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The 2012 Presidential Line!

The wait is over!

After two years of behind-the-scenes jockeying, the 2012 Republican presidential race has broken out into the open with several candidates openly acknowledging their interest in the job of late. (As Politico's Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith point out, this has been one of the latest starting nomination fights in modern memory.)

And with the race beginning in earnest, we unveil the Fix's first 2012 presidential Line, our look at the ten candidates (or potential candidates) with the best chances of facing off against President Obama two years from now.

Friday Line

These rankings come from conversations with a variety of Republican strategists -- those aligned with potential candidates and those not -- as well as an analysis of fundraising potential, quality of staff, name identification, organizational ability and natural on-the-stump talent.

We mix all those factors together in one big pot -- yes, we have a pot for just these sort of occasions -- and, voila, out comes the 2012 presidential Line!

Obviously, any ratings done more than a year before voters in Iowa kick off the nomination fight are highly speculative and subject to considerable change. (Make sure to check out the Hotline and 538 takes on where the field stands.)

And, for the purposes of the presidential Line, we are leaving off candidates who have publicly denied any interest in the race. So, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and Texas Gov. Rick Perry aren't on the Line -- yet.

Caveats aside, our top 10 is below. The number one candidate is seen as having the best chance today of winning the Republican nomination.

To the Line!

10. Marco Rubio: The Florida Senator-elect has dismissed chatter about a quick pivot to run for president but not made a Sherman-esque declaration about the idea. While Rubio would need to begin running for president almost immediately upon coming into the Senate, his profile -- Cuban American, young, charismatic, from a quintessential swing state -- make him a very appealing candidate on paper. We tend to think Rubio is on a 2016 presidential track but if he shows any active interest in the race, he would move up the Line.

9. Mike Pence: Pence's decision to step aside as the fourth ranking Republican in the House makes clear that he has his eye on a bigger prize. His allies cast him as the only candidate in the field who can unite social and fiscal conservatives and, in the early cattle calls, Pence has performed well. Still, as a House member, he has to overcome a perceived stature gap as well as show he can raise the money to be competitive.

8. Mike Huckabee: No candidate benefited more from the 2008 Republican race than Huckabee, who went from a little known former Arkansas governor to a national political celebrity. There's a real debate within the party as to whether Huckabee can capture that magic again if he decides to make a re-run for president. One thing to remember: some fiscal conservative groups -- led by the Club for Growth -- are adamantly opposed to Huckabee, believing his record as governor is inconsistent with their beliefs. He would likely face considerably more scrutiny on that record in this race than he did in 2008.

7. Mitch Daniels: The Indiana governor is term limited out of office in 2012 and, despite saying he would never run for another job, certainly seems to be weighing a presidential bid. Daniels ran and won as an outsider in Indiana and had built a record over the past six years in office that makes fiscal conservatives smile. Daniels' problem? He doesn't have much interest in the cultural wars that are so important to social conservatives. Can someone focused almost exclusively on fiscal issues win a Republican primary for president?

6. Newt Gingrich: After walking right up to a run in 2008 before taking a pass, Gingrich seems more serious about a bid this time around. While he is an unquestioned "big brain" in the party, Gingrich has shown a propensity for making impolitic comments that draw negative attention to him and cast doubt on whether he is -- or even can be -- disciplined enough to weather the presidential primary process. Gingrich is a far better known commodity than several other people ahead of him on the Line, however, which means that if he runs, he starts at a decent elevation in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

5. John Thune: The South Dakota Senator is the buzz candidate of the moment among the Washington chattering class. (Make sure to read Steve Hayes' terrific Thune profile in the Weekly Standard.) Thune looks like a president, has surrounded himself with a top-tier consulting team and is sitting on more than $7 million that could be used to jumpstart as presidential race. Questions linger over how badly Thune wants to run (and "want to" makes a big difference in a presidential primary fight) and whether he could overcome his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) back in 2008.

4. Haley Barbour: Barbour proved his political skills -- yet again -- as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in the 2010 cycle. The Mississippi governor turned the RGA into the fundraising flagship within the party and helped recapture key swing states likes Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania for the party. Combine that performance with Barbour's affable nature and popularity with Republican activists and he has a shot at the nomination -- although it remains to be seen how large a liability his resume (southern governor, ex-lobbyist) will be.

3. Tim Pawlenty: Tpaw had, by any account, a very solid 2010 cycle -- touring the country in support of Republican candidates while putting together the sort of fundraising and staff operations necessary to run for president. Pawlenty was, literally, everywhere over the past year -- making regular stops in Iowa and New Hampshire even as many of his rivals for the nomination shied away from doing so. That sort of head start is exactly what the governor of Minnesota needed as he is, without question, the least well known of the top tier 2012 candidates. It remains to be seen whether Pawlenty can perform when the national spotlight shines on him -- as it will soon enough -- but his spade work over the last two years has put him into place as a serious contender.

2. Sarah Palin: There is no one more difficult to fit into the Line than the former Alaska governor and 2008 presidential nominee. On the one hand, she is the only real rock-star level candidate on the Republican side -- the sort of politician who could draw huge crowds in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina without much effort. She is also the face of the tea party movement, a movement that demonstrated its ability to upset the establishment apple cart during a series of Senate primaries over the last year. And yet, Palin has a skeleton organization (at best) and seems to operate from personal pique as often as from genuine political calculation. If Palin does decide to run -- and we tend to think, based on her public pronouncements, she is leaning that way -- she would be a (and maybe the) prime mover in the race.

1. Mitt Romney: Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, spent the entire 2008 cycle trying to win over skeptics with a be-everywhere-do-everything, Energizer Bunny sort of approach to the presidential race. His style in advance of the 2012 race has been strikingly different; Romney has picked his issues -- economic ones, mostly -- carefully and avoided wading into every fight with President Obama or intraparty squabble. The goal seems clear: to make Romney look like the adult in the room. And, to date, it's worked well -- establishing him as a candidate of serious purposes who won't be distracted by the shiny objects thrown in front of him. Romney also has, by far, the most intricate and able political and financial organization in the race -- a machine that can instantly be turned on whenever he decides to announce for president. Challenges remain, most notably explaining to Republican primary voters why the healthcare bill he passed in Massachusetts is different from what Congress passed earlier this year.

By Chris Cillizza  | November 12, 2010; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012, The Line  
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Next: Fast Fix: Breaking down the 2012 GOP field

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