New thread on the 2012 Iowa caucuses

The last time I handicapped the Republican presidential field for 2012, the buzz was about Senator John Ensign's Iowa visit. A lot has changed since June. Let's take another look at likely GOP presidential candidates after the jump.

We can cross Ensign off the list of presidential contenders thanks to the growing scandal surrounding his extramarital affair and dealings with the family of his mistress. In fact, Ensign will probably have trouble being re-elected as Nevada senator in 2012.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, once considered a likely presidential candidate, is out of the running as well.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin still has a following among Republicans, but not with the general public. I can't imagine her winning the nomination, having failed to complete a single term as governor. My hunch is that she would struggle in the Iowa caucuses too.

From where I'm sitting, only three Republicans are strong presidential contenders now. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee reaches a large conservative audience weekly on his Fox Network show, and is favored by 29 percent of Republican voters, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. He has a strong base among evangelical Christians, who make up a large portion of Republican primary voters and caucus-goers in many states. Huckabee's main problem is that the business wing of the Republican Party loathes him for being insufficiently anti-tax and anti-union.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney finished second in the same Rasmussen poll with 24 percent. If the U.S. economy is still struggling in 2011 and 2012 (a strong possibility), Republicans may turn to a candidate who can speak credibly about economic issues. I still think Romney might have performed better against Barack Obama than John McCain did, because of his business background. Romney's main political obstacles in the Republican primaries are his religion (many evangelical Christians do not trust Mormons), and his prior pro-choice position. He can't do anything to change those before 2012. If he couldn't win the caucuses in 2008 despite being a prohibitive favorite the previous year, I doubt he's going to win in 2012.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty isn't nearly as well-known as the others, and got only 4 percent support in the latest Rasmussen poll of Republicans. But he has less baggage than the others and has time to improve his name recognition. Pawlenty's coming to Iowa next month to headline a major Republican Party fundraiser, and I'm sure Iowans will see more of him. I think he could do very well in the 2012 caucuses as a "moderate" (although he's not like the old Jim Leach/Joy Corning moderates).

People keep talking about Newt Gingrich as a potential presidential candidate in 2012, but I just don't see it happening in Iowa or elsewhere.

Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican blog speculated yesterday that Romney might be planning to skip the Iowa caucuses in 2012. Robinson noted that Romney's state PAC money is being used to pay staffer salaries rather than support Iowa GOP candidates and county operations. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic suggested that both Romney and Pawlenty should write off the Iowa caucuses, because social conservatives dominate the electorate.

Robinson complained today that many people misinterpret the Huckabee victory:

We all know that Mike Huckabee won the 2008 caucuses, but he didn't win it with 50 percent of the vote. He won with less than 35 percent. After reading stories like [Ambinder's], one would think that more establishment candidates like Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani have no base of support in Iowa. Yet, those four candidates combined made up 55 percent of the total vote in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. [...]

Before 2008, the only candidates who had won the caucuses were Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole (twice), and George W. Bush. The only time a Christian conservative candidate has won the caucuses was in 2008 when Mike Huckabee was the consensus candidate for values voters.

Mike Huckabee's victory in the caucuses was no doubt a surprise to many, but especially so for the traditional media. However, Huckabee's victory can be chalked-up to his outstanding communications skills, fantastic timing, and a lot of luck, not just the wide support of Christian conservatives.

Skipping Iowa makes sense for Romney, except that none of the other early voting states are particularly strong for him. I think it would be stupid for Pawlenty to bypass Iowa--I see no reason why he couldn't do well here.

What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers? Which Republicans have a strong chance of winning the Iowa caucuses or the presidential nomination? Is skipping Iowa a viable strategy for a Republican?

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