The Would-Be GOP Kings

Who among us can contain their excitement? The GOP presidential primary season has begun!

By my count, there are 24 people who are beneficiaries of nontrivial presidential buzz: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, David Petraeus, Ron Paul, Jeb Bush, John Bolton, Bob McDonnell, Jim DeMint, Chris Christie, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Judd Gregg, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry.

And, with a heavy heart, I take it upon myself to winnow the field down for you.

Half of these people are almost surely not running.

Five of this group are unlikely to last long as serious contenders, not least because talk show and grass-roots popularity doesn't necessarily win in the "money primary."

Earlier this year, there was a lot of talk about Petraeus running. But then the Army general gave a lot of dull, substantive speeches in which he didn't say anything about ethanol or the Hawkeye State's divine right to hold the first-in-the-nation contest. Seems like he prefers Kandahar to Ames.

Rubio, Ryan and Jindal, respectively the incoming junior senator from Florida, the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee and the governor of Louisiana, are all wisely sitting the presidential contest out to concentrate on their to-do lists, though the three golden boys of the GOP are ripe vice presidential picks.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the current governors of New Jersey, Virginia and Texas — Christie, McDonnell and Perry — probably aren't running, though they all enjoy deep reservoirs of admiration on the right, particularly Christie, whose YouTube videos are passed around like samizdat. Also, there's growing buzz that Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a fierce defender of his top-tier contender status, may not run at all because he's got a big new contract with Fox News in the works.

DeMint, the South Carolina senator and the " tea party's" man on the inside, has said he's not running but acts like he might be. Meanwhile, Gregg, New Hampshire's retiring senator, acts likes he's not running but hasn't ruled it out (If he did run as a New Hampshire favorite son, it would complicate things for Romney). Pence, the Indiana representative, definitely wants to run but now may switch to the Indiana governorship instead.

Barbour, perhaps the sharpest political operator, remains a question mark — ironic given the depth of the GOP's southern base.

That leaves 11 who are probably, but not definitely, running: Romney, Gingrich, Palin, Pawlenty, Santorum, Bolton, Daniels, Cain, Johnson, Paul and Thune.

Five of this group are unlikely to last long as serious contenders, not least because talk show and grass-roots popularity doesn't necessarily win in the "money primary."

Paul's issues — gutting the Federal Reserve, shrinking government, foreign policy noninterventionism, drug legalization — are the ripest they've ever been in the GOP. But, at 75, that's just about the only way "ripe" and Paul can be used together in a sentence.

Thune will probably discover early that his Senate colleagues telling him to run isn't necessarily a compliment. In many respects, Thune is the GOP version of John Kerry, a candidate with very presidential hair who seems "electable" despite not having done much of anything.

Bolton, the famously mustachioed former U.N. ambassador (like Gingrich, a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, where I'm a visiting fellow), is a tireless and brilliant guy, but he's never run for federal office. Presumably he wants to highlight national security issues and, I hope, duke it out with Ron Paul.

Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, is a charismatic superstar on the tea party circuit and in many rank-and-file conservative circles. An African American who likes to joke about his "dark-horse candidacy," he's a lot more than merely a sane Alan Keyes. But it's hard to imagine him amounting to more than an exciting also-ran.

Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and a keynoter at last weekend's KushCon II, will focus attention on pot legalization. Meanwhile, Santorum, a former senator, will focus attention on Rick Santorum.

So that leaves us with a top tier of five front-runners: Romney, Palin, Gingrich, Pawlenty and Daniels. Romney is the organizational front-runner; Daniels is the first pick of wonks and D.C. eggheads; Palin probably has the most devoted following among actual voters. Gingrich will dominate the debates, and Pawlenty (vying with Daniels) is the least disliked.

And, of course, all of this is subject to change.

(Full disclosure: Jessica Gavora, an author and speechwriter, not to mention my wife, has worked with Gingrich and, more recently, Palin. My views here are my own.)

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Mark Evans

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