Four present or former governors are the most likely contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. All served full terms. (More)

2012 GOP Stable, Part II – Work Horses

This week Morning Feature considers the Republican presidential candidates for 2012. Yesterday we considered Show Horses whose media splash will likely exceed their primary support. Today we look at Work Horses whose organizations and establishment backing make them solid contenders. Tomorrow 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 Work Horses of 2012? Here are my picks….

Mitt Romney

Former Governor of Massachusetts and the 2008 GOP runner-up, Romney said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will run in 2012. He has name recognition, can raise funds, and connections with the Republican establishment. His lone organizational weakness in 2008 was merely adequate grassroots support. As the GOP typically advance their runner-up in the next cycle – as they did with Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and John McCain in 2008 – Romney should have the edge for 2012.

But not necessarily. Romney is Mormon, and that’s a problem for some in the GOP base. He also signed the Massachusetts health care law, a plan with many of the same features as the 2010 health care act signed by President Obama. The same plan House Republicans voted to repeal. And while Romney looks and talks like Mr. President From Central Casting, in 2008 many Republican voters thought he was too polished to be likable. Romney certainly doesn’t ooze Ordinary Guy Charm, like….

Mike Huckabee

Former Governor of Arkansas and the third major contender in 2008, Huckabee is the Not-Romney. An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee would have a stronger grassroots organization through the GOP’s evangelical Christian base. Well-known in 2008, Huckabee’s role as a Fox News host has boosted his public profile even higher. And unlike too many conservatives, Huckabee bursts with charm and self-deprecating humor. It’s hard to dislike someone who is so willing to make fun of himself.

That’s the flip-side of Huckabee’s Not-Romney-ness. Do Republicans want a president who makes fun of himself? Huckabee doesn’t fit their traditional Strong Leader profile. He’s also not entirely Not-Romney; like Romney’s in Massachusetts, Huckabee’s record in Arkansas doesn’t match up with the GOP’s minimalist view of government. Whether he can mobilize the evangelical Christian base will depend on who else is in the race; a fundamentalist Show Horse or Dark Horse could split off potential supporters and leave Huckabee with too few other cards to play.

Tim Pawlenty

The former Governor of Minnesota all but announced his candidacy this week with an action-hero ad. While most pundits criticized it as over the top, some viewers said it might accomplish what Pawlenty hopes: to remake his “Minnesota Nice” persona into something more Republican Presidential. But that may diminish Pawlenty’s strong suit: he does seem Nice. Right now he seems to be the one GOP candidate who could excite Tea Party activists – based on his record of fiscal conservatism in Minnesota – without  alienating moderate Republican voters. That alone makes him a serious contender, and proximity may give him a boost in the Iowa caucuses.

But Pawlenty is unproven on the national stage. State laws prevented him from raising money while Governor of Minnesota, and no one knows whether he can sway enough big money donors to compete with higher profile candidates. If he can raise money and successfully walk the tightrope of Tea Party But Nicer, and if Huckabee and others split the evangelical vote, Pawlenty could burst out of the pack.

Haley Barbour

As Governor of Mississippi with a record of success in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, proven fund-raising ability, extensive establishment connections, and a reputation as a conservative messaging guru, Barbour might have been a favorite going for 2012.

Then Barbour praised Jim Crow-era White Citizens Councils in a December interview with the Weekly Standard. He backtracked within hours, and maybe the issue won’t matter to Republican primary voters. But it’s the kind of mistake primary opponents will pounce on, and Barbour’s record of supporting long-overdue prosecutions for the murders of three civil rights workers in 1963 might not matter. Republicans know they will have a tough time reaching non-whites in 2012. They may not want a nominee who will make it worse.

I think Mitt Romney is still the favorite, and Tim Pawlenty is my One To Look Out For. Tomorrow we’ll look at the Dark Horses who have little chance of winning, but who may still shape the debate.

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Happy Friday!