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Handicapping the GOP’s 2012 stable

After appearing on multiple shows, including ABC’s “The View” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is addressing the National Press Club on Thursday, beginning a tour ostensibly to push his new book, “Courage to Stand.”

He denies that politics are the motivation, despite scheduled stops in Iowa and New Hampshire. But it almost certainly represents his next step toward a 2012 presidential candidacy.

Pawlenty is not alone. Already this month, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana keynoted an invitation-only meeting of prominent conservatives in South Carolina, another crucial early primary state. Last week, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum made his eighth visit to New Hampshire.

In all, nearly 20 prominent Republicans are actively considering a candidacy or being mentioned as candidates. They represent the most uncertain nominating race in modern times for a party that almost always has a clear front-runner.

Three former governors – Alaska’s Sarah Palin, Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee and Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney – and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have the highest poll and recognition numbers. But all four have significant shortcomings.

Most hopefuls have delayed firm decisions, in part because the nominating schedule is set to begin a month later than the front-loaded 2008 calendar.

Here are some initial readings:

Palin: Probable front-runner if she runs, but doubts about her qualifications make her vulnerable. Debates would be a major test. Has strong base for Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary but might face trouble in more-populous, less-conservative states.

Romney: The leading establishment contender, but reversals on social issues stir suspicion with some conservatives. Faces opposition for Massachusetts’ health care plan like Obama’s; in 2008, he did worse the more voters saw him.

Huckabee: Is strong in Iowa, where social conservatives gave him a 2008 victory. Vulnerable from tax increases and what critics call a lax system for paroling criminals while governor.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels: A successful governor with Washington experience. Faces conservative wariness for opposing a no-tax pledge and playing down social issues. Perhaps Romney’s main establishment rival.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: One of the most popular GOP leaders as a successful governor and politician. Lobbyist background and seeming tin ear on South’s racist past a handicap.

Pawlenty: Probably must win Iowa, where many will vie for social conservatives’ support. Bland personality doesn’t help.

Pence: A favorite of social conservatives. Could be a player if Palin and/or Huckabee don’t run.

Santorum: Though out of the news since losing Senate seat in 2006, among the most energetic early Iowa and New Hampshire campaigners.

Gingrich: Always provocative with lots of ideas, he could be a major player in debates. Three handicaps: checkered personal life, lack of political base, and sense he’s yesterday’s conservative.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul: Called it “at least 50-50” he’ll run again; showed in 2008 he has a following and can raise money.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson: A libertarian who backed Paul in 2008. Reportedly told supporters he may run even if Ron Paul does.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani: Another 2008 also-ran weighing a race, though it’ll have been another four years since 9/11 made him nationally prominent.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry: A potentially major player – if Palin and Huckabee don’t run. Says he’s not running.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann: Keynoting an Iowa event this month, and a possible candidate if Palin doesn’t run. More likely raising profile for Senate race or future bid.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune: Like Pawlenty, needs Iowa win, but is even less known.

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton: A foreign policy expert when domestic issues dominate. Little known.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman: Intriguing prospect, but possibly too moderate for current GOP. Serving as Obama’s ambassador to China won’t help.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: Popular with conservatives, but says he won’t run. Florida vacation during recent blizzard no help.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: The dream candidate of many anti-Palin conservatives. Ruled out 2012, but not 2016. VP candidate?

Herman Cain: Herman who? African-American former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, talk-show host, Baptist minister, motivational speaker and favorite of tea party groups. After 2010, who’s to say he has no chance?

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is


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