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Posted at 2:57 PM ET, 02/ 8/2011

Surveying the 2012 field: The ins, the outs and the maybes

By Chris Cillizza

February will almost certainly be moving month for Republicans with an eye on the 2012 presidential race.

With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary roughly one year away, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that has defined the race up until now will begin to go public.

"The practicalities of running -- debates, straw polls, staffing, lining up endorsements on paper -- means candidates will have to end the sub rosa campaign soon," predicted one adviser to a potential 2012 aspirant.

With the next 20 days almost certain to be full of 2012 machinations, we thought it made sense to give Fixistas a lay of the land. That is, where do the candidates actually stand on the race? Are they all but in? All but out? Genuinely wavering? And, more importantly, why?

Our handicapping of which category your favorite candidate belongs is after the jump. Our sorting is based on myriad conversations with party strategists -- both those already signed up to work on one of the campaigns and those currently on the sidelines of the 2012 race.

And, to be clear, no one on this list has made a FORMAL decision yet. And that means minds can -- and perhaps will -- change. A candidate in one category today could wind up in an entirely different one a month -- or three -- from now. That's politics.

The In Crowd
These candidates have not announced but are, through their actions, considered to be all-but-in the race.

Newt Gingrich: Gingrich has set an end-of-the-month deadline to make a formal decision on the race but he appears to be full-speed ahead at this point. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the former House Speaker was already scoping out office space in Georgia and Gingrich's schedule -- larded with trips to Iowa -- is that of a presidential candidate.

Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor's decision to resign as the Obama Administration's Ambassador to China -- effective in April -- seems to be a very clear indication he is running for president. Huntsman is likely to start in some sort of exploratory phase but it's hard to imagine he's coming back from China just to take a look at running.

Tim Pawlenty: The former Minnesota governor has effectively been running for president since he announced he wouldn't run for a third term in 2010. Most smart strategists expect Pawlenty to be the first major candidate to formally announce his plans to run for the GOP nod.

Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor likely won't announce his run for a few months, staying above the fray and taking advantage of the fact that he is perceived as the nominal frontrunner at the moment. But even if he avoids an official entry until the late spring (or later), Romney's political team is working full time to get ready for the race to come.

Rick Santorum: Santorum, who held a Pennsylvania Senate seat from 1994 to 2006, is likely to be in the race sooner rather than later -- hoping to take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding bigger names social conservatives like Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. Santorum raised some eyebrows by landing two well-regarded Iowa operatives late last month but his viability may depend on higher profile social conservatives taking a pass.

On the Fence
These are candidates in various stages of indecision.

Michele Bachmann: Bachmann is a late-arriver to the 2012 presidential chatter but her recent visit to Iowa suggests she is taking a hard look at the race. Bachmann's fate is likely tied to Sarah Palin; if the former Alaska governor runs, it's hard to see the space for the Minnesota Congresswoman in the field.

Haley Barbour: Out of the "on the fence" candidates, the Mississippi governor is the closest to being all in. As Politico's Ben Smith reported last week, Barbour is leaning into the race in a major way but those who know him best caution that the decision to run hasn't been finalized yet. Barbour won't make it official -- either way -- until the Mississippi legislature ends its session in April.

Mitch Daniels: Daniels may be the biggest name -- outside of Palin -- who is entirely undecided on whether to run. Conflicting reports about his level of interest are everywhere but what we know for sure is that family concerns remain the largest sticking point to a bid by the Indiana governor.

Jim DeMint: For months, the South Carolina Senator insisted he was entirely uninterested in running for president. Or not. DeMint will be in Iowa in late March to speak at an event organized by Rep. Steve King (R) and his advisers recently told CNN's Peter Hamby that DeMint "hasn't shut the door" on the race.. If DeMint runs, it likely makes the South Carolina primary a non-starter in much the same way Iowa was for Democrats in 1992 due to the candidacy of home state Sen. Tom Harkin.

Rudy Giuliani: The former New York City Mayor has been talking up the possibility of a return run for president in 2012. Most operatives are mystified about how Hizzoner could win a nomination in 2012 with an electorate that almost certainly will be more conservative than it was in 2008 when Giuliani failed to win a single state.

Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor is at or near the top of every 2012 national poll. And, he clearly knows what it takes -- Richard Ben Cramer reference! -- to win Iowa since he was the surprise victor in the Hawkeye State in 2008. But, Huckabee has a very comfortable life outside of elected office and questions remain as to whether he wants to give it up for another presidential bid.

Sarah Palin: There is no candidate more (potentially) important to the 2012 race about whom less is known in terms of her intentions. The former Alaska governor is giving every indication that she is seriously considering a bid but has set no timeline for her decision. That means that we -- and that royal "we" includes every one else on this list -- have to sit and wait (or stand and wait) until the 2008 vice presidential nominee decides to go public with her plans.

Ron Paul: After the 2008 presidential race vastly raised his national profile, why wouldn't the Texas Congressman run again? And he's beginning to make some noise about the prospect.

John Thune: In a recent interview with Politico, the South Dakota Senator certainly sounded like he wasn't going to make the race. But those close to him insist he remains genuinely undecided about a bid. We should know something soon; Thune has said he will announce his future plans by the end of the month.

Out means out
This group has made it abundantly clear that they are out of the running for 2012. Never doesn't always mean never in politics but these guys have come as close as possible to a Sherman-esque statement.

Chris Christie: We've made the case in this space that there is an open space in the field that the New Jersey governor could easily occupy. But, he seems to be sincere in his lack of interest.

Bobby Jindal: Jindal is up for reelection as the governor of Louisiana this year, timing that makes it virtually impossible for him to even contemplate a presidential run. Plus, at 39 years old, he can bide his time and wait for 2016 or even 2020.

Rick Perry: When the Texas governor signed on as the head of the Republican Governors Association earlier this year, it was widely assumed he had decided not to run. That appears to be true although there are some within the strategist class who believe Perry could reconsider if the field remains relatively unformed in three months time.

Marco Rubio: Rubio is carefully building a Senate office that represents his profile as a national figure. But, he also appears to sense that it's better to take it slow and wait another four or eight years rather than rush himself into a presidential race that he might not be ready for just yet.

By Chris Cillizza  | February 8, 2011; 2:57 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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