The current field of candidates hoping to run against Mr. Obama isn’t setting the world on fire; but doing so isn’t necessary either. President Obama has continuously slumped in the polls. The bump he received from killing Bin Laden was very short-lived and his poll numbers returned to their downward trend within days. Anyone who appears even moderately qualified on economic issues, foreign relations and domestic matters is going to be strong against a president saddled with an anemic economy and staggering unemployment.

Mr. Obama’s troubles have very little to do with his base, which while not completely happy with his performance will slowly return home by November 2012. He can dismiss any Republican support as his policies are the anathema to conservative values. Where the president is most vulnerable is with independent voters who have fled from Mr. Obama in numbers not seen since Jimmy Carter’s failed re-election campaign. Currently only 32 percent of independents have a positive opinion of Mr. Obama’s job performance.

 

The Republican field has failed to congeal, though political pundits like to put them on a particular tier; the term first-tier and second-tier is thrown about fairly liberally, but rarely do they label those at the lowest levels what they are: hopeless. So far the debates have done little to settle the top-tier, though many in the press have focused on Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. In general the first tier is considered to be Perry, Romney, Paul and Bachmann, though Bachmann’s top-tier position has been rocked by Perry’s entrance into the race and her performance in Florida’s straw poll may well mean she’s slid into the second-tier.

Perry has had the worst debate performances in recent history. As the frontrunner, Rick Perry was assailed from all sides. Unfortunately for Perry he hasn’t handled the attacks very well and people watch keenly at how a candidate deals with the mugging that is certain to come from the press and the opposition in a general election. Bachmann, Santorum and Romney all inflicted grave injuries to Perry in the last two debates and his responses were not seen favorably by Republican voters. It’s far too early to judge whether Perry can recover from his wounds, but the media’s jubilation of a Perry candidacy has all but evaporated.

Perry’s fall has benefitted Mitt Romney the most. Romney while being the target of his Republican competition before Perry’s appearance on the scene has been able to move from a defensive to an offensive position. Romney’s debate performances have appeared more comfortable. While he’s scored very few knock-out punches, he’s been able to perform well enough during Perry’s implosion to gather some strength. If Perry steps up his game, will Romney be able to remain the most presidential-looking of the candidates? Time will tell.

While Ron Paul has received much more attention than he did in 2008, it’s important to remember that a nominating campaign isn’t like a general election. Ron Paul’s attractiveness to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which while energetic, cannot lock in the nomination for Mr. Paul; the numbers just aren’t there. Realistically Paul has a far better chance of molding the field than leading it.

Herman Cain’s recent win of the Florida straw poll will cause people to give him a second look. Cain is the lone candidate with no prior political experience and a very respectful business career. Four years ago Cain wouldn’t have been given a second thought, but the economy and vile politics of Washington give him legs in 2012. A plain-spoken person with an impressive resume and a businessman’s view has great appeal at a time when the White House is occupied by an anti-business administration and the country is suffering widespread unemployment. Can Cain convert the current atmosphere into enough momentum to rise into the top-tier and push aside Perry and Romney? Very unlikely.

Rick Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania, carries the mantle of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. His recent bouts with Perry on immigration have served him well and left severe scars on Perry, but Santorum has some issues that would likely cause him and the Republican Party problems in a general election. While Mitt Romney can make a smooth transition towards the center, Santorum’s past statements and his staunch conservative stance would make any move towards the center seem disingenuous; this isn’t a knock on Mr. Santorum. Rick Santorum has never tried to hide his beliefs and as evidenced by his recent re-election loss, his appeal to the broader electorate is somewhat limited. Say what you will about the Republican Party, but they will evaluate each candidate’s ability to reach the greatest number of voters as defeating Obama is their only goal.

The strongest debater has clearly been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and yet he’s garnered very little benefit from his performances. Much of this has to do with the fact that the press has focused on Perry, Romney and Bachmann. The media has decided that Newt’s past indiscretions are enough to make him unacceptable to party faithfuls and they’ve clearly pushed him aside. It’s quite sad as everyone would like to believe the smartest person with the best ideas could be the nominee of their party, but in the case of Newt the press has decided that’s less important than how you fill out a business suit or whether you stubbed your toe in your personal life; this is the ugly side of political punditry.

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson isn’t only a libertarian, he has strong liberal leanings as well. While Newt may have a few skeletons in his closet, Johnson carries them in plain view. Johnson has about as much chance of getting the Republican nomination as Barbara Streisand. All Gary Johnson is managing to do is consume precious oxygen that could be better used to delve deeper into the candidates that have a chance, even if only a small one, than someone who the party would never nominate. Go home Gary. This isn’t a try-out for a job as a talking head.

And finally we come to Utah Governor and Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. While Huntsman is a comfortable debater, he cannot overcome some show-stopping positions while he was governor. His positions on green technology, civil rights protections to gays and lesbians, and a threatened veto of a measure repealing in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants are almost certain disqualifying matters. In a time when everyone on the stage promises to repeal Obamacare, both Huntsman and Romney have favored a healthcare mandate. It’s Romney’s most serious weakness, but only one of many Huntsman brings to the table. Huntsman is a prototypical RINO (Republican in name only,) and he and Gary Johnson should consider a comedy show rather than a run for the presidency.

So, to sum it all up: it’s far too early to say who will make it past the first few primaries let alone secure the nomination. All early predictions in 2008 proved wrong. Will the fisticuffs between Romney and Perry lead to an early decision? Can Herman Cain prove the pundits wrong and gain steam from his performance in Florida? Will Bachmann regain some of her Tea Party strength after Perry’s recent follies? Can Newt’s strong debating skills translate into the most valuable asset, campaign funds?

A snapshot of the current field would tend to point to a Romney nomination. Republicans tend to nominate the next in line and after 2008 that would be Romney. Though bleeding Perry is still a dangerous opponent. Could others join the field? A lack of a single stand-out candidate has caused many in the Republican Party to seek others to join the fray. Will Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, reconsider his absolute no-run stance? Could ex-Alaska Governor and Tea Party star Sarah Palin decide the lack of a superstar in the race be reason enough to join the fun? Is there someone else out there that we’re not even talking about be considering a last-minute run? We will know very shortly as the deadline for entering the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary arrive in the next few months.