On Saturday, May 1, the 136th
running of the Kentucky Derby, some 20 thoroughbreds will run for the roses in the most famous and important race in the sport. That race of 3-year-old colts (and one filly) will be won in just over two minutes. Meanwhile, another exciting horse race – the race to win the GOP presidential nomination – is gearing up. It, too, has a large field, but this race is a marathon that takes four years to complete. Now, the time has come to begin handicapping the 2012 primary race.
This list represents a snapshot of a moment in time, with fluid odds and a constantly changing field. Keep in mind that if this list were compiled a year ago, Mark Sanford's name would have been included – and possibly John Ensign as well. But that's horseracing. Just ask the owners of Eskendereya, the consensus favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, who was pulled out of the race
a few days ago.
1. Mitt Romney, 3-1
-- Smart horseplayers bet with their heads, not their hearts. It has been said that Democrats fall in love, but Republicans fall in line. As such, the smart money is to back this horse, and that means the likely nominee will be Mitt Romney
. Romney's obvious shortcoming is that the health care plan he shepherded through the legislature in Massachusetts, dubbed "Romneycare," is nearly identical to Obamacare. Romney finished in the money last time. This time, he's the candidate to beat.
2. Sarah Palin, 7-2 – The lone filly in the race, Palin is disdained by the mint julep Republicans, but in today's GOP, there may be more votes among the infield crowd, with its beer chests and lawn chairs, than in the clubhouse luxury boxes – especially in the primaries. This horse has a natural gait and heart, but she's headstrong and difficult to guide – a tough customer for any trainer.
3. Tim Pawlenty, 6-1
-- From hiring top political insiders
to forming a leadership PAC, the governor of Minnesota is doing all the things he needs to do to be considered a viable GOP Derby contender. The knock on Pawlenty is that he lacks charisma. Knowing he governs a blue state, Pawlenty has wisely followed John McCain's strategy of wooing conservative bloggers
– a group that carries a lot of weight during primary elections. A live contender.
4. Mike Huckabee, 8-1
-- When it comes to public speaking and likeability, the former Arkansas governor may be the most naturally talented politician on the Republican side (maybe it's something in the water in Hope, Ark.?). He still polls strongly among Republicans, and still plays well in Iowa. But Huckabee hasn't been able to raise sufficient sums of money, and appears incapable of running an organized campaign operation. Moreover, he has picked fights with fiscal conservatives
, These factors combine to make him a longshot. In addition, there is a question of whether he's motivated this time. His gig at Fox News is the cushy equivalent of a Kentucky stud farm -- and is much less rigorous than the campaign trail.
5. John Thune, 10-1
– As I've previously written
, Thune is perhaps the only GOP racehorse who is Barack Obama's athletic equal. He appears poised to run as a dark horse candidate, and when he does, he will be helped by his looks and intelligence, but will have to overcome hurdles such as being a sitting U.S. senator from South Dakota (not exactly the ideal starting gate for a presidential run). He's right about in the middle of the pack, but look for him to make a move if the top-tier candidates stumble early.
6. Mitch Daniels, 12-1
-- Of all the potential 2012 GOP candidates, none has a better pedigree than Daniels. Aside from being Indiana's current governor, Daniels has served as chief of staff to Sen.Richard Lugar, senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President George W. Bush. An unofficial "Draft Mitch Daniels" sentiment has slowly begun to evolve. This past November, RedState's Erick Erickson tweeted
: "I want Mitch Daniels
to run for President in 2012." Despite having previously ruled out a bid for the presidency, Daniels recently implied he was considering a run
. But, like Fred Thompson in 2008, one wonders if the hype surrounding Daniels would translate into electoral success.
7. Newt Gingrich, 15-1
– In a world where Republicans have been negatively portrayed as the party of "no" and a movement lacking solutions, former Speaker Newt Gingrich provides a constant, brilliant influx of innovative ideas
. Despite a series of troublesome endorsements (most notably, Dede Scozzafava), Gingrich's ability to inspire and communicate perhaps gives him a pass
8. Haley Barbour, 20-1
-- Many pundits would -- out of affection, if nothing else – put a few quid on the governor of Mississippi. Entertaining as well as substantive, Barbour knows how government works. A former RNC chairman and lobbyist, few on this list are as competent or as credible. Barbour, the current chair of the Republican Governor's Association (RGA), is focused on 2010, and it is unclear whether he will run for president. One problem is that Barbour isn't just a southerner, he a caricature of a southern politician. Though he is accomplished and incredibly savvy, it might be difficult for a self-described "fat redneck"
to get to the winner's circle in this day and age.
The Field: 12-1
: He's conservative and Latino, and talented. The big caveat is that Rubio still has to win his U.S. Senate race in Florida (made complicated by Charlie Crist's Independent bid) but as I recently wrote, there are many
compelling reasons to take a Rubio for President in 2012
: The governor of Texas says he's not running for president in 2012
– something that is wise to say if you are in the middle of a re-election battle -- otherwise he would appear earlier on this list. Having recently spent some time with Perry, I can vouch for the fact that he is incredibly charismatic and charming – the very qualities one needs to win over voters on the primary trail. The question of whether he plans to run in 2012 is something of a curious one. Shortly before his primary election victory against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (and Debra Medina), Perry's campaign organized a blogger training summit
in Austin, Texas (which I spoke at). Texas Monthly saw this move as a Machiavellian strategy
meant to begin wooing conservative bloggers for a possible presidential run. Should Perry get in the presidential race, there is no doubt he would be a formidable candidate. On the plus side, Republicans like governors. On the downside, Perry may be unfairly hurt by the fact that Americans are not yet ready to elect another Texas governor as president.
Rick Santorum: As I recently noted
, observers make a mistake if they prematurely write off the former Pennsylvania senator. He has the ability to raise a respectable amount of money, and to give a good speech – two qualities that will be important on the primary campaign trail. Santorum will be hurt by the fact that he lacks a home base and that he will have difficulty providing a rationale for why a candidate can go from losing his re-election by almost 20 points to winning a presidential race.
: With the success of "the surge" in Iraq, a strategy developed by the Army general, coupled with a recent visit to the Granite State, Petraeus has piqued the interest of Republicans desperately looking for an outside-the-box alternative to the Romney/Palin paradigm. Unfortunately for them, David Petraeus seems an unlikely presidential candidate. Though he has stopped short of a Shermanesque statement, Petraeus says he won't run
, and I am inclined to believe him in regards to 2012.
When Scott Brown surprised the world by defeating Martha Coakley to take Ted Kennedy's Senate seat (OK, the people's seat
), even I couldn't help but contribute to the hype
that he might one day run for president. Brown is good looking, charismatic, and (thanks to his high-profile national race) has potential to raise big bucks. Still, he is new to the U.S. Senate, and the presence in the race of Massachusetts stablemate Mitt Romney may complicate Brown's prospects.
: Once seen as a rising star, the current Louisiana governor (and former member of Congress) stumbled badly last year
when delivering the Republican response to the State of the Union. Then again, Bill Clinton was hooted off the stage at the Democrats' 1988 nominating convention in Atlanta – and was his party's standard-bearer four years later. Yet Bobby Jindal seems to be biding his time, and at the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in New Orleans, he announced he would not run for president in 2012. Jindal is still young. Don't count him out for 2016.
Ron Paul: His devotees are nearly fanatical in their appreciation for this quirky, libertarian-leaning Texas congressman. There's just not nearly enough of them.
I hope to update this list as things progress; this is the first of what will hopefully be a series of 2012 horse race columns. A famous Hunter S. Thompson column was titled "The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved." If that's right, it's not a perfect analogy for those of us who obsess on presidential politics two years before the race. So pour a mint julep and get ready for a race to remember.