Now is the season when all good political men (and women) look in the mirror and ask themselves: Do I see a future president?
For Republicans, the looking is good. President Obama is struggling with stubbornly high unemployment, and by November 2012, he could be vulnerable. Or the economy could be in clear recovery, and Mr. Obama could sail to reelection. It's just too soon to say. But there's always the chance that the right opposition nominee could succeed, as Bill Clinton discovered in 1992 when he toppled the first President Bush.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney
Already, the Republican jockeying is intense. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, never really stopped running after his failed effort to win the 2008 GOP nomination. Republicans have a history of giving nomination also-rans another chance (Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole), and given Governor Romney's success in business, his financial know-how might speak more loudly to 2012 voters.
But he'll still have to overcome the somewhat stilted personal style that hurt him last time, as well as some religious conservatives' reservations about his Mormon faith. He will also be expected to answer for his reform of Massachusetts health care, which is now seen as a precursor to Obama's unpopular health-care reform and puts Romney on the defensive.
So far in the 2010 midterm election cycle, Romney has raised more than $6 million, endorsed hundreds of candidates, and given $530,000 to campaigns and causes via his Free and Strong America political action committee (PAC). These efforts have built goodwill across the country that could come in handy when 2012 campaigning starts in earnest.
Globe-trotting Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Another Republican who has done everything but announce is two-term Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He's got a money-dispensing PAC and has traveled widely out of state for speeches and fundraisers. Governor Pawlenty has also taken multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, including one just concluded (with four other governors), which bolsters his foreign-policy portfolio.
Unlike Romney and some other candidates, Pawlenty has a limited national profile, and thus, he said at a Monitor breakfast July 26, he would have to jump in early next year were he to run. He also suggested that it would be life experiences, not issue positions, that would help him stand out in a crowded GOP field.
"What's the stereotype [of Republicans]?" he asked, teeing up a dig at Romney without saying his name. "We're all CEOs. We're the sons or daughters of CEOs.... That's not my story, and it's not the story for the 'tea party,' and it's not the story for most Republicans."
Then he outlined the biography that would clearly form a core of his message: Grew up in a meatpacking town. Lost his mother at 16. Father a truck driver. First in his family to graduate from college.
Sarah Palin: Candidate or kingmaker?
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.
Another face from '08: Mike Huckabee
Like Romney, former Arkansas Governor Huckabee is a 2008 candidate who enjoyed some success – he won the crucial Iowa caucuses – and may try again. As a former Baptist minister with a down-home style and a talk show on Fox, he could excite social conservatives, especially if Palin does not run. Huckabee did well last time in the insurgent mold, running on a shoestring budget. But he did not win primaries outside socially conservative parts of the country, and it's not clear that he can expand his appeal in a second run.
Still, this may be the "why not?" cycle for any Republican who's ever thought of running. "There's no obvious front-runner," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, and so, in theory, anyone can catch fire.
Other Republicans who may jump in:
•John Thune, senator from South Dakota. As chief GOP deputy whip, he is well regarded by his colleagues, telegenic, and well spoken. Asked on Fox News July 27 if he'd made a decision about 2012 he said, "I haven't made any decisions beyond 2010."
•Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania. He lost in 2006 by 18 points, normally not a good launching point for a presidential campaign. He has made frequent trips to early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) and reportedly met with former staff in late July to float a possible campaign.
•Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi. His handling of hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill won him positive national notice. As former head of the Republican National Committee, he is seen as one of the shrewdest GOP operators in the country. But how he would play outside the South is an open question.
Two other names that come up are Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Governor Jindal, still in his first term, can make a name for himself with oil spill and hurricane recovery, and, at age 39, he has plenty of time to run for national office. Governor Bush has stated as firmly as anyone can that he has no intention of running in 2012, and given the unpopularity of his brother, the former president, that may be wise.