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Meet the new frontrunner

at 10:00 AM ET, 09/02/2011


FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2011, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks to supporters at Tommy's Ham House in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)
From the time we began ranking the 2012 Republican presidential candidates late last year, one man — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — has held down the top slot.

No longer.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry leapfrogs Romney in our latest presidential Line — boosted by a series of national polls showing him on top and a profile as a tough-talking conservative that seems to fit what the Republican primary electorate has been searching for.

The rapidity of Perry’s rise — a month ago he was in single digits in many of these same national polls — is remarkable and speaks to the desire within the party for options beyond the candidates that have been running for months.

But, Perry’s honeymoon period — and make no mistake he is the middle of it right now — will come to an end. And that’s likely to happen next Wednesday when the candidates gather for a debate in California.

Sponsored by NBC and Politico, it will be the first debate that Perry will participate in and, given his newfound frontrunner status, he’s likely to be on the receiving end of most of the verbal jabs from his opponents.

(A super PAC affiliated with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is previewing a potential line of attack against Perry with ads in South Carolina hitting him on his spending record.)

Adding to the challenge for Perry is that Wednesday’s debate — as well as the four other debates between now and mid-October — are somewhat foreign ground for him. He didn’t debate former Houston Mayor Bill White (D) a single time during their relatively competitive 2010 race; he hasn’t been in a debate setting of any kind in 19 months, according to a local Texas television station.

That dearth of debating experience coupled with the to-be-expected jitters of stepping on the presidential stage (literally) for the first time could make for a rocky night for Perry.

How Perry handles the moment will likely determine whether he can build on the momentum he has clearly gained since his entrance into the race less than three weeks ago.

Below is our look at the ten candidates most likely to win the Republican presidential nomination next year. The number one ranked candidate is the most likely to face off against President Obama in 2012.

Have kudos or a critique of our picks? The comments section awaits.

To the Line!

Dropping off the Line (and out of the race): Tim Pawlenty

Coming onto the Line: Gary Johnson

10. Gary Johnson: The former New Mexico governor isn’t going to be the Republican presidential nominee. But the simple fact is that once you get beyond the first five (or so) people on the Line, it’s very difficult to see a plausible path to victory for any of the candidates. For those of you who ask “why Gary Johnson?” we ask “why not?”. (Previous ranking N/A)

9. Newt Gingrich: The best way to describe the former House Speaker’s presidential campaign since the exodus of virtually his entire senior staff earlier this year is “Newt Unbound”. Gingrich goes where he wants — including Hawaii! — and says what he wants when he wants to say it. It makes for an interesting campaign. But it doesn’t add up to a viable candidacy for national office (Previous ranking: 10)

8. Herman Cain:Cain always appears to be right on the cusp of breaking out in the race but can never make the leap. The latest example? The Ames Straw Poll where he finished fifth, behind fellow social conservative Rick Santorum. Cain’s speech at that event was, without question, the best of any of the candidates and demonstrates that he could have an impact in the early, retail-heavy states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But, Cain just can’t seem to find his moment. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Rick Santorum: Santorum is like the tortoise of the 2012 contest. He seems to be making slow but steady progress — as evidenced by his fourth place showing at Ames. While Santorum was clearly a cut below the likes of Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Texas) at the event, his showing suggested that he will win some chunk of votes in the Iowa caucuses. (Previous ranking: 8)

6. Jon Huntsman: When a campaign keeps changing staff it’s rarely a good sign. And so, the former Utah governor’s decision to part ways with his New Hampshire campaign manager roughly a month after a shake-up in the national leadership of his organization has to be concerning. Huntsman pledged on Thursday that he would win the New Hampshire primary but, at the moment, it’s hard to see how. The one thing that keeps him from falling further down the Line is his personal wealth, which could keep his campaign going for as long as he chooses. (Previous ranking: 4)

5. Ron Paul: We’ve spent a lot of digital ink examining whether or not the Texas Republican Congressman is being ignored in the race despite (some) evidence that he should be considered a top-tier contender. Our conclusion? Paul will have a much larger impact on the 2012 race than he did on the 2008 contest but it’s still very difficult to see him broadening his coalition enough to make him a viable contender for the nomination. He is, and likely will remain, the “Friday Night Lights” of the race. (Previous ranking: 9)

4. Sarah Palin: Maybe by the end of this weekend we will (finally) know whether the former Alaska governor is going to run. But probably not. Handicapping where Palin would fit into the race if she did run is next-to-impossible. On one hand, she is, without question, the biggest celebrity in the Republican Party and would draw huge amounts of voter and media attention as a candidate. On the other, she’s shown zero inclination to do even the most basic blocking and tackling expected of a presidential candidate. It’s tough to see how Palin’s fly-by-the-seat-of-pants approach to her political career would pay dividends over the long haul of a presidential primary fight. And yet, it’s equally tough to totally dismiss someone with the pure drawing power that she possesses. (Previous ranking: 6)

3. Michele Bachmann: Bachmann didn’t get the bump from her victory at Ames that many people expected — thanks in large part to Perry’s smart decision to announce his candidacy on the same day. Bachmann continues to draw large and adoring crowds but, at the moment, feels like a secondary story to the soon-to-be-joined battle between Romney and Perry. Expect Bachmann — or the super PACs aligned with her — to begin a full-scale assault on Perry in South Carolina and Iowa in the not-too-distant future. She needs to get around him in order to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney. (Previous ranking: 2)

2. Mitt Romney: Romney has run the most disciplined campaign of any candidate in the field so far. Aside from the “corporations are people too, my friend” flub, he’s made next-to-no unforced errors even while weathering the intense scrutiny that comes with being the frontrunner. But, that same measuredness and caution may have cost him as he failed to fully seize the frontrunner mantle while the rest of the field languished over the summer. And now Romney is running from behind. (Previous ranking: 1)

1. Rick Perry: Even Perry’s most loyal allies have to be surprised by his rocket-like ascent to the top of the field. But, winning the month of August in an off year isn’t the same thing as winning the nomination. (Remember that Hillary Clinton was running away with the Democratic presidential race at this point in 2007.) While Perry is putting his job creation record as governor of Texas front and center in this race, the fact that he has a decade-long record is an opposition researcher’s dream. If Perry is at the top in a month’s time, then the talk of the Texas governor as the party’s nominee can begin in earnest. (Previous ranking: 3)

 
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