Money, momentum and the race for the 2012 Republican nomination

The race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination begins today.

”Friday

Why? Because today marks the first day of the second fundraising quarter of the year. And anyone who is serious about running for president needs to prove between now and June 30 — the quarter’s end — that Republican donors are investing in them.

While money has mattered since political time immemoriam, it may matter more than usual in this GOP presidential fight for two reasons.

First, President Obama is setting himself up to be the greatest fundraising force in American politics. After collecting $750 million in the 2008 campaign, Obama re-election campaign manager Jim Messina has created a program for 400 majors donors to each collect $350,000 by the end of 2011.

The Fix is no math major, but that adds up to $140 million in 2011 alone (thanks, caluclator!) if each of the donors can make their number. If 300 make the target — a more likely possibility — that’s still $105 million raised for the Obama re-election effort before a single vote has been cast on the Republican side.

While no Republican — not even former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — will likely equal Obama in fundraising, any GOP candidate must prove an ability to collect some threshold amount of money over the next three months to prove that he (or she) would be financially viable against Obama next November.

(Left unsaid in this conversation is the generally accepted idea that neither Obama nor the Republican nominee will accept federal matching funds — the first time since new campaign finance laws were put in place in the early 1970s that both candidate would opt out of the system.)

Second, the Republican field is as undefined and, therefore, unpredictable as any in modern memory. While Romney is the nominal frontrunner, he has the narrowest of edges against a crowded pack.

That lack of a clear frontrunner means that the 2012 GOP race is likely to be a momentum-driven contest along the lines of the 2004 Democratic presidential primary fight.

In that race, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry emerged at the last minute from a crowded but largely unknown field to score a come-from-behind victory in Iowa’s caucuses. Riding that momentum wave, Kerry secured a win in New Hampshire, and the race was effectively over.

The first indicator of momentum in any race, but especially a presidential contest, is money. Donors are, after all, investors and convincing them to buy in at the ground level is an early sign of momentum building. (Remember that Howard Dean’s out-of-nowhere candidacy first jumped onto the national radar screen when he raised $7.6 million in the second quarter of 2003.)

And, money follows money. Human nature tends to make us all want to be with the winner — cough, Yankee fans, cough — and the more a candidate raises early on, the more of a winner they look like.

It’s hard then to overstate the importance of the next 90 days then — especially for everyone not named Romney, Palin, Gingrich and Huckabee. Those four have enough name identification to start their bids later in the year, although each does have to worry about a candidate outside of their quartet using the second quarter as to springboard past them.

Below are the Fix’s latest rankings of the 10 men and women most likely to wind up as the Republican nominee next year.

Who’s ranked too high? Too low? The comments section awaits.

To the Line!

10. Rick Santorum: So far, the presidential race has focused primarily on social conservative forums in Iowa, the kind of arena where Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, shines. His willingness to push the envelope with anti-abortion rhetoric has gotten him press attention and activist support. The question for Santorum is how he will fare in a race that is likely to feature at least one — and potentially several — major stars in social coservative circles. Santorum was that star 10 years ago but today he lacks some of the buzz that surrounds people like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, for example. (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Jon Huntsman: Huntsman’s supporters are not so quietly putting together the infrastructure he would need to run for president, even as he enters his final month as ambassador to China. There are some indications that Huntsman may wait until a future presidential election, but the effort going on behind the scenes belies a more immediate campaign. The key for Huntsman will be explaining why he decided to leave his job as Utah’s governor to become an appointee in the Obama Administration. He’s got plenty of liabilities with the base, though most agree he would be a very strong general election candidate. (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Mitch Daniels: The longer Daniels waits, the less likely it seems that he will run for president. Term limited out office in 2012 and one of the leaders in a battle over pension reform being fought across the Midwest , Daniels would seemingly be perfectly positioned to run. But Daniels’ wife is openly ambivalent about the idea, a major factor arguing against a bid. Daniels himself said he would decide after the April 29 end of the legislative session, so we won’t know for sure until then. (Previous ranking: 6)

7. Michele Bachmann: Bachmann recently announced she will launch an exploratory committee and is basically in it to win it. It’s easy to discount a member of the House running for president, but she brings something to the GOP primary that could give her a very strong niche. In a field that has been criticized for its lack of conservative bona fides and pizzazz, Bachmann has both of those. In fact, it will be almost impossible to get to her right. She’s also a good fundraiser (raising $13 million for her house reelection campaign) and – if you discount her historical gaffes and trouble with TV cameras – a good speaker. If you’re looking for a wildcard, she’s it. At the same time, she’s had trouble holding staff, and hiring a quality team could prove difficult. (Previous ranking: 9)

6.Sarah Palin: Palin’s numbers among Republicans are on the decline (although they are still quite high). The former Alaska goveror continues to do little to suggest she is preparing for a presidential run — neither buidling an organization nor visiting early states. She seems generally pre-occupied with her long running feud with the media, which may win her plaudits among GOP primary votes but isn’t ultimately a path to the Republican presidential nomination. (Previous ranking: 3)

5. Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker, who became the first major candidate to take a formal step towards running by entering the “testing the waters” phase last month, hasn’t had a great go of things thus far. Gingrich’s, ahem, evolving position on the conflict in Libya has made him the butt of jokes – both from late-night comedians and even his fellow Republicans at the Congressional Correspondents Dinner on Wednesday night. Observers see the former House speaker’s biggest potential liability – his mouth – starting to hurt him. And that’s not a good sign. (Previous ranking: 4)

4. Haley Barbour: Barbour has begun to build momentum for his now near-certain candicacy thanks to a series of major staff hires — both at the national level and in early states. If former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee decides to stay out of the race, Barbour will be the best on-the-stump candidate in the top tier. Add to that his fundraising ability — second only to Romney — and Barbour has the look of a contender. Of course, he has struggled mightily to deal with the issue of race in the campaign to date and will need to find a way (or ways) to address it effectively as things ramp up in the next few months. (Previous ranking: 6)

3. Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor is in­cred­ibly well known and well regarded by Republican primary voters. He’s also the most naturally gifted candidate in this field and his charisma would shine through in 2012, as it did in 2008. The question for Huckabee is how badly he wants to run. While he occasionally gives a quote insisting he is still interested, the main thrust of his public remarks on the race seem to indicate he is less than keen about making a return run. Huckabee, due to his name identification nationally and residual strength in Iowa, can wait longer than most to make up his mind. But, his continued lack of any real organization-building will come back to bite him if he make the race. (Previous ranking: 5)

2. Tim Pawlenty: The former Minnesota governor made it (sort of) official earlier this month when he announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. Pawlenty has had a very solid 2011, touring early states and starting to put the staff pieces in place to run real campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire. The biggest challenge for Pawlenty will be to raise the requisite money to keep up with the Romneys of the world; he announced a 16-person finance team last week, suggesting he is aware of the challenge before him. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Mitt Romney: There have been several recent reminders that Romney is still the frontrunner in this race, no matter how many Republicans attack his health-care bill. First there was a Pew poll showing that even among tea party supporters, the former Massachusetts governor comes out on top. A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed conservative voters like him too. And in the first quarter of the year, he raised $1.9 million through his federal and state political action committees, a reminder of his fundraising prowess. None of his problems have gone away, but Romney is stronger than his critics make him out to be. (Previous ranking: 1)

Aaron Blake and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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