- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Seventeen months before Americans go to the polls to elect their next president, the field of Republican candidates is rapidly being winnowed down to its strongest contenders.

While the national news media, especially network news shows, have been focusing on a handful of dubious Republican candidates (most of whom were best known as TV celebrities), three or four, former or present governors, have emerged as the leading men in the race.

They are former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Wisconsin, John Huntsman of Utah, and possibly Mitch Daniels of Indiana.

There are others in the race who are given virtually no chance of succeeding: Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, making his third libertarian run for the presidency; Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a leader in the Tea Party movement, who is ubiquitous on the TV talk shows but was turned down for a leadership post in her party; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the GOP out of 40 years in the wilderness to take control the House but whose shoot-from-the-hip speakership and his personal life was one of almost constant controversy and turmoil.

No sooner had Mr. Gingrich announced his candidacy than he had to defend his statement that Americans should be required to carry health insurance, a pivotal Obamacare issue now being fought out in the federal courts.

Lately, less attention is being given to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice-presidential nominee, who is making her living as a reality TV personality, author and speaker. She fled her state’s governorship under Democratic fire before her term was up and has made no serious effort to put together a campaign organization.

In the space of about a week, three hopefuls have dropped out of the presidential marathon: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and TV reality show host Donald Trump.

Mr. Barbour, arguably the GOP’s best strategist who governed one of the poorest states in the country, said he did not have “the fire in the belly” for a grueling presidential race. His wife told a Mississippi TV station that the possibility of a national campaign “horrifies” her.

Mr. Huckabee, who surprised everyone by winning a handful a GOP primaries in the 2008 race, did not want to give up his lucrative Fox TV show. As the deadline neared on a decision to stick with Fox or run, he made a bread-and-butter decision.

Mr. Trump, more of a TV impresario and self-promoter than anything else, was not a serious contender. Making President Obama’s birth certificate his opening issue to seize TV attention, when voters are mostly focused on 9 percent to 12 percent unemployment and a weak economy, signaled he was in it solely for the media attention. When he abruptly dropped out this week, polls found that nearly two-thirds of the voters surveyed said they would never vote for him.

In the end, he chose to stay with his NBC TV show, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” a title that would have defined a Trump presidency as much as it defines the one we have today.

In the meantime, at least three former governors were putting together major campaign organizations and raising money for what will likely be the costliest primary campaign in American history.

Mr. Obama is planning to raise, by some estimates, $1 billion for his coming campaign, a daunting obstacle to overcome, even for the most serious of his challengers.

Mr. Romney, who has kept his head down for much of this year, has been focusing on meetings with donors and building his war chest. He collected $10.2 million Monday in a nationwide, one-day, phone-bank fundraising effort, a sign of his strength at this early stage of the 2012 election cycle.

Mr. Huntsman, the Obama administration’s ambassador to China, is also expected to enter the race soon. He is a successful, telegenic, two-term governor, who, as a Morman, could draw votes away from Mr. Romney.

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