Beyond Palin: Assessing the Rest of the GOP Presidential Field

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From left: Mark Humphrey / AP; Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty Images

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, left, and former governor Mitt Romney

Sarah Palin's recent Web video making a pitch to conservative women may have again shifted the political spotlight to the former governor of Alaska, but more than a half-dozen other GOP hopefuls are toying seriously this summer with a presidential run.

Unlike four years ago, when presidential hopefuls from both parties were already halfway out of the gate, with conspicuous trips to New Hampshire and Iowa, competitive staffing and heavy courting of donors and party chiefs, Republicans are mostly staying true to their public pledges to focus on the midterms. Given the unusually late start, therefore, Palin isn't falling meaningfully behind the organizational efforts of her potential rivals. And after Election Day, when the male candidates begin to seriously consider their options and announce their intentions, they will once again be reminded of Palin's capacity to dominate the stage with her Internet communiqués, book-promotional efforts and TV appearances.

Some of the other would-be candidates and their senior advisers have known Palin over the years, primarily from her days as governor, but most have never met her or had a substantive talk with her. That is a strange situation, to say the least; it forces them to evaluate her without any direct insight into her strengths and weaknesses. But from afar, they increasingly believe she will either become a candidate for President or play a major role in the nominating process.

Still, few express much regard for Palin's ultimate chances. An adviser to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and, by traditional standards, the putative 2012 front runner, says of Palin, "She's not a serious human being." Another Romney intimate warns, "If she's standing up there in a debate and the answers are more than 15 seconds long, she's in trouble."

One of the most experienced Republican national political operatives in the country suggests that while Palin might be envied and sleek, she lacks the endurance required for a protracted nomination fight. "She's like a cheetah. She can run really fast but not really long." In the end, according to this school of thought about Palin, she is too polarizing to be seen as likely to beat Barack Obama, and Republicans will be too hungry in 2012 to risk nominating someone who could cost the party the White House — maybe even losing in a landslide.

If the traditional path to the nomination is still valid in 2012, despite the advent of Facebook, the Tea Party and Twitter, then Romney has as good a chance as anyone else to be the Republican standard bearer; no one is more likely to make the race and show up with the required table stakes. Although he launched a splashy book tour for his own New York Times best-selling tome and has written the occasional newspaper essay assailing Obama, Romney has purposely lain low most of the year. He has stayed off network television and campaigned below the radar for midterm candidates in 20 states, dispensing money to Republicans from his PAC funds, while engaging in intense private courtship of party donors and quiet recruitment of potential backing for his campaign-in-waiting.

Still, there remain serious doubts within the party about Romney's numerous policy flip-flops, remote personal style and support for Obama-style health care reform in Massachusetts during his governorship, as well as concern over potential prejudice against his Mormon faith. Romney advisers claim to be confident that all of those vulnerabilities can be addressed. Most of the candidate's 2008 team plans to sign up for another go-round, and all say they see in their man a more relaxed figure who has well learned the lessons of his second-place finish to McCain. Most important: rather than shape his campaign in an effort to dominate the social-conservative vote in the nomination fight, as he did in 2008, Romney will present himself as an experienced manager of state government with private-sector experience and a rhetorical emphasis on fiscal restraint. That is the background that establishment figures in both parties believe would match up best against the incumbent.

Romney might be following the old-school candidate handbook, but it is Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels who has attracted the backing of many party elders, including George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Daniels, like Romney, fits the profile that Obama White House advisers and experienced Republicans believe would give the GOP the best chance to beat Obama in 2012. If voters think Washington is broken and spending is out of control, Daniels, like Romney, could effectively run as a Mr. Fix-It, ready to make the hard choices that conservatives believe Obama has dodged.

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