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How big GOP 2012 field could boil down to three

Three top-tier GOP presidential hopefuls are likely to emerge, and neither Sarah Palin nor Donald Trump are among them.

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And what of all the other possible candidates? Many begin as long shots, and are likely to stay there – people like Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and the only African-American in the GOP field, and Buddy Roemer, the former Democratic governor of Louisiana who became a Republican in 1991. Both have launched exploratory committees but are not generating buzz. Gary Johnson, the libertarian-leaning former governor of New Mexico, is reportedly set to bypass an exploratory committee and announce his presidential candidacy in late April. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also looks to be running, but it's hard to see how he breaks out of the pack.

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Three others could enter the top tier if they run, but for now, the signs point to their sitting this one out:

Mitch Daniels. As Indiana governor, he has made a name for himself as a budget cutter and gave a highly regarded keynote speech on fiscal responsibility at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. He has said he's thinking of running, and just inked a deal to write a book on limited government due out in September, but compromises with Democrats in the Indiana legislature could hurt Daniels’s chances with GOP primary voters.

Sarah Palin. Perhaps more than anyone else, the former Alaska governor has the star power and fundraising skill to stir up the field. Recent trips to India and Israel boost her foreign-policy portfolio. But, like Gingrich, she has organizational problems and has shown little evidence that she's serious about running. Plus, now that Bachmann is “in,” Palin would face competition for the same pool of voters.

Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has stellar communication skills but admits he's bad at fundraising. After a respectable run four years ago, it's not clear he has the fire in the belly to try again. And recent remarks about Mr. Obama's "childhood in Kenya," which he then disavowed, raise questions about his ability to appeal to a broad electorate.

Among the top three guys who are running, each has pluses and minuses. Romney is the only one to have run before, and that experience will be invaluable in a tough race. He can also draw upon personal wealth, which eases the fundraising pressure. But he has to answer for his Massachusetts health-care reform, the model for Obama's reform. And his Mormon faith still turns off many conservative evangelicals, a key part of the GOP base.

The ultimate insider

Barbour is the ultimate insider in the race, from his days as a respected national GOP chair and more recently chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Last fall he helped elect numerous Republican governors – many in critical battleground states – and they will owe him.

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