The 2012 GOP nomination field is already starting to come together in peoples' minds. Is it too early to start eyeballing the horses and making tentative predictions? I don't think it is.
The graphic to the right features eight faces that fit. No, they haven't declared, and some of them may not do so, but that doesn't mean they're not in contention. They've all got buzz to one degree or another as of right now; no one would be surprised to see any or all of them throw their hats in the ring.
I removed one face from the field before I even got the graphic together: Mississippi governor Haley Barbour's. He's apparently already on the stump, but IMO he's just got too much baggage to make it past the Iowa straw poll. I could be wrong. You may see him in future "field pics."
From the top:
Jeb Bush: He's the first Republican to ever manage election to a second term as governor of Florida. He's popular with conservatives. He's popular with Hispanic voters, and especially with the Cuban community. I don't think he'll run, though. Even four years of Obama is probably not going to be enough to give the Bush name a nice ring to the American ear again. It would be an uphill run, and the Bush boys seem to prefer that "sense of inevitability" in their campaigns.
Newt Gingrich: He futzed around with the idea of running in 2008 -- so much so that by Decision Time, everyone was tired of his futzing and the other candidates had left him behind. I think he's learned his lesson, I think he'll get in the 2012 race early and without reservations, and I think he'll do well. I don't think he'll win the nomination, but he's one of three candidates whom I believe might win it.
Mike Huckabee: This is the man to beat. You don't believe me, do you? Just you wait and see. He's got the executive experience (two terms as governor of Arkansas). He's got the populist chops. He gets "I told you so" credit for staying in longer and fighting John McCain harder than any other Republican in 2008. He's keeping his mug out front, but not so far out front as to get it slapped silly in the off-season. When he comes out ... well, like I said, just you wait and see.
Bobby Jindal: Maybe he'll run, maybe he won't. If he does, he'll be an early cull. Unfortunately, he probably won't have a shot at the VP slot, either, since the nominee will be a southern male and will be looking for a running mate from the north or west.
Sarah Palin: I won't be surprised if she runs. I will be surprised if she makes it past the first turn in the primaries as more than comic relief. Even if she manages to hold on to her weird "rock star" shininess for two more years (highly unlikely -- she passed out of "Las Vegas Comeback Special Elvis" territory some time ago and is headed for "Anyone Seen Big White Jumpsuit Elvis? I Think He's In The Bathroom ..." country at ludicrous speed), she'll be running against opponents who haven't resigned from public office twice without completing their terms, and who will be very keen to mention that at every opportunity. She's toast.
Tim Pawlenty: He's going to run. He's going to lose. But if he can avoid getting caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy or dropping the f-bomb in debate, he's got a good shot at the veep nomination. The top slot will go to a conservative southerner; a northern/midwest governor who tries to sell himself as "moderate" fills the bill out nicely.
Mitt Romney: Not a chance. I've already explained why.
Fred Thompson: My third "contender" pick -- but see "Gingrich, Newt" above and double the emphasis. If he wants in, he can't afford to dick around until late 2011 before saying so. He needs to announce early, and be out there throwing hands even earlier (like, say, yesterday). Otherwise, Huckabee and Gingrich will steal a march on him and his campaign will, once again, be over before it gets started.
Right now my money's on Huckabee ... but the campaigns won't be in full swing for two more years and a lot can change in two years. If "national security" issues move back to the forefront in a big way, Wonk Hawk from Hell Newt Gingrich or solid, comforting, "Reaganesque" Thompson may get an inside track.
Well, there you have it. That's the way I see it as of today. I'm sure that I'll see it differently as things progress, and that I'll say so ... but I don't memory hole my predictions when I get it wrong. If I've got it way wrong, well, this post will remain here for you to make fun of in perpetuity.
Jeb Bush -- Government of Florida, public domain
Newt Gingrich -- KyleCassidy, GNU Free Documentation License
Mike Huckabee -- David Ball, used with permission
Bobby Jindal -- Government, public domain
Sarah Palin -- J.delanoy, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0
Tim Pawlenty -- Office of Governor Tim Pawlenty, used with permission
Mitt Romney -- Mitt Romney Media, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
Fred Thompson -- US Senate, public domain