Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Phantom Campaign

Shadow-Boxing for the Presidency

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 17th, 2011

Much has changed since our launch of the 2012 Crystal Ball Presidential Ratings—and yet little has changed in this slow-starting campaign. We outlined all our cautions about early assessments in the January Crystal Ball, so we’ll just skip right to the red meat evaluation.

Assuming Republicans want to put forward a candidate who can fully compete with President Obama—if the electoral circumstances in 2012 allow it—then the GOP nominee is likely going to come from either Tier I or II, so we focus special attention there. In the past months we’ve lost a couple of Tier II candidates, Indiana Congressman Mike Pence and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Pence is positioning himself instead for a run for Governor in his home state, while Thune has decided for now to focus on Senate leadership office. Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana gained the most from Pence’s non-candidacy decision, if in fact Daniels decides to make the race. Of course, Pence had intense conservative base support, so other conservatives in the field might have moved up a bit, too. Thune’s opt-out probably favors former Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, given the overlap in Midwestern regional backing.

In Tier I, Mitt Romney remains the undisputed if underwhelming frontrunner, mainly due to lack of strong competition. The candidate who has moved up faster than anyone is Tim Pawlenty. Haley Barbour gives every sign of running hard, and he’s clearly in the top tier even though the Mississippi governor has not had a trouble-free couple of months. Naturally, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Mitch Daniels will also be secure in Tier I if they actually pull the chute on a candidacy. The Beltway conventional wisdom says none of the three is running, but with “Beltway” attached to the appraisal, we all know to stay alert.

Still, Palin and Huckabee in particular have lost altitude as the GOP establishment, having concluded they won’t be on the ballot, moves to embrace others.

Daniels continues to receive the accolades of Beltway admirers, but equivocates every time he’s asked about actually running. In our experience, a politician who hems and haws about a presidential bid usually settles on “haw” (no).

The potential contender who insists he’s not running but who has the most juice in his revved engine is Chris Christie. Should he change his mind later in 2011, it is possible he could storm the field.

Newt Gingrich gives every sign of tossing his hat in—at long last, after a strip-tease lasting years. Yet his semi-not-quite-launch in Atlanta was a bobbled bust. Jon Huntsman rounds out our small Tier II. His money and ambition are towering, but we wonder if his ties to Obama and moderate views make his eventual share of the vote much smaller than he anticipates.

If the GOP, infused with Tea Party spirit, decides to move right (right off the cliff in November), then Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann could see their Tier III candidacies take off. Assisted suicide is illegal for individuals, but perfectly acceptable for political parties. Santorum is already sprinting, and Bachmann appears close to a White House bid. Santorum is a social issue warrior at a time when the nation doesn’t seem to be looking for it, and Bachmann has a Tea Party base but little else. (Her former governor, Tim Pawlenty, cannot be pleased by the potential in-state competition.)

Finally, Tier IV candidates—some real, some just possible—have no real chance to be nominated, but offer ideas and, in some cases, pure amusement for those of us following the 2012 round-up. Joining Ron Paul, John Bolton, Gary Johnson, Herman Cain, and Donald Trump is new candidate Buddy Roemer—former governor of the state most widely associated with political entertainment, Louisiana. Roemer and Cain got positive attention for good speeches at an Iowa gathering of social conservatives last week, which merits a “thumbs up”. But it’s difficult to believe, to the vanishing point, that the GOP will entrust its presidential nomination to either.

Crystal Ball GOP Presidential Primary Chart

The stoplight icon indicates how likely the potential candidate is to actually run for president. The scale goes from bright green (running) to bright red (said no). A thumbs-up icon demonstrates gaining momentum, while a thumbs-down shows losing momentum, and in-between indicates no recent change in momentum.

Mitt Romney: if the Republican field has a frontrunner, it is Mitt Romney, but he’s a weak frontrunner. Republicans by nature are hierarchical, and in the modern era they have usually nominated the next-in-line prince. Romney and Mike Huckabee were, for all practical purposes, tied as the number two to McCain in 2008, but Romney had a more traditional and effective campaign operation and fundraising machine. As expected, Romney is running a frontrunner’s campaign in 2012 – keeping aloof from many day-to-day controversies, funding allies across the country and especially in early primary and caucus states, and trying to maintain the flexibility to position himself when it really matters for the nominating process. However, at this early stage, no one is going to put a heavy bet on a Romney nomination. He has too many weaknesses, from policy (healthcare in particular) to politics (little common touch or populist appeal) to religion (Mormonism remains controversial with the GOP fundamentalist Christian base). For the moment, Romney is methodically running down the checklist for a serious presidential candidate: travelling abroad, raising money, assembling a team, trading endorsements, and the like.

ROMNEY UPDATE: You know you have a problem when your opponents in the White House are praising your Massachusetts health care bill, in a new negative tactic called “killing with kindness”. [See also Huntsman, Jon.] Romneycare bears close resemblance to Obamacare, and the GOP base just isn’t going to like it. Romney’s chosen antidote is to portray his Bay State bill as an exemplar of states’ rights, letting each state determine its own health care parameters in a nation where the states are “laboratories of democracy.” Fair enough. We’ll see whether the activists buy it. Otherwise, Romney has been going tieless and trying to loosen up his stiff image. Yet in the end, candidates have to be who they really are, or voters will sense phoniness.

Tim Pawlenty: The former two-term governor of Minnesota is by all accounts a dark horse for the GOP nomination. Even Pawlenty would agree with that. But there are long longshots and short longshots, and Pawlenty is in the latter category. He has been out in the field early and often, most recently promoting a new book, and while he has not made much of a splash, he has made progress. Pawlenty hopes that his blue-collar background will contrast with the Bluenose candidacy of Mitt Romney, if indeed Romney is able to maintain his front-runner status. Perhaps a little suspect because he was governor of a state with a liberal image, Pawlenty has insisted, maybe a little too strenuously, that he has been comprehensively conservative during his public life. As his supporters would suggest, at least he didn’t pass a version of Obamacare in Minnesota. Pawlenty is understated, with a wry sense of humor, and he hasn’t yet left much of an impression on the nascent campaign. But there is plenty of time, and as long as he can keep up his fundraising, Pawlenty can hope that the GOP field shakes out just right for an acceptable if bland Midwestern conservative. Stranger things have happened in presidential politics.

PAWLENTY UPDATE: No candidate has gone further, faster so far than Pawlenty. It is not that he has made any big breakthroughs. Rather, Pawlenty is always where he is supposed to be, doing a bit better than expected in straw polls and cattle shows. He has put together a solid campaign team, too. Still, while his YouTube ads are flashy, his speeches remain dry and unexciting; he doesn’t stutter but he could use a speech coach like a certain king in an Academy Award-winning movie. Pawlenty wants to be contrasted with Obama’s glitz and glamour. But the contrast is currently too stark. Voters expect a little free entertainment from politicians. Minnesota “nice” can also be “boring”.

Haley Barbour: Republicans regard Haley Barbour as one of their historic heroes, having laid the organizational groundwork for the 1994 GOP takeover of both houses of Congress. Barbour has also made the unusual transition from party operative and Washington D.C. lobbyist to elected official, having served two terms as governor of Mississippi. There is no question that he is a Republican senior statesman, and having been so close to power for decades, he naturally looks in the mirror and asks, “Why not me?” There is no better political strategist in the party, and no one who understands Republican politics discounts him. Potentially, he would have strong support in the South, which is the most powerful region in the GOP nominating process. Nonetheless, Barbour has a mountain to climb in winning the nomination and, along the way, convincing Republicans he can win the general election. Tea Party activists are naturally suspicious of his former lobbyist status, and unquestionably he is a charter member of the Establishment rather than a pitchfork populist. Barbour bears the burdens of Mississippi, too. He has badly mishandled a recent racial controversy about what he recalls from the Magnolia State’s sad civil rights past, and pardoning a couple of convicted African-American sisters at Christmastime is unlikely to change his image. Mississippi is also nearly last in almost everything, and he would be called to account for that, much as Bill Clinton had to explain why Arkansas was in such poor shape in almost every respect in 1992. Of course, that didn’t stop Bill Clinton, and it may not stop Haley Barbour.

BARBOUR UPDATE: Sure enough, racial politics, Mississippi’s record, and a lobbying past continue to dog Barbour in the early going—not to mention a former aide telling off-color jokes. What sells in the Magnolia State may not move product even in some of the rest of the South, much less in other regions. Nonetheless, Barbour continues to assemble an impressive campaign team. No one understands the system better than Barbour. He hasn’t yet been on his game, but if he gets back on it, Barbour will make the other candidates respond to his presence.

Mike Huckabee: No one is sure if Mike Huckabee is going to mount a second bid for the White House in 2012. He would have to give up a lucrative FOX contract in order to do so, and he would also have to find a way to raise much more money than he was able to do in 2008. At the same time, Huckabee has substantial residual support in Iowa, South Carolina, and other places where fundamentalist Christians are a big part of the GOP base. Huckabee is a blue-collar Republican rather than a blueblood one. It is no surprise, then, that Huckabee and Mitt Romney do not like one another very much; it is far more than a policy dispute between the two. No doubt, Huckabee will do what he can to stop Romney from getting the Republican nomination, whether Huckabee runs or not. Another difficulty for Huckabee is that he draws support from many of the same individuals and groups that back other possible candidates, including Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. Huckabee has pointed out that he has actually led some of the very early presidential polling, for whatever that is worth, but it is obvious that he is of two minds about making the race. We will just have to see what he decides. Huckabee claims he can wait until summer to announce a decision, but that’s doubtful—unless the decision is no. Whether he wants to weigh this factor or not, Huckabee should be concerned about some controversial pardons he issued while governor of Arkansas. It won’t be easy to sell his lenient actions to a Republican electorate that is traditionally “tough on crime” and once supported George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis because of Dukakis’s furloughs of convicted criminals.

HUCKABEE UPDATE: Fair or not, even though Huckabee insists he is at 50-50, more and more observers do not think Huckabee is running. As recent revelations show, he is making money hand over fist for the first time in his life. He isn’t showing up in his strongholds such as Iowa, enabling other candidates to win over some of his previous base. And he’s making sloppy mistakes in interviews, such as his recent assertion that President Obama grew up in Kenya—a statement that has linked Huckabee to the highly controversial “birther” movement that insists (inaccurately) that Obama wasn’t born in America and is disqualified from the presidency.

Sarah Palin: One of the most famous pre-candidates in recent presidential history, Sarah Palin has often dominated a campaign she has not entered and may never enter. It is impossible to know whether Palin will become a candidate. In selecting her as his 2008 vice presidential nominee, John McCain made her a national star and also immensely wealthy, and she is now a business empire with few precedents in America’s political history. Of course, all of that has come at a considerable price. Beloved by the Tea Party and other conservatives, Palin is highly controversial, divisive, and polarizing. Should she enter the 2012 contest, Palin will instantly become one of the frontrunners. But is she really interested in giving up the empire she has built to trudge through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and endure the indignities that come automatically to all candidates, famous and obscure alike? The record is not encouraging, given her midterm resignation from the one significant office she has ever held, that of Alaska state governor. No one will be surprised if she takes a pass on the campaign, after having teased and tweaked and twittered about it for as long as possible. It is a smart thing to draw out the attention and maximize one’s influence on the process. If Palin does run for president, she will benefit from a split field of GOP candidates – for as long as that lasts. Yet even in the Tea Party, Palin is viewed in a mixed way. The activists appreciate what she stands for, but wonder whether she can win a general election—and her poor handling of the Tucson shootings has only added to the deep doubts about her. Virtually every poll shows her losing to President Obama by the widest margin of any major Republican contender. This worry about Palin is widespread and discussed privately everywhere. As long as Republicans believe they have a strong chance of winning in 2012, they may hesitate to put forward a candidate who will have great difficulty capturing moderates and swing independent voters. No one is foolish enough to underestimate Sarah Palin, but few political analysts can currently imagine her being elevated to the Oval Office either.

PALIN UPDATE: It is now difficult to find a senior Republican that thinks Palin will jump into the ring for 2012. Perhaps everyone is wrong, but Palin’s nowhere to be found in Iowa and New Hampshire, and most of her public appearances are by satellite studio from Alaska, on Twitter, or at paid speeches. Instead of talking politics in the superb Indian restaurant in Iowa City, Palin is flying to the Indian subcontinent to give a lecture. More foreign policy experience is good for her, but not at the expense of stateside campaigning.

Mitch Daniels: Here is another accomplished governor from a vital Midwestern swing state. Unlike Pawlenty, Daniels has not thrown his hat into the ring and may never do so. In an old-fashioned way, he has been testing the waters, dipping a toe in here and there, dropping hints and suggesting that he might, just might, try for higher office. Again, it is impossible to get into the head of a potential candidate, though the old political rule of ambition usually applies: you have to want the White House so badly that the fire in your belly can substitute for heating oil all winter long. If Daniels does run, he has an impressive record to tout. Daniels has been a very popular two-term governor in Indiana, and his earlier service as head of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush White House potentially qualifies him to make a case for reducing yawning national deficits and debt—although he can also be accused of having helped to create the debt mountain. The problem for Daniels is that he may be viewed as more of a manager than a potential president. In addition, while Daniels fits the old definition of conservative to a T, he is not much of a revolutionary from the Tea Party perspective, and he is suspected of having moderate tendencies on both about the possible need to raise taxes in order to reduce the deficit as well as the kind of priority a president should give to controversial social issues. Daniels is leaving office in 2012 since he cannot run for a third term, so the timing of a presidential campaign is perfect – if he really wants to spend his last couple of years as Indiana’s chief executive roaming the nation in an extended, humbling job interview.

DANIELS UPDATE: The notices for Daniels have been glowing—from National Review to the Gridiron Club to a host of conservative opinion leaders to Beltway high priests. But nobody can detect the early moves required to become a real contender. That doesn’t mean Daniels won’t surprise us, just that the betting right now is that he isn’t running. Daniels is good friends with Haley Barbour, so not running would solve one problem for Daniels—and Barbour.

Newt Gingrich: Other than Sarah Palin, no candidate in the 2012 GOP field is as well known as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As with Palin, however, 100% name recognition is a mixed blessing. Republicans will always appreciate Gingrich’s role in the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress. His relentless drive and cornucopia of policy ideas helped to restore a party’s confidence after 40 years out of power in the House. But it was all downhill from there. Gingrich didn’t understand the difference between holding the speakership and being president of the United States. He badly overreached, led the Republicans into a disastrous government shutdown, and helped to restore the tattered Clinton presidency. More than any single individual, including 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, Gingrich created the conditions for Clinton’s reelection. Then his disagreements with other Republicans and bad judgment calls were a factor in the disappointing outcome (for Republicans) of the 1998 midterm election. The GOP actually lost House seats when they had had the opportunity to increase their numbers substantially. Once again, Gingrich had overreached in seeking the impeachment of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Almost unbelievably, during the very time when Gingrich was capitalizing on Clinton infidelity, Gingrich himself was having an extramarital affair which inevitably became public. His two messy divorces are part of the heavy baggage Gingrich would carry into the 2012 Republican nominating battle. At the age of 69 in 2012, it will be difficult for the polarizing, controversial former House Speaker to present himself as a winning alternative to President Obama. Overall, Gingrich does poorly in the general election matchups with Obama, and this undoubtedly will influence many Republicans during the primary season. No one underestimates Gingrich’s ability to dominate the political debate with new ideas and clever soundbites, should he choose to run. Gingrich has toyed with the idea of running for president for years, but has never done so. His close associates say he is closer than he has ever been before to getting in, but time will tell.

GINGRICH UPDATE: This time, it seems to be for real. It will now be a surprise if Gingrich backs away from a White House bid, though a recent foray to Atlanta was marked by messaging chaos. The press was led to believe Gingrich would announce, but he didn’t. Still, Gingrich’s FOX contract was suspended and he’s showing up in Iowa. Nothing’s changed about Gingrich’s baggage, though. He’s going the “religious forgiveness” route, confessing to Christian Broadcasting Network that his serial adultery was simply a product of virtuous overwork and passionate love of country, or something. And for eons, humans had thought that it was actually the idle mind that was the devil’s workshop.

Chris Christie: Sometimes an unexpected politician comes out of nowhere and captures the public’s imagination. Chris Christie has done just that, especially within the universe of the Republican party faithful. Elected governor of New Jersey in 2009, Christie has become a hero to the Tea Party movement, and his blunt confrontational style – especially about government spending – has resonated deeply. Christie says he isn’t running, and we believe him, more than less. There is no such thing as a presidential draft these days, so Christie would have to change his mind about seeking the White House in 2012. In doing so, he would probably damage severely his gubernatorial reelection prospects in 2013, should he still be in New Jersey. The rule in politics is that you run while you are hot, and it’s doubtful that Christie can maintain a high temperature all the way to 2016.  But let’s see if Christie gets Potomac fever. If he does, Christie is not to be underestimated in a field that may become very fractured during the nominating process.

CHRISTIE UPDATE: We’ve had occasion to hear Christie’s stump speech twice recently—and make no mistake, it is a stump speech easily adaptable to the presidential race. Christie rails against big spending, piggish interest groups, and timid politicians. He makes clear he is not timid, and doesn’t care whether he is reelected or not. Whatever the truth of that, Christie makes a splash wherever he goes. The electricity that crackles around him is in stark contrast to the tepid reaction most of the announced or probable GOP presidential candidates get when they hold forth. It is just possible that, if the Republican field falls flat through early fall, a grassroots cry for Christie may be heard throughout the land. Just. In the meantime, he’s the best show on the road.

Jon Huntsman: A surprise possible new year’s entry is Huntsman, currently serving as the Obama administration’s ambassador to China. Huntsman resigned his governorship of Utah just over a half-year into the second term to which he was elected in 2008 to take the ambassadorship. Well regarded as governor and very popular in the Beehive State, his ambassadorial appointment was seen at the time as a clever move by Obama to remove a potential 2012 GOP rival from seeking the White House. Apparently, that calculus may have assumed less ambition than Huntsman possesses—if in fact the reports of Huntsman’s interest in a presidential bid are true. It may be a feint, after all, designed to keep his name out in public and associated with the GOP. Within the Republican party, he has all but disappeared as a force, and is viewed as someone working for the enemy. Maybe Huntsman can sell this to a politics-weary nation as bipartisanship, but we doubt a conservative GOP electorate is going to buy that. Adding to Huntsman’s woes is that he has taken a number of moderate-to-liberal positions on gay rights, environmentalism, and other subjects, none of which is helpful in running for a Republican nomination. Huntsman’s family wealth is enormous, but money can only carry you so far in politics. The former governor is being pushed by ex-McCain associates viewed as moderates within the GOP, another fact not likely to sell well in Iowa or South Carolina, just to pick two early contests. Finally, Mitt Romney has a big head start in nailing down the Mormon political activist corps of volunteers and contributors. Huntsman will inherit the problems of being a Mormon candidate in a conservative Christian party without the same benefits as Romney. This is a strange development, and while Huntsman’s assets mean he certainly cannot be written off, assuming he’s running, he will have to quickly exit the China post and get to work mending fences if he is to be taken seriously.

HUNTSMAN UPDATE: We now know that Huntsman is deadly serious about his presidential bid. He has resigned as U.S. ambassador to China as of April 30, and has been assembling a campaign staff. But he still has all the problems we outlined in January. As with Mitt Romney, the Obama White House has enjoyed killing Huntsman with kindness, praising his close cooperation with President Obama as a way of signaling to Republicans that he isn’t really one of them. Part of this is just good politics—Obama doesn’t want to run against a more moderate, wealthy GOP candidate who could compete more widely than most conservative Republicans. Part of it is pique, however. The Obama team didn’t imagine that its ploy to remove Huntsman to China would backfire in a 2012 candidacy. In any event, the Democratic trial balloon is airborne, and Republicans like New Hampshire’s former Gov. John Sununu are calling Huntsman an “Obamaite”.

Mike Pence: The odds are that Congressman Pence will be running for governor of Indiana in 2012, and he has a good chance to win that. The presidency is very probably a bridge too far. First, it is exceedingly difficult for a member of the House to move directly to the Presidency. Only James A. Garfield has managed that in American history. All recent House candidacies, such as that of former Democratic House leader Richard Gephardt, have failed. Yes, Pence is well respected, especially among the fiscal and social conservatives who dominate many of the early Republican caucuses and primaries. But those activists will have a wide choice among better-known and funded potential nominees.

PENCE UPDATE: Like Thune, he got out before he got in. The Indiana governorship beckons.

Marco Rubio: The new senator from Florida is much more likely to end up on the 2012 GOP ticket as vice president. It will be a shock if he is not on the eventual nominee’s shortlist. He’s got it all: high office from one of the premier swing mega–states, good looks and rhetorical flourish, and ethnic membership in arguably the most significant political group of the 21st century, Hispanics. Rubio is new to the national scene, but had a career as speaker of the state House of Representatives – no minor position. And after Barack Obama’s meteoric rise, Democrats would be in no position to question Rubio’s experience. However, just as we commented about Chris Christie, when you’re hot you’re hot, and it is difficult to keep the griddle warm. Will Rubio find a way to achieve quick prominence in the Senate, and decide the Republicans need him in order to defeat Obama in 2012? Once again, Obama has blazed the trail for very junior senators, so this is not as unthinkable as it once might have been.

RUBIO UPDATE: If Rubio’s running, it’s likely in 2016, not 2008. In contrast to non-candidate Christie, non-candidate Rubio isn’t on the road and has stayed close to home. This keeps him well in contention for the Veepstakes, but we are now more confident in ruling him out as a 2012 presidential possibility. Recently, however, a potential Rubio candidacy has been touted by Rush Limbaugh, which is enough to keep the Sunshine State senator among the list of still-possible candidates, at least for now.

John Thune: Another dark horse who is receiving attention, at least inside the Beltway, is South Dakota Sen. John Thune. This picture–perfect, made–for–TV politician has a lot of experience to back up his good looks. Having been involved in politics and government since the 1980s, Thune has made a career of service in both houses of Congress. Thune served in the House from 1996 to 2002, when he mounted an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. It was a nailbiter, decided by about 500 votes out of over 330,000 cast. Undeterred, Thune turned right around and challenged Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004, and defeated Daschle by about 4,500 votes. This victory made Thune a giant–killer, and it was a headliner race around the nation, and one of the most expensive. Remarkably, Thune ran unopposed for reelection in 2010, and thus he is tanned, rested, and ready should he decide to run in 2012. South Dakota is a small base from which to launch a presidential campaign, though that didn’t stop George McGovern. One advantage is that Iowa is nearby, and Thune would have to do well in Iowa to survive and fight in other states. Thune knows he will be an asterisk in the polls unless and until he wins a major caucus or primary state, and it is still uncertain whether he will run at all. Should the planets and stars align for Thune in the GOP process, however, he has the potential to be a formidable foe for President Obama.

THUNE UPDATE: Johnny, we hardly knew ye. Thune got out before he got in. The fire in the belly—which must be hot enough to melt steel—just wasn’t there. Thune will focus on the Senate, although he’s young and could start a campaign in some future year.

Rick Santorum: This is an unusual case of presidential fever. Santorum, a two-term senator from Pennsylvania, lost his seat in 2006 by a massive 18 percentage points. Not many would consider this a qualification to run for president, assuming a party hopes to win in November. But Santorum is self-confident and determined to spread his socially conservative views to an attentive audience in the Iowa caucus, which is dominated on the Republican side by fundamentalist Christians. To his credit, he is already on the campaign trail working as hard as any other candidate – harder than most, in fact – but so far his appeal is limited. Oddly, Santorum’s case was undermined by the election of Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in 2010. If anything, Toomey is more conservative than Santorum, and yet he won in Pennsylvania, albeit in a better year for the GOP. President Obama would probably make quick work of Santorum in a general election, and this is obvious to most Republican activists. A decent early showing in Iowa is a real possibility, but it is difficult to see how Santorum becomes the nominee of a party that thinks it can win in November 2012.

SANTORUM UPDATE: Still working hard, still scoring among social conservatives, still unelectable in November unless it is a Republican landslide year.

Michele Bachmann: Just elected to her third term in the U. S. House representing Minnesota’s conservative Sixth congressional district, Bachmann had been thought to be aiming for the Senate seat of freshman Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar in 2012. But apparently, her ambitions are still greater. While she has given no firm indication of a White House candidacy, there have been hints, including a scheduled trip to Iowa. Bachmann is a Tea Party favorite, and she has been a fierce advocate for virtually every socially and fiscally conservative position, from opposing abortion and gay rights to promoting property rights, stringent debt reduction, and lower taxes. Bachmann has a controversial style, and she is no favorite of the House Republican leadership. But if she played by the rules, this junior congresswoman wouldn’t be on this list of possible presidential candidates. The most conservative activists love her, and she isn’t about to step aside easily for the former governor of her state, Tim Pawlenty, or another woman with even higher visibility in the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin. (Pawlenty in particular must be unhappy with Bachmann’s maneuverings.) We believe that gaining the GOP nomination for president is a bridge too far for any House member, including Bachmann. But she would certainly stir the pot; more accurately, she would be a stick of dynamite in the Republican pond.

BACHMANN UPDATE: She’s everywhere in the national media, though much of the coverage is not favorable. She needs to find some New Hampshire American revolutionaries to support and save those from Concord and Lexington for campaigning in Massachusetts. However, Bachmann seems to sense an opening on the Tea Party right. Some of the Tea bunch’s favorites do not appear to be running (Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, etc.), so what has she got to lose? After all, this is the congresswoman who nominated herself to give an alternate State of the Union response, and it actually was covered live on some networks. Almost no one believes she’ll be the nominee, but a previously obscure member of the House can do a lot with a highly visible presidential run.  Bachmann could run a guerilla campaign, living off the Tea Party land.

Ron Paul: The eleven-term Texas congressman, whose congressional career has stretched (intermittently) from the mid-1970s to the present, may be better known nationally as the father of new Tea Party Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Like father, like son; both are firebrands. As politicians go, Paul is about as principled as one can find. He’s a mixture of traditional GOP, isolationist, libertarian, and Tea Party—an unconventional and occasionally unpredictable mix, for sure. In fact, he was the Libertarian Party candidate for president in 1988, garnering 432,000 votes in the George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis race. Paul ran for president again in 2008, but this time as a Republican. He actually finished fourth, with 1,165,112 votes (5.6%), behind John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. Any college professor knows he drew a fair number of young people to his banner, mainly young men who liked his anti-Iraq War stand and his staunch anti-debt positions. But Paul’s time may have passed, and he himself says there’s only a 50-50 chance he’ll run in 2012. Just age 41 when first elected to the House in April 1976, Paul will be 77 years old in 2012. No question that Paul would enliven the GOP debates and would again be a youth and press favorite, but his chances of winning the Republican nomination for president are somewhere between very small and nonexistent.

PAUL UPDATE: No firm word on a candidacy, despite frequent media appearances. He would liven up the debates again, right?

John Bolton: A surprise entry into the GOP field, former UN ambassador John Bolton might be able to insure that foreign-policy is a major part of the discussion during the Republican campaign. That in itself is a useful contribution. But Bolton has no elective experience, no real political base, and likely no major argument for his possessions among the top Republican candidates. As he himself would probably admit, he is no populist, and comes across on TV as stern and academic. It is also difficult to see how he would raise the money for a credible bid. He may or may not run, and is still considering the race.

BOLTON UPDATE: All’s quiet on the Bolton front, even though the democracy revolution sweeping through the Middle East and the Libyan civil war would appear to give Bolton an opening to discuss his strengths.

Gary Johnson: This two-term governor of New Mexico is almost totally unknown outside his home state. A wealthy businessman, he was something of a surprise winner in the Land of Enchantment during his years of service (1994 to 2002). Johnson is a most exceptional kind of Republican, a libertarian on many issues including drug legalization, and a Ron Paul supporter in 2008. He has practiced what he has preached, openly admitting to smoking marijuana with frequency for several recent years, as he sought to overcome residual pain from an accident. Much like John Bolton, but from a different direction, he will enrich the debate by being in the race. But Johnson’s chances of nomination are mighty slim, and that is putting it kindly. Johnson probably hopes for a Paul endorsement if the Texas congressman does not run again.

JOHNSON UPDATE: When Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) retired recently, some Land of Enchantment Republicans hoped they could attract Johnson back to his state to run. No dice. Johnson is in the presidential race to stay despite the enormous odds against him.

Herman Cain: Another wealthy businessman, Cain is a favorite among some activists. An African-American and ex-CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Cain often hosts conservative radio shows. He is a staunch critic of President Obama and has a blunt, no holds barred style. But if someone with no elective experience and the perception that he is too far right to win a general election, Cain is most unlikely to be the Republican presidential nominee, even as he appears to be moving forward to become an official candidate.

CAIN UPDATE: As expected, Cain is proving popular on the stump with core Republicans. But applause does not equal votes. Nothing has changed for 2012, but he’ll get a Republican National Convention speaking slot.

Buddy Roemer: Buddy Who? Even in Louisiana, where Roemer was governor, people were asking that question as Roemer arose from a long period of obscurity to announce that at age 67, he was ready to be president. Roemer was a mediocre one-term chief executive of the Bayou State from 1987 to 1991. He is best known for losing in 1991 to the worst, most controversial duo to end up in a gubernatorial runoff in modern times: the thoroughly corrupt Edwin Edwards and the KKK darling David Duke. Edwards won, of course, with the infamous slogan, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” Roemer had been elected as a Democrat but switched to the GOP late in his term. Roemer’s efforts to achieve a comeback in 1995 failed miserably, and he has been living apart from politics—until somehow, some way, he got it in his head that the White House could be his next home. Already up in Iowa, Roemer has adopted a populist stance, attacking the Washington, D.C. establishment and presenting himself as a determined reformer. The thrice-married Roemer made a fiery speech at a “family values” forum earlier this week in which he declared himself against the ethanol subsidy. Corn is a key ingredient of ethanol, and they grow a lot of it (corn, that is) in Iowa. This is the kind of “courageous” stand the press loves, though it rarely produces many votes. Flashy rhetoric aside, it is almost impossible to take his candidacy seriously, and we do not.

ROEMER UPDATE: See Cain, Herman.

Donald Trump: As if the 2012 presidential election didn’t have enough sass and color, along comes Donald Trump. He has not made a final commitment to running, but he certainly did sound interested in a recent Newsmax interview. Trump made his fortune in real estate, starting in Manhattan and extending to Las Vegas and multiple locations around the world. He is perhaps the premier celebrity businessman in the United States, and he has published best-selling books such as “The Art of the Deal”. Today he is best known for his hit TV series, “The Apprentice”.  Millions have watched it for years, enjoying the competition among aspiring young business types but perhaps taking the greatest guilty pleasure in hearing Trump say to one participant at the end of each show, “You’re fired.” It is difficult to know whether to take Trump seriously when he suggests a presidential candidacy, and he has given himself until the summer–when the TV season concludes–to make a decision. Trump would have all the money he needs and could certainly draw a crowd wherever he goes. But like many celebrities who jump into politics, he will have difficulty being taken seriously, at least at first. Trump has never served in any public office, and he’s no Dwight David Eisenhower. On the campaign trail, Trump could be a hit, or he could be a bust. Our initial suspicion is that the Republican primary voters will end up saying, “You’re fired.” Turnabout is fair play.

TRUMP UPDATE: First, Trump stirred some controversy at CPAC by saying to a crowd larded with  pro-Ron Paul delegates that Paul couldn’t win. (Pot, meet kettle.) Then after Sen. Lamar! Alexander (R-TN) gave much the same political death notice for Trump, the TV star fired back, calling Alexander ineffective. There’s not a reporter or analyst out there not hoping that Trump runs, purely for the entertainment value, but as we suggested in January, can you imagine the Republicans capitalizing on Obama’s unemployment record by nominating a guy most famous for the phrase, “You’re fired!”? On the other hand, maybe the Donald has been handed a Trump card by Comedy Central. His Tuesday night, highly obscene roast will go over well with Iowa social conservatives, right?