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Posted at 2:52 PM ET, 01/28/2011

Skipping Iowa

By Chris Cillizza

The Iowa caucuses can be a tricky thing for frontrunning presidential candidates.

Dependent on organizational heft rather than financial firepower or name recognition and tilted heavily toward the liberal/conservative bases of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, Iowa can wind up looking more like a trap than an opportunity for a frontrunner.

Friday Line

The best example?

The 2008 Democratic presidential contest where then New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination -- spent tens of millions of dollars in Iowa only to finish third.

Clinton -- or at least her senior staff -- did consider the possibility of skipping Iowa. In an internal memo that was leaked to the New York Times, Clinton senior strategist Mike Henry recommended "pull[ing] completely out of Iowa and spend[ing] the money and Senator Clinton's time on other states."

At the time, Clinton pooh-poohed the idea publicly and, privately, her strategists argued that as the clear frontrunner she had no option but to play everywhere -- under the thinking that walking away from even one state would give her opponents an opening.

Of course, in hindsight, Henry was right. Iowa turned into a money pit for Clinton and a launching pad for then Sen. Barack Obama.

Fast forward four years. Now, former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is the nominal frontrunner for the Republican nomination and the right to face Obama in 2012 -- and already there is speculation in the media that he may take a pass on the Iowa caucuses.

Romney and his inner circle have been silent about the chatter, noting that there is no campaign yet so discussing the idea of where he should or shouldn't campaign is beyond ludicrous.

Still, Clinton's experience in Iowa -- as well as Romney's own campaign there in 2008 -- is instructive.

Romney went all out to win the caucuses three years ago, lavishing time and money on the Hawkeye State. Ultimately, however, social conservatives -- who carry outsized influence in the Republican caucus process -- rallied behind the underfunded and little known Mike Huckabee, handing Romney a pricey setback to his hopes of building early state momentum. (Romney finished second, nine points back of Huckabee.)

The risk Romney runs if he does pass on Iowa is that it a caucus win by a lesser known candidate challenges his dominance in New Hampshire or, more plausibly, winds up being the story of the early days of the process -- robbing Romney of momentum from a Granite State win.

It's a very tough decision with wide-reaching consequences to both Romney and the rest of the field. But, don't expect Romney to show his hand one way or the other for quite a while.

Below are our rankings of the ten candidates considered most likely to wind up as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. The number one candidate is the person with the best chance at winning as of today.

Agree? Disagree? The comments section awaits.

To. The. Line!

Coming off the Line: Jim DeMint, Mike Pence
Coming onto the Line: Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman

10. Rick Santorum: If not for his big loss in 2006, the former Pennsylvania Senator would likely be regarded as more of a heavyweight given his impeccable social conservative credentials. Unfortunately for him, his 18-point loss to Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has colored most handicappers' evaluations of his chances in 2012. One thing is (almost) sure: he's running. Now, can he convince staff and donors that he's a legitimate candidate? He made a nice score on that front today by landing Iowa operatives Nick Ryan and Jill Latham. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor was largely forgotten as a potential presidential candidate when he accepted an appointment in 2009 to serve as the Obama Administration's ambassador to China. But, as we wrote yesterday, Huntsman appears to be leaning toward a run in 2012 and there is a staff of advisers already doing outreach to early states to ensure the campaign would hit the ground if he gave the signal. Huntsman's biggest problem will almost certainly be his ties to Obama -- particularly with a Republican electorate who views ANY connection to the current president as unsavory. But, Huntsman is an able candidate with an interesting and impressive resume. And that still counts for something. (Previous ranking: N/A)

8. John Thune: The South Dakota Senator could be among the first candidates to jump into the presidential race, with an announcement on his future political plans likely by the end of February. An early entrance could benefit the rising star, who everyone seems to like but still remains relatively unknown nationally. Whenever Thune does take on a national candidacy he's going to have to explain his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout -- a scarlet letterin the eyes many conservatives. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Mitch Daniels: The Indiana governor isn't expected to announce his decision on 2012 until this spring, but he's upping his profile with a speech at the Gridiron Dinner on March 12. Daniels used his "State of the State" address earlier this month to tout his fiscal austerity -- the GOP watchword of the moment -- but he continues to be dogged by controversy over his call for a "truce" on social issues. That's an issue that's likely to be raised anew when Daniels speaks at next month's Conservative Political Action Conference. (Previous ranking: 8)

6. Haley Barbour: The Mississippi governor made an uncharacteristic slip late last year thanks to his comments about how, to him, the civil rights era didn't seem that bad. After the remarks, Barbour sought to make amends by suspending the sentences of two African-American sisters serving life sentences for armed robbery and calling for the construction of a civil rights museum in Jackson. Regardless of the controversy, Barbour is widely assumed to be running although he won't make a decision formally until the Mississippi legislature goes out of session this spring. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Tim Pawlenty: Pawlenty had a generally successful rollout of his "Courage to Stand" book tour, delivering a well-received speech at the National Press Club and doing scores of getting-to-know-you interviews with the press. There was only one problem -- it coincided, almost exactly, with the shootings in Tucson, pushing Pawlenty out of the headlines. As we've discussed before though, it's more important for the little known former Minnesota governor to introduce himself to the chattering classes right now, and he's making progress. Plus, its hard to argue with a web video like this one.(Previous ranking: 4)

4. Mike Huckabee: The question for the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential contender isn't whether he'd be a strong candidate but whether he'll run at all. If he does decide to jump in the race, early polls indicate he'd start off near the front of the pack. But Huckabee, more than any other potential candidate, has sent mixed signals galore. Also complicating things is his statement that he likely won't make a decision until the summer -- by which time many top advisers and organizers already will have been snapped up. Does that matter to Huckabee? (Previous ranking: 5)

3. Newt Gingrich: For months we've been hearing that Gingrich has been doing lots of under-the-radar spadework in Iowa. And, earlier this week it paid off when state House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer (R-Iowa) offered an endorsement of his candidacy. (Make no mistake: Gingrich is running.) The conundrum of Gingrich is that he is simultaneously his best advocate and worst enemy. He has tremendous oratorical gifts and will likely be a dominant force in the debates. But, he also has a tremendous capacity to go a little too far, drawing unwanted controversy to him. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Sarah Palin: Palin is the prime mover in the 2012 field; she will act and the other candidates will react. It's just that simple. What's less clear is whether Palin will run and, if she does, whether she has any capacity (or desire) to grow her support beyond her core backers. Palin has shown little willingness to do even the basic blocking and tackling that a race for president usually requires and yet there is a case to be made that if she runs, she is the frontrunner in the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary. Baffling. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Mitt Romney: Everyone can come up with a reason -- or reasons -- why Romney won't be the nominee. And yet, looking across the field, every potential candidate has a major flaw of their own too. Given that -- plus the fact that Romney has done this before and knows what it takes -- he retains the top spot in the Fix rankings. Romney will need to find a good answer on why the health care law he signed in Massachusetts is different from the national plan President Obama signed but he still has time to do it. (Previous ranking: 1)

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | January 28, 2011; 2:52 PM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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