updated 3/22/2011 11:57:11 AM ET 2011-03-22T15:57:11

Mitt Romney is the godfather of what Republican critics call Obamacare. Newt Gingrich is an adulterer on his third marriage. Tim Pawlenty is too green — environmentally, that is.

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Jon Huntsman worked for President Barack Obama. And Haley Barbour has come off as dismissive of racial segregation.

Is any potential Republican presidential nominee without vulnerabilities that could alienate voters, especially those in the GOP primaries, and provide ready-made attacks for opponents?

Not in this crop.

The 2012 Republican field is deeply flawed, lacking a serious GOP contender without a personal misstep or policy move that angers the party base. Each of those weighing bids has at least one issue that looms as an obstacle to White House ambitions, and that could derail the candidate if not handled with care.

With video, Tim Pawlenty makes it official

That explains why the would-be candidates are trying to confront their troubles early on, just as the nomination fight gets under way. They'll have to answer for black marks on their records — and insulate themselves from criticism — repeatedly between now and early next year when voters cast the first caucus ballot.

Their aides are trying to figure out how to weather the attacks likely to show up in mailings, online or in television ads; responses are likely to be included in media interviews, debate appearances and, perhaps, even in major speeches. Aides also are studying — and testing — the best ways to exploit their opponents' weaknesses. Already, Internet sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are magnifying their woes, and every embarrassing document, speech or utterance is certain to appear online.

Candidates can't simply ignore their flaws or obstacles; their challengers certainly won't.

Video: Pawlenty throws hat in 2012 ring (on this page)

Just ask Democrat John Kerry. He was vexed in 2004 by questions about his service in Vietnam and about his reputation as an elitist. Only after widely debunked claims about his Vietnam record started to sink his poll numbers did the campaign effectively respond — and by then it was too late.

"You really have to drive the boat into the fire and be fearless about your record," said Michael Meehan, a Democratic consultant on Kerry's campaign.

Romney, for one, has started to address his biggest policy problem: the health care plan he signed into law as Massachusetts governor, which Obama and the Democrats used as the basis for their national overhaul plan. The White House gleefully points out the similarities.

"Our experiment wasn't perfect — some things worked, some didn't, and some things I'd change," Romney said recently in New Hampshire. But, he added, "one thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover."

Romney also will face a repeat of the 2008 criticism that he's inauthentic, particularly after a series of reversals on gay rights and other social issues.

Gingrich's two failed marriages are well-known; the circumstances around them may not be and present plenty of fodder for rivals.

Story: Pawlenty announces committee for presidential run

The former House speaker sought a divorce from his first wife while she was undergoing cancer treatment. His second marriage ended with an admission of an extramarital affair as he was pursuing the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about sexual encounters with a White House intern. He married that mistress, 23 years his junior. Callista Gingrich is prominently featured in his campaign, appearing with him at events and on his website.

He was widely mocked for this recent explanation about his infidelity: "There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

It remains to be seen whether Republicans heed his plea and focus on the future. "If the primary concern of the American people is my past," he has said, "my candidacy would be irrelevant."

Barbour can't deny his trifecta of issues that make some skeptical. So he owns them.

"Let me just make this very plain: I'm a lobbyist, a politician and a lawyer ... and I am willing to have my record in front of everybody," says the Mississippi governor, who was head of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association. He also founded a booming lobbying operation and was dubbed the King of K Street, a reference to the capital's downtown lobbying corridor.

The governor of a Deep South state, Barbour opened himself up to criticism when he bungled questions about the Ku Klux Klan and segregation.

Huntsman, the former Utah governor, is taking heat for his job as Obama's ambassador to China.

John H. Sununu, once chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush and ex-chairman of New Hampshire's GOP, called Huntsman an "Obamaite" who would never earn the trust of primary voters.

Huntsman leaves his post in April and can't say anything until then. But his advisers have a ready-made response: He served his country, not necessarily the Democratic administration.

Obama, for one, isn't going to let him off that easily; he's thanked Huntsman for being an "outstanding advocate for this administration and this country."

Romney and Huntsman face another obstacle. Both are Mormons, a religion that evangelicals who have considerable sway in Iowa and South Carolina look at warily.

Pawlenty, who on Monday announced he had formed an exploratory committee, once backed climate change legislation that conservatives deride. Advisers to the former Minnesota governor know it will be a problem.

He's reversed his position on the issue, but his past words are certain to come back to haunt him.

"So, come on, Congress. Let's get moving," Pawlenty says in a 2008 commercial for the Environmental Defense Action Fund that urges, "Cap greenhouse gas pollution now."

It's available online. So are details of climate change legislation he signed that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by 2015.

Among others weighing bids:

—Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum may be dogged by his dismissal by voters in the 2006 election.

—Ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas faces questions about commuting the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, who in 2009 opened fire in Tacoma, Wash., and left four police officers dead.

—GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's unorthodox resignation in the middle of her first term as Alaska governor — as well as her reality show stints and her countless impolitic comments — will be certain fodder for opponents.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Pawlenty throws hat in 2012 ring

  1. Closed captioning of: Pawlenty throws hat in 2012 ring

    >>> all right, time to talk a little 2012 . like a freshman in college, tim pawlenty is exploring. he spent the weekend working on this dramatic web video .

    >> this country was founded on freedom. we the people of the united states will take back our government. this is our country, our founding fathers created it. americans embraced it, ronald reagan personified it and lincoln stood courageous youly to protect it. and that's why today i'm announcing the creation of this exploratory committee .

    >> chris sejim and chris, good morning to you both. your post was titled meet tim pawlenty , his u.s. hockey team and his dog. were you impressed by the rollout of tim pawlenty ?

    >> first was his book tour which was a sneak preview of the tim pawlenty campaign. this was a high profile, kind of a glamorous web videos . i felt like if the asteroids come down or the aliens invade, i want tim pawlenty there. i saw the american flag once every seven seconds. whether this can break through in a very busy news environment, i don't know, but i think it's one of those things that it's one of the first things you do. he's getting in early to build up that name id. and by the iowa caucuses roll around, i think name id won't be an issue for tim pawlenty .

    >> he's in touch with the kids, he's got it all. if you look at these ads side by side , there's a little bit of an eminem chrysler ad this is what we do.

    >> this is how we do. the thing that amazed me is they kind of wanted to sing the star spangled banner . there's no mistaking tim pawlenty , he loves america. these videos are things that we talk about, things that he can show to activists in places like iowa and new hampshire. but ultimately the guy's biggest problem and this is not that bad a problem to have, the guy's biggest problem is people don't know who he is. we talk about him, he's been working it in iowa and new hampshire. he's running for president. it just allows him two bites at the apple. he can say, i'm exploring a run for president and then a month and a half from now he can say i'm running for president. he's given himself a long lead time and to go back to the marketing example. like the dog food , do people like what tim pawlenty is selling? we don't know because people don't know him.

    >> the latest msnbc " wall street journal " poll showed 61% of americans didn't even know tim pawlenty 's name. it's still early, granted, but how big a problem is that for him?

    >> i don't think it's much of a problem at all because by the time iowa holds its caucuses, we'll have several debates. they'll be running all kinds of ads, interviews on programs like this. tim pawlenty will be a much more known factor. he doesn't have an size road to the nomination. i think everybody believes he has an uphill climb. but the entire reaction to this announcement, there's political folks who says he has no chance. the last cycle seeing hillary collapse, seeing obama win the nomination, seeing mccain come back from the political death march that he seemed to have been on. we have seen enough surprises that nobody can say there's no way tim pawlenty gets the nomination.

    >> are republicans, are they excited about the idea of tim pawlenty ? i mean it is a wide open field. so is this a guy that the party could get behind.

    >> i think jim's right, this is a guy who in some ways, i don't mean this in a derogatory sense, he's in some ways all things to all people. fiscal conservatives like him, social conservatives like him. the tea party likes him. i don't know if he's going to be any of their candidates. he's probably not going to be the fiscal conservative candidate, he probably won't be the tea party candidate. but he's a guy who's acceptable to all those people, and there's not that many people in the field that can make that boast. being everything to everyone isn't the worst thing in the world. it's not always the social conservative , the fiscal conservative who wins, it's the guy who can bring together a coalition of all of those groups.

    >> and the totally superficial criticism of him is that he's a little bit too vanilla. he said in a recent interview, i'm too vanilla according to whom? jim, i want to ask you quickly about sarah palin , in fact she'soverseas , spending time in israel. should we read anything into that trip?

    >> this is actually almost pro forma for any candidate. if you want to run, you want to build up your foreign policy credentials an overseas trip is one way to do that. we haven't seen anyone put on the meat dress yet, but we're still early in this process. someone could end up doing the whole gaga routine before it's done.

    >> a lot of fun. appreciate it.

    >>> all right. we'll be right back on "the daily rundown."


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