At the Republican presidential debates in the coming months, there will be no shortage of candidates. But after a tumultuous Saturday which brought us a new and formidable contender in the person of Texas Governor Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann’s victory in the Ames straw poll, there are now only three persons who have a chance to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination: Mitt Romney, Perry and Bachmann.
Some potential candidates and their supporters may try to distract us from that fact. It is also true that Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, Herman Cain and others will take part in future debates and may receive some votes in the early caucuses and primaries. But it is now clear only one of that trio of Romney, Perry and Bachmann will be the person standing on the podium in Tampa next September accepting the GOP nomination.
The first person to acknowledge this is Tim Pawlenty, a man many of us believed had a reasonable chance to win it himself. But after his flameout at the Ames debate on Thursday and a distant third place finish in the straw poll, Pawlenty has recognized he is finished and pulled out.
The other second tier candidates will hang around for a while.
Rick Santorum was probably given a boost by a strong performance at the last debate and earned the dubious distinction of being the best of the worst with a fourth place finish in the poll. But he has little money and no chance to do better when the real votes are counted. The candidacies of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman are just as hopeless, but they will also probably not withdraw until after the first primaries if for no other reason than Gingrich has nothing better to do and Cain and Huntsman have enough money of their own to persist.
Representative Ron Paul almost won the straw poll, a result that would not have increased his nonexistent chances of being the nominee but would have done irreparable damage to the straw poll and the Iowa GOP. Paul’s extremist libertarian positions put him outside the Republican mainstream on virtually every issue, but he has devoted followers and plenty of cash. As in 2008, he will not drop out, but he will also not win any primaries.
As for the possibility someone else will jump into the race, the chances of that happening now are slim and getting slimmer with each passing day. Sarah Palin showed up in Iowa the day before the straw poll and told Fox News she was still considering running. But though crowds still follow her, such statements appear to be a fairly transparent attempt to steal a bit of the attention that is going to the real candidates. If Palin did run, it would sabotage Bachmann but it would do far more harm to the former Alaska governor. Palin’s defeat would be inevitable and crushing. It would finish her as a public figure. So I don’t believe for a minute she will risk such an outcome.
Nor is there much chance any of the other potential conservative saviors such as Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie will jump in at this late date even if their fans continue to implore them to do so.
So that leaves us with only three plausible GOP contenders for the nomination. As things stack up right now, each will enter the first three contested states favored in one of them: Bachmann in Iowa; Romney in New Hampshire and Perry in South Carolina. If each of them manages to hold on in those states, the chances of a quick decision, as is usually the case in Republican presidential contests, may be out the window. Which means 2012 may be the most interesting GOP race in decades.