With the GOP field all but settled a quick handicap of the race is in order.  It has been an interesting last week with the GOP debate in Ames and the results of the Straw Poll that saw Michelle Bachmann edge out Ron Paul.  Both Bachmann and Paul believe that Ames has given them momentum to push forward with their campaigns while those that finished in disappointing finishes quit the race (Tim Pawlenty).  After three debates the GOP field is without a clear frontrunner.  Mitt Romney has led the pack consistently in the polls but his leads have been shallow.  Bachmann has surged in the polls as of late.  And Rick Perry who just announced has access to a sizeable donor base and can tout robust job growth in Texas.  These candidates are Tier 1 candidates.  Businessman Herman Cain, Congressman Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are Tier 2 candidates.  The remaining candidates, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, businessman Fred Karger, former Louisiana Governor Charles Roemer, Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and Congressman Thaddeus McCotter are Tier 3 candidates. 

Tier 1 Candidates

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann: Fresh off her narrow win in the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa Michelle Bachmann looks poised to win the first caucus state.  But there are major caveats with that victory.  Neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Perry contested the Poll.  And Bachmann only got 28% and narrowly beat the fervent following of Congressman Ron Paul.  No House member has ever successfully won the presidency in the 20th or 21st century and she faces further headwinds.  Bachmann is already being announced to the public by a news media that has destroyed conservative women like Sarah Palin.  Bachmann also has a limited record of accomplishments to stand on.  It is interesting to note that all Bachmann can trumpet between 2006 and 2010 is that she voted “No” on many liberal bills.  Yet none of those bills failed because of her vote or efforts.  Bachmann’s last two weakness are fundraising and appeal to independents.  Bachmann is able to raise money through grassroots efforts and the aid of the RNC’s network of donors but she has yet to prove she can bring in the big bucks.  Lastly, Bachmann has sat in a safe suburban Republican district.  That has allowed her to sharpen a very conservative message.  But with little to tout for accomplishments, her strong social and fiscal conservative credentials and limited national ties her appeal has yet to be tested outside of Iowa.

Former MA Governor Mitt Romney: The former Governor of Massachusetts and 2008 Republican primary candidate Mitt Romney has to be considered the front-runner.  But by how much?  Pawlenty’s exit out of the race should have helped Romney but instead with the entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry, Romney’s front-runner status is even more in question.  With Romney not even seriously contesting Iowa he is falling back on the fiscal conservative/social moderate wing of the party based in New Hampshire.  But with Perry in the race, boasting more credentials than Romney for job creation is NH even safe for the front-runner?  Romney has appeal in moderate, open primary states like New Hampshire.  But his appeal to conservatives in caucuses and primaries in the South and Midwest to conservatives is a serious question.  In Iowa, Bachmann now leads in the polls.  His lead in New Hampshire polls, while sizeable, is shallow once the cross-tabs are checked.  His leads in national polls are narrow and usually based on the fact he wins moderates and the conservative vote is split several ways.  For Romney to win the nomination he needs to carry big states by sizeable margins to rack up the delegate count.  Romney is not going to win the nomination without a fight, and he would be the first GOP front-runner to have to win the nomination this way in decades.

Texas Governor Rick Perry: Perry’s entrance to the race if nothing else has shaken up the field.  Perry was already polling in 2nd or 3rd place in national polls before he even announced and he has made clear he is going to challenge Bachmann in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire and staked a claim to South Carolina.  Perry has access to a deep donor base in Texas if he can tap it and has what Michelle Bachmann lacks, a solid, consistent record of accomplishments as Governor.  Jobs, lowering taxes, eliminating regulation are just a few.  Perry also has an appeal to Romney’s fiscal conservative base by his record.  Social conservatives also have a record in Perry they could go for once they learn more about the candidate.  The big question mark is Perry’s debut on the national stage.  If he can handle the limelight outside of Texas and do well in his first debate, as well as woo voters with his retail politicking skill then Perry could vault over Romney to be the front-runner.

Tier II Candidates:

Businessman Herman Cain:  Among conservatives that want a businessman that has never been a politician to be their nominee than Cain is the man.  Being an African-American also does not hurt the candidate’s chance.  But Cain’s performances in the first three debates so far (SC, NH and Iowa) have been lackluster.  He sounds more like a cabinet secretary then a nominee for president.  Cain also suffers from having few political connections.  His donor base is limited, he is only polling in the low to high single digits and has yet to be able to claim a single constituency as his.  Instead it seems to be a hodge-podge of social and fiscal conservatives as well as members of the Tea Party.  Cain needs to break out of the pack soon and become a force if he wants to survive Iowa.

Congressman Ron Paul: Congressman Ron Paul has run for president three times.  In 1988 he ran as the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president, then ran for the GOP nomination in 2008.  Now he is trying his luck one more time.  The fervent following Paul picked up among libertarians and conservatives in the GOP fold from 2008 has not dissipated.  Instead, it landed Paul a solid second-place showing at Ames.  But Paul’s appeal is limited.  While he has helped push the GOP rightward with calls to audit the Fed and getting most candidates to oppose Afghanistan he has yet to be able to win mainstream conservative votes.  Instead, he seems more a curiosity then a serious candidate.  Regardless, Paul has a well-tapped grassroots base of donations but it is not enough to seriously challenge the fundraisers of Bachmann, Perry or Romney.  For Paul to win, well the GOP electorate would have to become a lot more libertarian on social, fiscal and defense policy then they are currently.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich:  The architect of the 1994 Republican Revolution and co-architect of welfare reform and a balanced budget (Clinton the other) Newt Gingrich looked well positioned to stake a strong claim to the GOP nod.  But a Sunday interview later and the words “Right-wing social engineering” and Gingrich was on the down-hill.  Then things got worse.  His entire staff quit to run to Rick Perry.  His campaign was revealed to be at least a million dollars in debt and his wife has developed a reputation of doing what she wants.  Even worse, it nows seems Gingrich only campaigns when he wants.  Gingrich still has limited access to donors and has some good policy ideas.  His problem is that GOP voters are more ideological than ever and they stand by their own.  That means his comments about Paul Ryan’s Medicare Reform Plan are not likely to go away.  And with limited campaign cash and some serious damage control still to do it is hard to see Gingrich every moving up to challenge any of the Tier I candidates. 

Former Senator Rick Santorum: Rick Santorum has a record for knocking off tough Democratic incumbents as he keeps saying in the debates. He won a heavily Democratic House district in 1990 and won his Senate seat in the GOP Revolution of 1994.  But after winning in 2000 with a less than stellar 7% margin Santorum was utterly annihilated in 2006, 59%-41%, by Bob Casey Jr.  Since then Santorum has been making policy speeches and gearing up for a presidential run.  He is best known for his confrontational style of politics and like Gingrich is a policy-wonk.  But he is not well-known to most GOP voters and appears to be right on the cusp of being a Tier III candidate.  He polls very low in national and state surveys, has little to no donor appeal and his campaign is deeply in debt.  Like Gingrich, Santorum needs a strong showing in Iowa to win enough support to keep going and that does not look very likely.

Tier III Candidates:

Former Utah Governer Jon Huntsman: When Jon Huntsman announced for president the media went crazy.  The White House even went out of its way to say they feared him the most.  Perhaps that is because they do (though it is not because they understand the electorate the best).  Huntsman has served two terms as Governor of the redder then red state of Utah and was for the former Ambassador to China for the administration.  His record has both help and hurt him.  He has a record of job growth in Utah and historic victories, but he has a left leaning streak that makes conservatives wary.  He initially supported the individual mandate, he helped implement a regional cap-and-trade system, and supported a Healthcare plan by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Orren Hatch (R-UT) that would have created Healthcare Co-ops that would be government controlled.  To moderate Republican voters Huntsman might have a shot if Romney was not running.  But his rollout has been less than splendid and he lacks much charisma.  Moreover many big GOP donors in Utah are backing Romney, seeing him as the better shot to unseat Obama.  For this Huntsman is relegated to a Tier III candidate. 

Businessman Fred Karger: A former campaign consultant for Ronald Reagan and HW Bush Karger is a self-identified Republican.  He has since retired from consulting and now works as a gay rights activist which kills his chances in Iowa and South Carolina, if he had any already.  For Karger to even win some votes in Iowa or elsewhere he needs to show up at a debate and actually raise some cash.  Yet another face but not a contender.

Former Louisiana Governor Charles Roemer: The former Democratic Governor of Louisiana Roemer has an interesting history.  He was elected to the US House in 1981 as a Democrat.  In 1987 he ran against politically corrupt and weak Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards.  In 1991 to survive a bruising primary fight with his party Roemer switched to a Republican.  But the state GOP refused to endorse him and he subsequently lost the general election.  During his tenure as governor he had few accomplishments, limited appeal to lawmakers and voters.  Since then he has tried a political comeback in 1995, failed, and run a bank successfully for over 15 years.  Roemer is a perfect example of the realignment the country has had in the last forty years but he is not a serious candidate for the nomination.

Congressman Thaddeus McCotter: Known for his chain-smoking, guitar playing hobbies McCotter recently just got into the race.  While he admits he wants to win he also admits to wanting to simply drive the debate in the nomination process to job creation.  McCotter sits in a suburban Republican and has only had a couple tough reelections, 2006 and 2008 being notable.  With little name ID and no donors to speak of McCotter appears to be more a curiosity in the race than contender.

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson: A libertarian in GOP clothing Johnson was the former two term Governor of New Mexico.  In fact, until 2010 he was the last GOP Governor to serve the state in 8 years.  Johnson claims to be a fiscal conservative and socially liberal.  He even acknowledges he cannot win the GOP pro-life vote.  Well without that he would likely need a clean sweep with every other GOP voter to get the nomination.   Put bluntly, he has no shot.

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