Republicans typically stick with their front-runners when it comes to presidential primary contests, but 2012 may not be a typical year.
The 2010 midterm elections saw a flood of GOP newcomers enter the arena as voters rejected established politicians in favor of fresh faces, a trend that doesn't bode well for early betting-line Republican presidential favorites such as Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.
David Brady, deputy director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, went so far as to predict that the GOP would nominate someone who is currently flying under the radar.
"Huckabee and Palin come with huge minuses, Romney less so, but I don't think it will be any of them," said Mr. Brady. "I do think the nominee will come from this new group and not from the list of front-runners."
The infusion of the "tea party" movement and 9-12 committees into the Republican Party also means that GOP leaders may have less control than usual over the next presidential nominating process. Candidates who rose to prominence in the 2010 race, such as Florida's Marco Rubio, could find themselves under discussion even before they've served a single day of their terms.
"It's such a volatile environment right now. It wouldn't surprise me to see a dark-horse candidate win the nomination in 2012," said Mike Spence, past president of the conservative California Republican Assembly.
London's conservative newspaper the Telegraph was not even waiting for the votes to be counted, asking in an analysis Tuesday morning: "Does Marco Rubio have the makings of a U.S. president?"
The tea party voters can be expected to favor candidates who stand for limited government, lower taxes and what they see as a return to constitutional principles, as opposed to those with a record of compromise. At the same time, the ailing economy gives the edge to candidates with a plan for economic growth, or governors who show they can reverse the declining fortunes of their states.
"I think there's going to be a great debate within our party about the role of government, and the person who can express that the best is going to win the nomination," said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams.
Aside from the stars who may emerge from Tuesday's voting, the list of dark-horse Republicans who could leapfrog the bigger names in the 2012 sweepstakes includes the following:
*Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina: He was a kingmaker in GOP primary politics in 2010 through his Senate Conservatives Fund. The question is, does he want to be king? Mr. DeMint has huge credibility with tea party partisans, and his willingness to buck the Republican establishment in Washington has only made him more popular with the party's grass roots.
*Sen. John Thune of South Dakota: He has been mentioned as a presidential contender since he defeated former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, and 2012 could be his year. His easygoing nature could either put him totally out of sync with furious anti-Obama voters, or lend balance by offering a steady hand at the helm.
*Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana: House members are rarely successful when it comes to presidential bids, but voters may be ready to break the mold in 2012. Certainly Mr. Pence is a leading dark-horse contender, the third-ranking Republican in the House and a favorite of the party's conservative wing. He won the Family Research Council's "Values Voters Straw Poll" in September, but his close association with social issues may complicate his appeal to a jobs-focused electorate.
*Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin: Mr. Ryan's two "Roadmap for America" proposals, which would slash entitlement spending and overhaul the tax system, established him as a bold thinker who is not afraid to go after sacred cows. That liberals are now blasting him could increase his appeal among an electorate hungry for a candidate willing to say what everyone else is thinking.
*Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey: After the battle of the senators in 2008, predictions are that voters will revert to their preference for the executive branch in 2012. Mr. Christie's upset 2009 win in a Democratic state and his blunt, cut-the-budget-and-damn-the-consequences style segues nicely with the prevailing mood, but he has only held office for a year and said publicly he is concentrating on solving New Jersey's problems first.
*Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana: Mr. Christie may be getting more attention, but Mr. Daniels has been practicing fiscal restraint longer and has the state's humming economy to show for it. It's doubtful that Indiana could support two presidential candidates, however, which means he and Mr. Pence may have to draw straws to see who gets to run in 2012.
*Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana: He is probably the only politician in history whose reputation actually improved after a hurricane. His decisive response to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, conservative views and policy-wonk credentials could make him the brainy-but-cool-guy-in-a-crisis type that voters want to see in 2012.
*Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota: He has managed to push conservative policies in a liberal state without losing his popularity. He kept his promise to balance the state's budget without raising taxes, and later won a fight with the teachers' unions to enact statewide performance pay. If Mr. Thune enters the race, however, the question arises about whether the GOP field is big enough for two lanky Scandinavian-Americans from Fargo country.
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