It’s January 2011, meaning the 2012 presidential election season has begun. Who will run? Who will the GOP nominate? (More)

This week Morning Feature considers the Republican presidential candidates for 2012. Today we’ll consider Show Horses whose media splash will likely exceed their primary support. Tomorrow we’ll look at Work Horses whose organizations and establishment backing make them solid contenders. Saturday we’ll conclude with Dark Horses with little chance to win the nomination but who may still affect the debate.

Disclaimer: Lest any humans or equines be offended, I don’t use this metaphor to imply that Republicans are animals in general or horses in particular. But it’s a useful way to categorize the likely candidates. For example, in 2008 Rudy Guiliani and Fred Thompson were Show Horses whose media attention far exceeded their primary support. John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee were Work Horses and quickly emerged as the principal contenders. Ron Paul was a Dark Horse who had almost no chance to win but still shaped the GOP debate.

Who will be the GOP Show Horses of 2012? Here are my picks….

Newt Gingrich

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich was the principal spokesman for the Contract With America, introduced before the 1994 midterm elections. At the time, Gingrich was the Republican Minority Whip and a major player in the party. Although the Contract was largely written by the Heritage Foundation, Gingrich became its most identifiable face, especially after the GOP won the House in 1994 and he became Speaker. Gingrich was also a key player in the impeachment of President Clinton.

He resigned the Speaker post and his congressional seat in 1998, but has never been far from the political stage. A media darling, in 2009 Gingrich appeared more often than any other guest on NBC’s Meet the Press and is a political contributor on Fox News. He also founded the 527 political action group American Solutions for Winning the Future which advocates repealing health care reform, reducing or eliminating taxes for the wealthy and corporations (which they say will create jobs), and more oil drilling.

But while some pundits see Gingrich as a front-runner, I think his record of marital infidelity, ethics violations, and resigning his Speakership and House seat make him more Show Horse than Work Horse. Like Rudy Guiliani in 2008, the beltway media may love Gingrich but I doubt GOP voters will.

Jeb Bush

Although the former Florida governor has waffled on whether he’ll run, his name alone would guarantee major media coverage. He is, after all, the son and brother of former presidents. Like President George W. Bush, Jeb was a member of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century. A devout Catholic and free-enterprise advocate, he favors charter schools and vouchers for private schools, cut funding to Florida’s public libraries, and in 2004 orchestrated a repeal referendum on high-speed rail.

But he’s not a carbon copy of W. Jeb signed legislation to protect the Everglades, opposed oil drilling within 125 miles of Florida’s coast, and criticized his party for alienating Hispanic voters. He met his wife Columba while studying in Mexico as an exchange student, and earned excellent grades and Phi Beta Kappa membership at the University of Texas, completing his degree in only two-and-a-half years. Jeb is “the smart one,” as many pundits noted, and he remained popular with Floridians despite his brother’s dismal presidency.

Still, I think the aftertaste of his brother’s failures is too recent for Jeb Bush to be more than a Show Horse in 2012. He’s smart enough to realize that, and I doubt he’ll run.

Sarah Palin

Like Newt Gingrich, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is widely regarded as a front-runner for 2012. And like Gingrich, she’s a media darling. She is a regular contributor on Fox News; they even built a TV studio in her home. She had a short-lived reality show on the Discovery Channel and wrote – or was ghostwritten for – two bestselling books. As noted last week, she has many devoted fans who follow her on Twitter and anywhere else she can find a camera, a microphone, and a spotlight.

Forget her media gaffes. Forget her clueless answers to policy questions. For her supporters, those merely prove the media are persecuting her. Those facts, however important they may be for progressives, will not undermine Palin’s candidacy. But quitting halfway through her first term as Governor of Alaska will. Her supporters may rationalize that away, but I doubt other Republican voters will.

What’s more, Palin alienated many GOP insiders in Going Rogue and in other public statements since the McCain defeat in 2008. She’ll get plenty of media attention, but not all of it will be fawning praise and it won’t be enough to offset her negatives. She will be her party’s premier Show Horse … but prancing is different from running.

Tomorrow we’ll consider the Republicans’ Work Horses, candidates whose organization and establishment backing make them the principal contenders for 2012.

+++++

Happy Thursday!