The contenders and the pretenders of the Republican race

at 11:00 AM ET, 10/28/2011

And then there were eight.


(Only eight Republican candidates have any chance at being the GOP nominee (from left to right): Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman.)
As in eight candidates on this month’s Friday presidential Line — the first time this election cycle that we aren’t including ten Republicans in our rankings of who might wind up as the GOP nominee.

Why? Because with the no-go decisions by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin , there simply aren’t ten people left in the Republican field who can make even a semi-reasonable case that they could wind up as the party’s standard-bearer against President Obama next November.

(There’s an argument to be made that far fewer than these eight candidates actually have a realistic chance at the nomination. But we at the Fix are eternal optimists and like to give politicians the benefit of the doubt — particularly given the demonstrated volatility of the GOP electorate.)

The sorting of the Republican field into contenders and pretenders has begun in earnest and is likely to speed up in the coming month as the time for choosing moves closer. (There are only 67 days left before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses!)

At the moment, there are only two candidates — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — with the money and organization(s) to run serious campaigns in the four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida) that will vote between Jan. 3 and Jan. 31.

Businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) are the two buzziest candidates in the race but both face the same question: Can they turn impressive debate performances into actual votes in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman are both running one-state strategies, hoping a narrow focus on Iowa (Bachmann) or New Hampshire (Huntsman) can lift them into contention.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum each have very loyal followers — Paul many more than Santorum — but neither has shown a capacity to grow much beyond those bases.

Our rankings of the eight people most likely to win the Republican nomination — sorry Buddy Roemer! sorry Gary Johnson! — are below. As always, the number-one ranked candidate is considered the most likely to be the GOP nominee against President Obama next November.

Kudos? Critiques? The comment section is open for business.

To the Line!

8. Rick Santorum: Cain’s rise has basically cut the former Pennsylvania senator off at the knees as he attempts to emerge as the favorite son of social conservatives. He’s polling in the low single digits, even in Iowa. If Cain collapses and Perry never rebounds, Santorum might have a shot at a decent showing in the Iowa caucuses. But that’s a lot of “ifs”. (Previous ranking: 5)

7. Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota congresswoman has floundered in national polls, and she’s also lost her mojo in the one state that really matters for her: Iowa. A new CNN/Time Magazine poll shows Bachmann slipping to just 6 percent and in sixth place, despite her winning the Ames Straw Poll just two months ago. Combine that with her campaign’s heavy spending in the third quarter, and Bachmann’s shelf life is rapidly decreasing. But she did get a big name to manage her Iowa campaign in former Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee adviser Eric Woolson. (Previous ranking: 9)

6. Ron Paul: Paul’s agency-eating economic plan is another sign of why people love the Texas congressman — and more evidence for why the libertarian-leaning candidate won’t likely ever be president. He’s playing hard in Iowa and will certainly get some votes in early states, but his positions on issues foreign and domestic make it hard to see how he expands beyond his devoted but not-big-enough base. (Previous ranking: 7)

5. Jon Huntsman: OK, so the former Utah governor still has yet to get much traction in the Republican presidential race. So why is he ahead of three other candidates? Money and organization. Huntsman’s fundraising has been disappointing, but he has put a significant amount of his own cash into the race and is wealthy enough to keep that spigot flowing. And, in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he has more of a campaign operation than the other lower-tier candidates. Huntsman has shifted to an entirely New Hampshire-centric strategy, including moving his campaign there. That makes it do or die for him in the Granite State. (Previous ranking: 4)

4. Newt Gingrich: We’ve got to admit it; the former House speaker as the Republican presidential nominee doesn’t appear as far-fetched as it once did. Gingrich has turned in a series of strong debate performances, and every time Rick Perry and Herman Cain stumble, the mostly steady and professorial Gingrich looks more and more like the guy who could pick up some of their crumbs. The problem for Gingrich, though, is a big one: money. His campaign was still deep in debt at the end of September, and he seems to be surviving based on his debate performances alone. (Previous ranking: 10)

3. Herman Cain: The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has had a roller-coaster month, shooting to the top of the pack and then sinking back somewhat under intensified scrutiny.

His lack of campaign infrastructure and tendency to put his foot in his mouth (see: abortion) has done some damage. That’s probably why even his fans aren’t sure he’s presidential material. But Cain is still great in debates, and he’s managed to win over conservatives in a way more experienced campaigners have not. (Previous ranking: 6)

2. Rick Perry: Yes, Perry placed fifth in the most recent national poll testing the Republican primary field. And, yes, his idea of skipping future presidential debates is, well, not a good one. But, every time we debated moving Perry further down the Line, one thing kept us from doing it. That thing? The $15 million Perry had in the bank at the end of September.

That kind of cash — coupled with what is expected to be heavy spending by Perry-aligned super PACs — means that he will be the only candidate able to match Romney even close to dollar-for-dollar in the four states where the nomination is likely to be decided.

That said, all of the money in the world won’t make up for the lack of a coherent message. To date, Perry has struggled to hone in on exactly what he is selling the Republican electorate. Expect the new blood in Perry’s consulting team to sharpen that messaging over the next few weeks. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Mitt Romney: Romney is never going to run away with the nomination. There remains a not-insignificant trust issue between him and the most conservative elements of the Republican party, and in only one of the first four states to vote — New Hampshire — does he look like a prohibitive favorite. But, Romney retains the top spot in this month’s Line because of the old adage that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. And, at the moment, Romney is by far the best of a not-so-great bunch. Using the debates as a proving ground, Romney has established himself as the least risky candidate for Republicans desperate to beat President Obama in 2012. And, at the moment, that’s enough to keep him in the pole position. (Previous ranking: 1)

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