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How the shape of the 2012 field affects each GOP presidential candidate

at 01:45 PM ET, 04/25/2011

We’re getting close to the GOP presidential race actually starting sometime soon (we swear this time!), as several candidates are expected to announce their intentions in the coming days and weeks.

As each candidate announces, the field changes ever so slightly. And regardless of what other candidates and campaigns say, it does matter to them who else gets into the race. Whether you are Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann, there are certain people you’d rather not face and others that you would be more than happy to welcome into the race.

So to get you prepared for it all, we thought we’d give you a scoresheet of the best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios of how the field shakes out for the major potential candidates.

Enjoy...

Mitt Romney: More than anyone else, the former Massachusetts governor’s status as a frontrunner (if not the frontrunner) seems more immune from what the other candidates do. But you’ve got to believe that former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman occupy much of the same territory as Romney and could eat into his base in different ways. All three have somewhat similar styles and will be cast as the most electable GOP candidates. Like Romney, Pawlenty is, for all intents and purposes, in. The key here is what Daniels and Huntsman do. Daniels could really eat into Romney’s case that he’s best equipped to guide the economy, while Huntsman could cut into Romney’s donor base – both men are Mormons – and potentially steal votes in two key Romney states: New Hampshire and Nevada. At the same time, if all these candidates run, the anti-Romney vote may well be diluted.

Tim Pawlenty: The big question here is how much Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan, would eat into the former governor’s strength in neighboring Iowa. Pawlenty is taken very seriously by observers but probably needs a strong showing in Iowa to get enough momentum to carry him through the early states. If Bachmann, a tea party favorite who tends to attract attention like a vacuum, gets in and overtakes Pawlenty in Iowa, that’s bad optics for him. Also – Pawlenty would probably be better off if Daniels doesn’t get in. Both would be the “look-what-I-did-as-governor” candidate who appeals to the establishment. “The establishment likes Pawlenty, but they really like (Haley) Barbour and they love Daniels,” said a strategist involved with one of the announced exploratory committees.

Haley Barbour: The Mississippi governor is less than a week from his self-imposed deadline to make a decision, and most expect him to run. We should also be hearing from his good friend Daniels in relatively short order (the two have said publicly that they don’t want to run against each other). But perhaps the bigger question for Barbour is whether another friend, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, gets in. It’s conventional wisdom that southerners have a hard time running for president, and putting two on the GOP primary ballot – particularly a southerner that already showed some strength in the 2008 race – would make things tougher for Barbour. That’s probably why Barbour has reportedly been seeking a Huckabee endorsement. Ideally for Barbour, neither Daniels nor Huckabee runs. And that is a distinct possibility.

(Update 3:37 p.m.: Shortly after this post went live, Barbour announced he will not run for president.)

Newt Gingrich: Gingrich is nothing if not his own man, and it’s hard to put him into one category or another. But more than anything, he is an idea man, with a reputation for thinking outside the box. That sounds a lot like Daniels. Gingrich doesn’t want to have to fight for the smartest-guy-in-the-room title, but Daniels could very well force him to do that.

Mike Huckabee: The conventional wisdom for the longest time has been that Huckabee and Sarah Palin would destroy each other in Iowa. But with Palin’s polling numbers as bad as they are – even in Iowa – who is the real villain for Huckabee? Actually, there are plenty. Bachmann can play to evangelicals, as can Santorum. Even pizza magnate Herman Cain could make a dent doing the very same thing Huckabee did – charming Iowa conservatives. But while any of these candidates could hurt Huckabee, it’s more likely that he would hurt them. There is a lot of a goodwill left for Huckabee after 2008, and poll after poll shows him the most popular potential candidate. If he runs, these other candidates will have a hard time stealing that support unless someone can land some real punches on Huckabee.

Sarah Palin: Nobody signals problems for the former Alaska governor like Bachmann. And it’s not just because they are the only two women in the prospective field. It’s because Bachmann’s base is basically a mirror image of Palin’s. It’s not a coincidence that Bachmann has emerged on the national scene just as Palin seems to have faded from it. She’s better on her feet than Palin is, a better speaker and is going to be able to raise significant money. If both Bachmann and Huckabee run — or either one, really — it’s hard to see Palin having much of a shot.

Rick Santorum: Santorum can appeal to plenty of people in a Republican primary, but he needs to get the chance first. Put simply: The more candidates, the worse for Santorum. If Bachmann, Cain, Daniels and Huckabee all run, Santorum is going to have a hard time being heard above the noise. The ideal for him is that all of these candidates don’t run or flame out early, and the search for the truest conservative goes back to where it used to end: Rick Santorum. Because of Huckabee’s ties to evangelicals, though, he is Santorum’s worst enemy. “Mike Huckabee hurts everyone by being the most popular possible candidate, but particularly makes it difficult for Santorum because Huckabee grabs the evangelicals that Santorum is so aggressively courting,” said a strategist aligned with another camp.

Mitch Daniels: Daniels’s top foes would seem to be the other governors – Romney, Pawlenty and Barbour – who all appear likely to run. And for him, it may be the more, the merrier. Daniels will need to come off as the smart guy, and it’s much easier to see him out-thinking a stage with 10 candidates on it versus one with just a few. That’s in part a function of his very low name ID. If Daniels is to run and be formidable, he needs to slowly rise to the top rather than take on someone like Romney one-on-one.

Jon Huntsman: The more the GOP primary becomes about a race to the right, the better for Huntsman. Say what you want about the tea party’s influence on a GOP primary; in a presidential race, there’s room for a guy to find some middle ground — especially in open primaries where independents and Democrats are unlikely to have a real Democratic primary to vote in. And nobody is better positioned to do that than Huntsman. If the Bachmanns, Santorums and Cains of the race start pushing it into tea party-ville, Huntsman could very well come off as the adult in the room. Again, though, this is potential Romney territory, and the better Romney does, the worse off Huntsman will be.

Michele Bachmann: The less that Bachmann sees of Palin, Huckabee and Cain, the better. Huckabee, especially, could really thwart any momentum Bachmann might get out of Iowa, but all of these candidates would be splitting up the tea party base, which is really Bachmann’s only shot at the nomination. The good thing for her is, even if they run, she can probably outraise them.

Donald Trump: The best-case scenario and worst-case scenarios for Trump are the same, and they are this: if Donald Trump runs. He is completely unlike any other potential candidate, so it’s hard to say that anybody cuts into his base or vice-versa. On the plus side: he only gains more attention by actually throwing his hat in the ring. On the negative side: it’s not hard to see a Trump for President campaign completely blowing up in his face and becoming an embarrassment.

 
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