With no definitive favorite among their Work Horses, the GOP’s Dark Horses could shape the political dialogue. (More)

2012 GOP Stable, Part III – Dark Horses (Non-Cynical Saturday)

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

Michelle Bachmann

Born in Iowa, Rep. Bachmann (MN) has been a Tea Party lightning rod. She insisted on giving a “Tea Party rebuttal” to President Obama’s State of the Union address this week. Her run would guarantee the Tea Party a prominent role in the 2012 debate, but she is so prone to conspiracy theories and unhinged utterances that some Tea Party leaders don’t want Bachmann as the face of their movement. They may prefer….

Jim DeMint

A senator from South Carolina, DeMint championed several Tea Party candidates in 2010. But some of them lost – including losses that may have cost the GOP control of the Senate – and his not-entirely-private squabbles with GOP Senate leaders may limit his organizational backing. DeMint says he doesn’t plan to run, and the Tea Party may instead look to….

Rick Santorum

A former senator from Pennsylvania, Santorum has said he is the only candidate who can claim true Tea Party roots. He played the race card last week, comparing President Obama’s support of abortion rights to slavery. His support for teaching creationism in science classes may have cost Santorum his Senate seat in 2006. He’s been to Iowa five times already and will probably enter the race, but whether the Tea Party claim him as much as he claims them is an open question.

Ron Paul

The Texas congressman admits he doesn’t expect to win the GOP nomination, but has implied he may run anyway. His son Rand ran and won the Senate race in Kentucky as a Tea Party Republican last year, and Ron Paul built a substantial Libertarian following as a GOP Dark Horse in 2008. If the Tea Party don’t claim Santorum and want to avoid Bachmann, look for Paul to be their chief spokesperson in 2012.

Tom Miller

The only already-declared GOP candidate, Miller is a career flight attendant who likens climate change to pet rocks and thinks academic research (rather than “common sense”) is socialism. Miller wants to lower CAFE standards to 20mpg and expand oil drilling, abolish Social Security, repeal health care, end the minimum wage, mandate drug and alcohol testing before congressional votes, and declare the U.S. a Judeo-Christian nation. Surprisingly, he’s not a Tea Party candidate.

John Bolton

Appointed by President George Bush as Ambassador to the United Nations – despite having said the organization should be destroyed – Bolton believes the U.S. or Israel or both must attack Iran. His candidacy would bring neoconservatism back into the GOP debate. But Bolton has never run for elected office, has no organization, and may be shunned as championing a cause that Republicans would rather be forgotten.

George Pataki

The former New York governor says he’s considering a run. Although his PAC is called RevereAmerica, Pataki told ABC’s Top Line the GOP must avoid “extreme candidates” backed by the Tea Party. His PAC is focused on repealing health care, and while Pataki has a donor base in New York, his positions on abortion, LGBT rights, and gun control will limit his national appeal in the GOP.

Jon Huntsman

Former governor of Utah, now President Obama’s Ambassador to China, Huntsman made minor waves last month when he declined to comment on whether he would run in 2012. Huntsman’s pro-business policies are squarely Republican, but he says the GOP must change on immigration, LGBT rights, and the environment to attract young and non-white voters and remain politically viable.

Their likely impact….

I don’t see any of these candidates as likely contenders for the GOP nomination, but their presence in the field will shape the debate. The Tea Party will get attention in 2012 regardless, but which candidate emerges as the face of that movement will determine whether they become an independent power base in the GOP. While many Tea Party activists are also active in the religious right, the groups have different leaders and Tea Party leaders want the same kind of candidate-choosing clout James Dobson and other evangelical leaders have had. The Tea Party had that in 2010, but some of their highest profile candidates lost badly. To keep their activists energized, the Tea Party must show enough primary successes in 2012 to have an explicit presence in the platform committee and input on the nominee’s running mate.

Rick Santorum would bring the religious right back into the GOP spotlight, but the Tea Party emerged in part to limit the damage that some Republican insiders saw as caused by their image as the ‘Party of God.’ If the Tea Party don’t embrace Santorum – and they may not, despite his claiming them – GOP insiders may nudge him aside rather than risk reviving that ‘Party of God’ image. Those same insiders may keep John Bolton out of the mix, to avoid stirring up memories of President Bush’s foreign policy disasters.

And all of that may change if some Big Political Event happens in the next 18 months. Candidates and parties can try to set the political narrative, but Realworldia has a way of demanding attention. Just ask the many Republicans whose dreams of permanent one-party rule were flooded by Hurricane Katrina. Or John McCain, whose slim hopes evaporated in the economic meltdown in September 2008.

As physicist Niels Bohr famously said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

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Happy Saturday!