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Posted at 12:41 PM ET, 11/24/2010

The biggest vulnerability for each GOP presidential hopeful

By Aaron Blake

We're all anxiously awaiting the start of the 2012 presidential campaign. While we wait, nascent campaigns for all the potential contenders are making calculations and contingencies.

Part of the exercise is evaluating how strong the competition is. Make no mistake, there is plenty of opposition research to be done, but all major potential GOP candidates already have some pretty well defined vulnerabilities.

So, as we wait for the holiday season to pass and as we keep an eye out for the first major candidate to take the plunge, it's worth looking at why a candidate can win, but also why they can't.

We dissect the single biggest (known) vulnerability for each of the 10 top GOP contenders, based on interviews with smart people both inside and outside of the campaigns:

Haley Barbour - The L-word (lobbyist)

In an interview with the Hoover Institute this year, the Mississippi governor summed up his potential candidacy this way: "If I run for president, what you see is what you get, and I am from Mississippi, I do have a Southern accent. I was a lobbyist and a pretty damned good one. ... I've got great family, and I've had a great career. Wouldn't do anything differently." Barbour is a smart politician, and he's acknowledging his problems early - one, that he's a Southern white guy (which is supposed to be deadly any year) and two, that's he's a former lobbyist (which is supposed to be deadly in the current environment) for tobacco (which makes it worse). As vulnerabilities go, the latter has more potential pitfalls.

Mitch Daniels - Social conservatives

The governor has built a solid record for himself and is a popular early dark horse pick for political observers, but that's with economic issues front and center. Social issues still matter in a Republican presidential primary, and Daniels has got some work to do on that front. Earlier this year, Daniels suggested to the Weekly Standard that the next president "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues." How's that going to play among anti-abortion rights voters in Iowa? Daniels remains suspect to many social conservatives.

Newt Gingrich - Baggage

It's hard to pick the one thing from Gingrich's past that may haunt him. It could be the messy divorce (one of two for him), his time as speaker (former party leaders generally have a hard time becoming president) or his actions since leaving office, which have included backing liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in the New York special election a year ago. Gingrich has spent a lot of time in the limelight, and that creates enemies and liabilities. There's plenty to mine if his campaign starts to gain steam.

Mike Huckabee - His campaign (or lack thereof)

Huckabee is still polling at or near the top of the potential 2012 field. He's got a great platform with his Fox News show. And he's talking about running again. But he's still not being given much of a chance by smart political observers, mostly because he hasn't corrected his major flaw from 2008 -- his lack of a strong campaign operation. Part of that problem is because Huckabee isn't well-liked among establishment Republicans, and part of it is because it didn't seem like he was all that keen on running again. One GOP strategist said Huckabee is in the "worst position of the would-be 2008 nominees. His consultants, staff and advisers are talking to other candidates. His supporters in the states are being courted by other campaigns." That's not a good starting post, even if you are high in the polls.

Sarah Palin - Sarah Palin

Running a presidential campaign takes a lot of leadership, political know-how and qualified staff. Basically nobody in Republican politics thinks the former Alaska governor has any of the three. Being somebody's vice president means all of those things are already taken care of when you show up. Palin doesn't have that luxury this time. She has an insular style and mistrusts the GOP establishment. It will be fascinating to see whether a tea party-like campaign with unknown operatives running the show can work on the national level, but lots of smart people are betting against it. "She seems to be running for celebrity, not the highest office in the land," said political analyst Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Tim Pawlenty - Charisma (or lack thereof)

As problems go, lacking charisma isn't as ugly as a bad vote or a personal scandal, but it can be just as deadly for a presidential candidate. The Minnesota governor is still unknown to the vast majority of people, and whenever a largely unknown candidate has burst onto the scene (read: Huckabee, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter), they usually have a personal flair that allows them to overcome money and name ID problems. We have yet to see that from Pawlenty, though he's still got a chance to make a first impression on most primary voters.

Mike Pence - The House guy

Only one man has ascended directly from the House to the presidency, and that was more than a century ago. That man, James Garfield, also happens to be the only House member to win a major party's nomination. If the Indiana congressman does jump into the presidential race, he'll be running against history. The reason it rarely happens is that House members have generally not formed big enough bases to get off the ground. Pence could have some help on that front, given that he is a hero of conservative activists (he won a straw poll at the Values Voters Summit in September). But are they going to go with him when they have more well-known, big-name politicians who might also fit the bill?

Mitt Romney - Health care

The biggest loser when Congress passed its health care bill this year might have been the former Massachusetts governor. That's because the bill is terribly unpopular among conservatives, and it put Romney's own health care dealings in perspective for the whole country. The bill Romney passed has often been described as similar to the federal bill -- a characterization he has been and will continue to fight after he launches his campaign. Romney's opponents are already calling it "Romneycare."

Rick Santorum - 2006

The former Pennsylvania senator has a lot going for him in a Republican primary -- most notably conservative bona fides that many other top candidates would love to have. But he's going to have a hard time being taken seriously as a contender because of the drubbing he sustained in his 2006 reelection race. Santorum lost by 18 points to now-Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). Being taken seriously is important -- especially when wooing donors and trying to hire staff.

John Thune - TARP

There's a reason President Obama was only the third senator elected president in the last 100 years: Senators have to vote. Thune, unfortunately for him, had to vote on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout in October 2008, and he voted yes. That poses real problems for a Republican presidential primary, particularly with tea party activists. The South Dakota senator has been walking back his TARP vote ever since, including saying recently that the money was "misused" and emphasizing that he been a leader in trying to end the bailouts. He will be explaining himself for a long time if he launches a presidential campaign.

By Aaron Blake  | November 24, 2010; 12:41 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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