Where does Palin's exit leave GOP for 2012?

First, Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to having affairs. Friday, Palin left politics (for now). But the list of potential Republican candidates for the White House is still long.

Robert DeBerry/ The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman/ AP
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced that she is stepping down from her position as Governor in Wasilla, Alaska on Friday.

It’s easy to look at the notional 2012 GOP presidential field and think, "What a mess."

Sarah Palin has just taken an unconventional leap by resigning the governorship of Alaska mid-term. Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, has taken himself out of 2012 speculation by disappearing for a while, then declaring his love for a woman not his wife. John Ensign, a senator from Nevada, also recently admitted marital infidelity.

All three names had been floated as possible contenders in 2012. And all three are now being assessed for the damage they have done to their careers, and to the Republican Party.

The toughest to analyze is Governor Palin, who has the most star power of the three and still retains a national following. But she has left her future vague, saying only – as she announced her resignation unexpectedly last Friday – that she intends to “effect positive change outside government.”

Of course, less than six months into Barack Obama’s presidency, it’s way too early to speculate as to whom Republicans might nominate to run against him in 2012, assuming he runs for reelection. Events have spurred such speculation, understandably.

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and another Republican touted as having 2012 potential, stumbled in his nationally televised response to Mr. Obama’s address to Congress a few weeks after inauguration. Another 2012 GOP possibility who now appears to be out of the game is Jon Huntsman, the governor of Utah who signed on to become Obama’s ambassador to China.

But in fact, there are plenty potential Republican candidates. One can even argue that Messrs Sanford and Ensign, in a way, have done their party a favor by admitting their sins so early in the election cycle, before most voters have begun to think about 2012.

“For every potential candidate who’s no longer a potential candidate, there are still plenty who might be,” says Dan Schnur, a onetime Republican strategist.

The two Republicans most mentioned are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – who, of all the names, already seems most fully in the game – and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has announced he will not seek reelection, but intends to finish his term.

There’s a host of other possibles, as well: former Arkansas governor and 2008 candidate Mike Huckabee, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (who is running for the US Senate), and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Still, the most talked-about politician of the moment remains Ms. Palin. Before her bombshell announcement, she was extremely popular among her core constituency. According to a Pew Research Center poll released June 24, 84 percent of white evangelical Republicans view Palin favorably, as do 80 percent of conservative Republicans.

How her poll numbers hold up, post-resignation, will be telling. But if leaders of the social conservative movement are any guide, she should still do well.

“Sarah Palin is a force in the GOP and one of the most promising figures in American politics, whether she is governor of Alaska or not,” Gary Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, said in a statement July 4. “It is totally premature to interpret Sarah Palin’s announcement as a withdrawal from American politics. A year from now, a lot of pundits may be eating their words.

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