Next Up for the 2008 Republicans …

Sam Brownback quit the Republican presidential race on Thursday, prompting a wave of speculation—perhaps the best press he earned all year?—about which of his foes he might throw his support to.

But that guessing game assumes that Mr. Brownback, who in polls was statistically indistinguishable from Duncan Hunter, had any meaningful support in the first place. Chances are his endorsement, if he ultimately offers one, will carry about as much weight as Al Haig’s did in 1988. (When the retired General dropped out and backed Bob Dole, the few voters who noticed were shocked…to learn that General Haig had been a candidate in the first place.)

Mr. Brownback’s departure does represent another step in the gradual thinning of the comically crowded G.O.P. race, a process that will accelerate in the coming months. As these candidates keel over on the side of the road, a more relevant question than whom they might support is whether we’ve seen the last of them on the presidential level.

After all, four of the last six G.O.P. standard-bearers had losing White House campaigns under their belts before finally securing the nomination. Mr. Brownback in particular ought to be encouraged by this: His fellow Kansan, Bob Dole, waged an epically miserable campaign in 1980, collecting a mere 608 votes in New Hampshire, only to end up winning the 1996 nomination.

Moreover, with the 2008 general election looking like a tough prospect for whichever nominee the party chooses, it’s worth asking which of the many Republican candidates might be able to take a mulligan and live to run again in 2012, when the fall playing field just might be more favorable.

Sam Brownback

Status: Just dropped out

Age: 51

Future prospects: This was probably it for him. The premise of Mr. Brownback’s candidacy was never that he’d win the nomination, just that he’d excite the party’s most passionate socially conservative elements. Had he at least managed to do that, there’d be no limit to the number of times he could run in the future (like Alan Keyes). But Mr. Brownback has been a dud on all levels. His target voters won’t be calling on him to run in the future, and neither will anyone else. But he’s young enough to serve in the Senate for many more decades – and blessed to live a state that will probably let him do just that if he so desires.

Jim Gilmore

Status: Already dropped out

Age: 58

Future prospects: OK, saying this guy “ran for President” in the first place may be stretching the term. Few people even knew he’d entered the race. He raised no money, garnered no support, and barely even campaigned, other than showing up at a few debates for his obligatory three minutes of camera time. He had no business ever entertaining a White House bid, and it’s unimaginable he’d ever do so again. But his political career isn’t quite dead: Mr. Gilmore, who served as Virginia’s governor for one rocky term a decade ago, is likely to run for the seat of retiring Senator John Warner. He might win his party’s nomination for Senate, but that’s as far as he’ll get, with Democrat Mark Warner, who leads his likely G.O.P. opponents by more than 30 points in polls, waiting in the fall.

Duncan Hunter

Status: Next to go?

Age: 59

Future prospects: He’s only running because he was looking to escape the U.S. House (where he’s served since 1980) and figured the unparalleled exposure of a presidential campaign – even on a shoestring budget – would make it more likely that his son will replace him in Congress next year. Think that sounds too cynical? Next time you listen to Mr. Hunter, count how many seconds it takes him to mention Iraq and the fact that his son is stationed there. Then ask yourself when the last time John McCain drew similar attention to his own son, who is also in Iraq. (The answer is never.) Mr. Hunter won’t have any plausible options in electoral politics after this race. He is one of 53 Congressmen in California, which puts him in terrible position if he has any thoughts of statewide office. And even if his son doesn’t win the Congressional race, Mr. Hunter’s seat will stay in G.O.P. hands, meaning there won’t be any comeback by the elder Hunter in 2010. A lucrative lobbying career sounds about right for the soon-to-be former Congressman.

Tom Tancredo

Status: Still running (I think)

Age: 61

Future prospects: He is running as a “cause” candidate (illegal immigration, if you haven’t heard), so theoretically we could see him carrying the same banner in a future national campaign. But so far, he’s gained little traction and largely blended in with the rest of the field. He could end up as the G.O.P.’s Kucinich – an otherwise obscure Congressman with a small but committed single-issue following who loves being on stage with his party’s national heavyweights. But if Mr. Tancredo finds himself with such temptations in 2012, he should be careful: Mr. Kucinich is learning that his Ohio Congressional constituents are quickly tiring of his national campaign and may throw him out in next year’s Democratic primary. Mr. Tancredo might also run for statewide office in Colorado, where he has considerable name recognition (a mixed blessing, given his polarizing message) and where Republicans can still compete.

Next Up for the 2008 Republicans …