At this early point, with not a single GOP presidential candidacy formally announced, I see three general scenarios that will likely unfold over the next 18 months that will lead to a Republican presidential nominee.
All scenarios include current frontrunner Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. All scenarios also include most of the second and third tier candidates, including Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, John Thune, Rick Santorum, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Pence. (By the time of the Iowa GOP Straw Poll, or soon after it, those on this list who have announced they would run may no longer be in the race.)
Scenario Number 2 includes either Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin, but not the other, plus all or most of the above.
Scenario Number 3 includes both Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, plus all or most of the above.
A variation of all three of these scenarios includes a formidable candidate not on any list, but who emerges rather suddenly in the next few months. An example of this would be Jeb Bush who most observers now believe will not be a candidate for president before 2016. I note as a cautionary that very late-emerging candidacies (such as Wendell Willkie’s in 1940) are quite rare and even more unlikely in today’s TV-internet-blog new environment.
I suggest that each of the three scenarios has a specific and contrasting character. Both Mr. Huckabee and Mrs. Palin were major figures in the 2008 presidential campaign, although only Mr. Huckabee went through the primary season. Each of them registers very high on virtually all pre-campaign season polls, and each of them has national bases. With both of them in the race, the primary season is very crowded, and the outcome very much in doubt from the perspective of December, 2010.
If only one of them is in the race, the field is less crowded. but the other could play a role in selecting the nominee by throwing his or her support behind any of the other candidates.
If neither of them is in the race, the field takes a different shape after the Iowa straw poll and subsequent Iowa caucus, followed soon after by New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The nomination may not be settled by then, but is likely to be over after Super Tuesday. In this scenario, Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and one of the “darker horses” (Pawlenty? Daniels?) will soon become the finalists.
In short, I think all early speculation about who will be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee needs to take into account these possible political permutations. Initially, the field could be very large (10-14 candidates), but history and experience tells us such a field will narrow very quickly.