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The Mike Pence Boomlet

Will Mike Pence run for president in 2012? AP Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Chances are, you've never heard of Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence.

But, thanks to his victory at last weekend's Values Voter 2012 Straw Poll, Pence is drawing some buzz in Republican circles as he seems to be leaning more and more into a presidential bid.

To date, Pence has only dipped his toe in the presidential waters but appears to be growing more active as the start of the 2012 race (aka Nov. 3) approaches.

Pence will headline an Iowa Christian Alliance dinner on Oct. 2 in Des Moines -- remember the Fix adage that no politician goes to Iowa by accident -- and has brought on veteran online fundraisier Becki Donatelli to help amp up his cash collection efforts. (Donatelli, briefly, worked with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin last year.)

In conversations with neutral Republican strategists as well as those aligned with other potential 2012 candidates, there is a recognition that Pence's resume -- and sharp speaking skills -- make him a serious potential candidate. Major questions remain, however, about how he would position himself in the race and whether he has either the organizational or financial heft to compete with the likes of a Mitt Romney or a Tim Pawlenty.

The first -- and most important -- question regarding a Pence bid is where he would fit in the race.

"This is a wide open race for the Republican nomination -- more so than at any time in our generation," said Republican strategist John Weaver who helped organize Arizona Sen. John McCain's (R) 2008 presidential bid. "Only one of a group which includes Palin and [former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and perhaps Pence would make it to the 'finals' for the nomination, but it is certainly within Pence's ability to be that person."

Added another GOP strategist who has closely studied past GOP nomination fights but is not aligned with any candidate this time around:

"Among the three or four candidates who make the final cut in the GOP presidential field, there is one, and only one spot for a candidate who champions social issues above all others. In 2008, Mike Huckabee emerged as that candidate. In 2012, there will be competition for that voter segment, and Mike Pence could be a strong contender."

A Pence ally insists that lumping him into the social conservative slot unfairly limits someone who is "pure" on both fiscal and social issues.

"Pundits who believe that Mike Pence can only fill a void left by the absence of a Mike Huckabee campaign fail to recognize that he is both a fiscal and social conservative and has the support of both camps," said the source.

How -- and where -- Pence fits is also not entirely within his control. Much depends on who else decides to run, most notably Palin. One unaligned GOP strategist said that if the 2008 vice presidential nominee runs, she "demolishes" the social conservative field but if she stays out then "Huckabee, [former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick] Santorum, Pence, and others will fight for it. "

While that debate will continue to play out in the intervening months, there are two more practical hurdles that Pence would need to address to be regarded as a serious contender when they calendar turns to 2011: money and organization.

As a member of the House leadership -- he is the House Republican Conference Chairman -- Pence is a credible fundraiser but lacks the national reach of some of his would-be competitors.

At the end of June, Pence had raised $1.8 million this year through his personal campaign committee and another $98,000 through his "Win Back America" leadership political action committee. Pence had also doled out contributions via the PAC to a handful of candidates running in 2010 -- primarily focused in Indiana and other Midwestern states.

But, the scope of Pence's contributions is nowhere near that of people like Romney, Pawlenty and Palin who have given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to aspiring candidates in the quadrennial chit-collecting process that leads up to a presidential primary fight.

Pence's hiring of Donatelli is a sign that he knows he needs to build a national fundraising list -- and fast. But, with the dash for cash -- or, more accurately, for the whales who can raise cash -- already begun, Pence will be playing catch-up.

On the organizational side, Pence has a spartan staff as compared to other near-certain presidential candidates.

Leading the operation is Marc Short, who serves as chief of staff at the House Republican Conference. Prior to working for Pence, Short spent time as chief of staff to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Pence also has ties to GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway of the polling company.

Broadly, however, Pence lacks a deep roster of political staff or advisers who are tasked with tilling the soil for a presidential bid. (Pawlenty, for example, has well-regarded -- and senior -- party strategists Terry Nelson and Sara Taylor filling that role in his all-but-announced presidential campaign.)

The talent chase for quality presidential-level staff -- one of the most behind the scenes but also most important elements of the national campaign -- is already well underway and Pence, to date, has not been an active participant in that game.

How big are the hurdles we laid out above to a Pence presidential bid?

If you are a Pence ally, not so big -- and certainly not as large as defending votes for unpopular programs like the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

If you are less favorably inclined to Pence, you likely see him as running for president with the real intention of winding up as the vice presidential nominee -- since he won't be able to compete with the titans of the race on money and organization.

"Pence has led principally and has significant experience, and those are reasons why he's very well liked by an important segment of voters," said former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino. "Name identification, however, is another matter -- and it takes time, focus and a lot of campaign funds to break out of the pack."

By Chris Cillizza  | September 22, 2010; 12:26 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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