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Presidential election jockeying already beginning

All eyes are focused on the upcoming midterms, but some Republicans have already turned their eyes to the 2012 presidential election. Four big names dominate the speculation, but there are some underdogs.

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Sarah Palin: Candidate or kingmaker?

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If Sarah Palin runs, Pawlenty will have a hard time outdoing her story – and competing for the affections of tea partyers, who adore the 2008 vice presidential nominee. The former governor of Alaska also has a PAC and dispenses money and endorsements, but it's anybody's guess whether she runs. She may decide she'd rather stick with her lucrative writing, speaking, and TV career – a docureality TV show is in the works – and play king-maker from the sidelines.

But if Ms. Palin does jump in, that's a game changer. She could be the only woman amid a sea of white male faces. A Gallup poll of Republicans released July 16 shows her with the highest favorable rating of possible GOP contenders: 76 percent, versus 65 percent for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 64 percent for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and 54 percent for Romney. But Palin is polarizing. Among all Americans, she is viewed more unfavorably than favorably – 47 percent to 44 percent. Romney is 40 percent favorable, 23 unfavorable.

The prospect of a Palin nomination scares many establishment Republicans, who worry she's unelectable in the general election. In-depth mastery of policy is not her strong suit; ditto organization. Competing in a crowded primary field – and facing fire from other GOP candidates – would test her on the national stage like nothing else she's ever done. Perhaps she would get knocked off her pedestal. Or perhaps her fans could rally around her, creating a schism in the Republican Party. If nothing else, a Palin candidacy would make for quite a show.

Controversial ex-Speaker Gingrich

Former Speaker Gingrich has also shown signs of a possible run, but he's unpredictable. Now in his late 60s, this may be his last, best opportunity. Gingrich's biggest asset is his active mind; he is an ideas machine. He is a prolific writer and commentator and, like Palin, may prefer the more comfortable life of the highly paid pundit activist to the grueling one of a presidential candidate.

But if Gingrich wants the ultimate platform for his ideas, running for president may be it. David Winston, who served as director of planning for Gingrich when he was House speaker, disagrees with Pawlenty, that biography will trump policy in the GOP contest.

"Ultimately, it will be a race about content," says Mr. Winston. "Especially now, given concern on the Republican side about where this country is headed, voters want to hear how are you going to govern and where would you take this country."

Gingrich would have major negatives to overcome, including a complicated personal life – he is married to his third wife – that social conservatives may not like. Also, his tenure as speaker was short-lived (four years) and rocky, including a $300,000 penalty for ethical wrongdoing.