The Early Line: Romney in Front, Palin Fading

It’s Triple Crown season, and time (or just an excuse, maybe) for an early handicapping of the 2012 Republican presidential field.

As with horse racing, where the fastest horse out of the gate often fades in the stretch (like Big Drama in last Saturday’s Preakness), early speed in a presidential race can be very misleading. For example: At this point in 1993, the last time Republicans found themselves locked out of the White House and in the minority in Congress, Jack Kemp was a front-runner for the 1996 G.O.P. nomination, running even with Bob Dole in polls. Less than two years later, after he voiced his opposition to a California ballot initiative aimed at illegal immigrants, Kemp was out of favor and decided not to even bother in ’96.

With that in mind, here are some very early odds for the 2012 Republican horse race:


Mitt Romney: 2-1.

History makes him the favorite. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain all finished second in G.O.P. primary races before turning around and claiming the nomination the next time it came open.

There is some debate over whether Romney actually finished second in 2008, since Mike Huckabee actually finished with more delegates than Romney. But Romney deserves the designation for several reasons: (1) he received more popular votes and won more primaries and caucuses than Huckabee; (2) he demonstrated broader appeal; and (3) Huckabee inflated his delegate share by staying in the race even after it was clear he couldn’t win and everyone else had dropped out. (In this way, Huckabee is a bit like Jerry Brown, who fought Bill Clinton clear through June in the 1992 Democratic race, even though it was a lost cause from early April on.)

Since the November election, Romney has been relatively quiet, but he’s working hard to seal the deal with the conservative activists who weren’t completely sold on him last year. Just this week, he made a typically red-meat-laden speech to the N.R.A., ripping President Obama for teaming up with “left-wing law professors and editorial boards” to craft national security policy. There are clear signs of his enduring strength: He won CPAC’s February straw poll, and he seems to have scared John Huntsman, a potential ’12 rival, all the way to China.

Romney’s biggest obstacles last year were his Mormonism and the cultural liberalism that defined the Massachusetts phase of his political career. Three more years of spewing red meat, he hopes, will defuse both issues.


Mike Huckabee: 6-1

The former Arkansas governor may be the toughest candidate to read. He has a substantial base, one that produced a lopsided win in last year’s Iowa caucuses, but what about his ceiling? Huckabee’s success last year seemed directly proportional to the number of evangelical Christians in any given state. Where they had numbers, he won, or came close to it. Where they didn’t, he got shellacked (like in New Hampshire).

Huckabee’s strategy for expanding his appeal is to rely on his simple roots, likable manner, and contempt for the supply-side wing of the party to reach out to blue-collar voters who aren’t particularly religious. And he may benefit from the G.O.P.’s bout with “Shrunken Base Syndrome,” in which moderates are fleeing in droves, thus ratcheting up the influence of religious conservatives. With his weekly show on Fox News, Huckabee has a decent platform to stay relevant and to showcase his best feature, his likability. He’s also making sure to play the same red-meat game as Romney—just take a look at this song he just wrote about Nancy Pelosi. 

Still, there are probably too many Republicans who just won’t be comfortable, either for personal or pragmatic reasons (or both), nominating a Baptist preacher who can be easily caricatured as a religious zealot.


Sarah Palin: 6-1

A few months ago, she might have topped this list, and, make no mistake, last year’s VP nominee retains a large and devoted flock of followers. But there are some tentative signs that Palin is fading a bit, even within the G.O.P.

First, her national visibility has faded (except for the endless headlines about the Palin-Johnston family feud). This is to be expected, considering how far from the mainland her day job in Juneau is. Besides speaking at a pro-life dinner in southern Indiana a few weeks ago and speaking up for Miss California, Palin has mostly stayed off the national stage. This has reminded Republicans that they have other options for ’12.

Also, Palin’s polling numbers in Alaska are declining. When she ran for VP, Republicans touted her as the most popular governor in America. No longer. A recent poll found that 54 percent of Alaskans have a positive view of her, while 42 percent take a negative view. That’s not enough to threaten her job security in 2010 (yet), but it is enough to force her attention back to Alaska. In theory, Palin could opt not to run for reelection in 2010 and still run for president in ’12. But given how thin her résumé is, ducking a reelection fight probably wouldn’t look good.

Again, Palin won an army of admirers last fall that will stay with her for the rest of her life. But the rest of the party may be moving on.


Newt Gingrich: 12-1

Newt was looking for an opening to run last year, but it never presented itself. He’s even more interested in ’12 and has been pushing hard to keep his name in the news—always on behalf of a cause dear to Republican primary voters. Most recently, he’s been shredding Nancy Pelosi over the claim that the C.I.A. misled her about waterboarding. Every Republican has been piling on, of course, but Newt’s attention-grabbing ploy has been to call for her exit as speaker. He also showed up at the AIPAC conference two weeks ago to accuse Obama of endangering Israel.

You can’t blame him for trying, and in a way he’s playing with house money: After his ugly departure as speaker in 1998, who could have predicted that he’d ever again be regarded as a serious contender for the G.O.P. nomination? And at 65 years old, he’s reached the now-or-never point in his career. But while Republicans generally agree with him on the issues, Newt will be a hard sell in a primary campaign. He tends to come across as cold, arrogant and humorless, and memories of his rocky tenure as speaker will give voters serious pause. 


Bobby Jindal: 20-1

The Louisiana governor had his big chance to establish himself as a top-tier contender back in February, and we all know how that went. On the plus side (I guess), his hideous performance back then set the bar low for the future; it might not take much for Jindal to impress audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire. And, probably because the left was having so much fun at his expense, the right’s most prominent voices, like Rush Limbaugh, all rallied around Jindal in February.

Jindal is indisputably intelligent and his résumé is very impressive. He has good reason to take a shot in ’12; even if he falls short (which he probably would), he could repair his reputation and position himself well for a follow-up bid in 2016 or 2020 (or maybe even a spot on the ’12 ticket).

The trickiest part will be handling his 2011 reelection campaign in Louisiana. If he were to run again, he really couldn’t leave the state to campaign nationally until after the November election—about two months before the New Hampshire primary. And his presidential aspirations would complicate his gubernatorial campaign: Elect a governor who won’t turn around and take the next flight to Iowa, the Democratic candidate will say. Would it be worth it for Jindal to give up the governorship for a long-shot presidential bid? The only precedent for his dilemma isn’t really helpful: In 1991, ex-Klansman David Duke lost the Louisiana gubernatorial run-off in early November, then declared his candidacy for the 1992 Republican presidential nomination. But his national bid was a fringe effort that attracted little money, media attention or support.


Field: 10-1

Jeb Bush’s name is frequently mentioned as a ’12 prospect—even by Dick Cheney. But ’12 is probably too soon for any effort at a Bush restoration. Bush is far more likely to pass, hope memories of his brother fade, and then survey the landscape in 2014 or so. He’ll be 63 years old in 2016. Other Republicans to watch include South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Texas Governor Rick Perry (if he can survive a primary challenge from Kay Bailey Hutchison next year), and South Dakota Senator John Thune. For now, though, they are all distant long shots. The Early Line: Romney in Front, Palin Fading