early gatherings. 10. With rare exceptions (such as the HPV vaccine controversy), he almost never deviates from the conservative line.

Watch List:

• Rick Santorum: The former conservative senator from Pennsylvania has strong appeal among Christian conservatives. He is articulate, aggressive and ambitious. If Huckabee fades, and Palin doesn’t run—and maybe even if they don’t—look for Santorum to be camped out in Iowa.

• Mike Pence: Indiana Congressman Pence has been piling up frequent-flier miles raising money for Republican candidates. Popular with his colleagues, Pence was elected by his House colleagues as Republican Conference chairman, the third highest-ranking job in the Republican leadership. In his last election, he unopposed and was elected unanimously.

• Ron Paul: Where are you? The environment is ripe for a libertarian like Paul to stir the tea party pot in 2012.

• Eric Cantor: The House Minority Whip is the hottest GOP talent on the hill. He has become the voice of the loyal opposition, travels frequently for party fundraisers, and created the National Council for a New America to promote Republican ideas.

• Jeb Bush: The first son of George H.W. Bush was supposed to be the 43rd President. He is widely respected by conservatives and it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that he could be the 45th, or 46th. And there’s always his telegenic Hispanic son, George P., who could keep the job in the family as 47.

• Jim DeMint: They don’t come much more conservative than South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who has called for gay teachers to be banned from the classroom and says he “cringes” at the thought of a gay or lesbian president. He’s a Tea Party favorite and jumping into contested primaries around the country backing anti-establishment conservatives. If Palin/Huckabee/Santorum don’t get traction, DeMint could put on his running shoes.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.