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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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But his background as a lobbyist and as a born and bred Mississippian, with a syrup-thick accent, could hurt him. Recent statements on race have forced him into damage-control mode, an unfortunate place to be for one who aims to unseat the first black president. And in the end, Barbour’s candidacy could be a rerun of Phil Gramm’s in 1996, when the then-Texas senator spent $20 million in pursuit of the GOP nomination but did not even make it to the New Hampshire primary.

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Pawlenty could wind up on top by default as the least objectionable. But that's hardly an endorsement for the grueling task of defeating an incumbent president. He is touting his fiscally conservative record as governor and his blue-collar background, but his demeanor is more "Minnesota nice" than Mr. Excitement.

Still, having governed a Democratic-leaning state for two terms, "he can argue that he can have some blue-state appeal – unlike, say, Haley Barbour," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

And a member of his inner circle, former Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, insists that Pawlenty's newness to presidential politics won't hurt him, despite the GOP history of nominating people who have run before.

"I think the results of the last election convinced Republicans that they need to have fresh blood and new faces," says Mr. Weber.

And the list goes on

There are other new faces talking about jumping in, from former UN Ambassador John Bolton to soon-to-be former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and even newly minted Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite. Senator Paul took office only in January – though he says he won't run if his dad, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, does.

Even if the GOP nomination race comes down to just Romney, Pawlenty, and Barbour, "it will still be a long, drawn-out process" when caucuses and primaries start early next year, says Ford O'Connell, chairman of the conservative CivicForumPAC. "Iowa could go Pawlenty, Bachmann, Barbour, 1, 2, 3. New Hampshire is Romney. South Carolina is Barbour."

But the field has hardly taken final shape. Mr. O'Connell suggests that those on the fence have until the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13 to jump in. After that, it gets hard for candidates to find top-tier political talent available for hire. Former Governor Palin, in particular, can afford to wait, because of her fundraising skill. But she is polarizing, and even among conservatives, her appeal is waning.

A real game-changer would be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose blunt talk on fiscal matters has brought national notice. Governor Christie has been in office just over a year and insists he doesn't want to run for president, but in politics, never say never.

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