1) Mitt Romney
Romney is definitely the odds on favorite right out of the starting gate for the 2012 nomination. He has been carefully laying the ground work for this bid since the day he lost in 2008. He brings to the race a high name recognition, a top-notch fundraising operation, as well as a dedicated and loyal campaign team. He tries to play the non-offensive conservative, although questions may still linger about some notable flip-flops in the 2008 election. Most importantly, his passage of a healthcare plan in Massachusetts tha was eerily similar to the one passed by Obama, will invariably raise questions among more conservative Tea Party primary voters.
2) Mike Huckabee
Huckabee may be playing coy about his true intentions for 2012, but there is no doubt that he would be a serious contender should he choose to enter the race. In 2008 Huckabee emerged as the Southern candidate, winning many of the deep south states in the GOP primary. The former Governor of Arkansas combines a populist folksy appeal with rock solid evangelical credentials. He is particularly appealing to blue-collar conservatives and key religious right activists. Already polling among the top three nationally, Mike Huckabee would be a prominent candidate to beat in the 2012 GOP primary.
3) Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich is certainly a blast from the past for many Americans, but he sports sky-high name recognition, for better or for worse. For the last decade, Gingrich has served as the intellectual ideas man working outside of the party infrastructure to gather an impressive list of conservative activists. His PAC American Solutions in many ways represents a campaign infrastructure in waiting. Transitioning to a presidential campaign may not be much of a challenge for the former Speaker of the House in this respect, but he will now be forced to publicly deal with the issue of his three marriages and political shortcomings of the 1990s. He currently is polling in the top-tier of candidates. His sharp wit and top-notch debating skills will certainly set him apart from the other presidential candidates.
4) Sarah Palin
Discussing the 2012 field inevitably brings up the specter of Sarah Palin. The 2008 vice presidential nominee has rocketed from obscurity to becoming a household name. Indeed, here status borders on that of a celebrity. An obvious advantage is here high name recognition, but for Palin this is a double-edged sword. Most Americans hold a negative view of her and even many Republicans are hesitant to support her. After quitting her post as Governor, there is not much to suggest that Palin is any more qualified than she was in 2008. In fact, her celebrity status and lack of political office makes her even less appealing on paper. That said, Palin does have the attention of a significant part of Republican voters. If she were to run she would certainly have a core of loyal activists.
5) Tim Pawlenty
Tim Pawlenty represents an interesting dark horse type candidate. The former Governor of Minnesota (a swing state that leans blue) has a record of conservative common sense competency. There is nothing that stands out about Pawlenty, but similarly no "baggage" that so many of the other candidates carry. Pawlenty also successfully bridges the gap between fiscal conservatives and evangelical conservatives, having a strong record on both fronts. The fact that he is a self-described evangelical will certainly help him garner support in this department. The challenge for Tim Pawlenty will be to stand out in a field with many other candidates with gubernatorial experience.
6) Jon Huntsman
Up until recently Jon Huntsman seemed to have been successfully marginalized as a 2012 contender by the Obama Administration. Having served for the past two years as Ambassador to China for President Obama, Huntsman recently resigned his post and has been making every indication that he will be seeking the top office in the coming months. The former Governor of Utah and heir to one of the largest Mormon fortunes in the United States, has a record of fiscal conservatism but not necessarily lock step party line conservatism. He has parted ways with the party line on issues such as immigration and gay marriage. A Huntsman candidacy will significantly shake up the 2012 race and the Mandarin Chinese speaking former Ambassador may well prove to be a strong dark horse candidate.
7) Michelle Bachmann
Although she has been called a "Palin-lite" candidate, Bachmann brings a record of outspoken conservatism to the 2012 conversation. A darling of the Tea Party movement, Bachmann is prepared to seak that mantle in the GOP primary. With a conservative fiscal and social record, Rep. Bachmann will certainly excite the base. She does hold some intriguing non-interventionist positions, however, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out in debates on foreign policy.
8) Donald Trump
"The Donald", as he is known in popular culture, appears to be nothing more than a distraction in the 2012 GOP race. Mr. Trump however holds an extremely high name identification among voters despite his lack of political experience. In fact, precisely because he lacks significant political experience Donald Trump may capture the imagination of an angry conservative electorate fed up with the same old candidates. Trump also brings an array of connections to the business world of the rich and famous which could help finance his candidacy. Time will tell whether Trump is a mere a celebrity or a serious candidate.
9) Rick Santorum
The former Senator from Pennsylvania was one of the first candidates to start actively campaigning for the GOP nomination. A veteran of the culture wars of the 1990s and Bush-era, Sen. Santorum is in many ways an anachronism. He has tried to re-create his image and tap into the Tea Party discontent, but for many conservatives he still is merely a darling of social and evangelical conservatives. In a fluid presidential race anything can happen, so Santorum may well be able to sneak his way into contention given his early head start in the race.
10) Mitch Daniels
Mitch Daniels still has not decided whether or not he will seek the nomination, but Governor Daniels brings an unparalleled record of competency in his capacity as the chief executive of Indiana. He took a state in fiscal disarray and balanced the budgets, reformed entitlements, and did so without seeking gratuitous praise or media accolades. Daniels is not known for his public speaking acumen, but he makes up for that with his political record. While still suffering low name recognition nationally, Governor Daniels would certainly shake up the race upon entry.
Other Honorable Mentions: Texas Congressman Ron Paul has a devoted following among the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, but if he decides to run his vote totals will be invariably cannibalized by fellow libertarian-conservative former Governor Gary Johnson (R-NM), who comes from the exact same wing of the party. If one of them backs out in favor of the other, than whomever is left deserves to be on the top ten list. Another unlikely candidate is former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer who has promised to accept no big dollar campaign contributions and is running on a reform platform. If the mood is right nationally, he could rocket into contention among the top ten candidates.