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updated 5/24/2011 10:11:40 AM ET 2011-05-24T14:11:40

Mitt Romney is emerging as the man to catch in the narrowing Republican presidential field, grabbing a clear head start in fundraising, organization and experience despite vulnerabilities that still might undo him.

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With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels becoming the latest respected Republican to forgo a candidacy, many party insiders say the field is largely set. And Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Olympic Games organizer, is in front.

"It's Romney's to lose," said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant who managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign. He said Romney's biggest advantages are his personal wealth, fundraising know-how and experience as a 2008 contender, when John McCain won the nomination.

"He has been around the track," Reed said. "He knows from a difficult experience how not to waste time and how not to try to be all things to all people."

Another top Republican takes pass on presidential bid

If Romney's name is well known, so are his shortcomings. As Massachusetts governor he supported legalized abortion, gay rights and gun control, positions he reversed when he ran for president. He also championed a state health care law that requires residents to obtain insurance. Conservatives despise a similar feature in the Democrats' 2010 federal health law.

Conservative alternatives
Conservatives' unease about Romney's record and consistency could give an opening to others, who have time to raise their profiles and popularity.

"The real battle now is who will be the conservative alternative to Romney," Reed said.

Story: Romney: Obama 'threw Israel under the bus'

Campaign veterans say Romney's likeliest challengers for now are two former governors with solid resumes but little name recognition and no experience as presidential candidates: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah.

Pawlenty formally announced his candidacy Monday in Iowa, although he has campaigned for months there and in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He's casting himself as the candidate willing to tell the country hard truths, and, underscoring that point, he bluntly told corn-dependent Iowa that its prized federal subsidies for ethanol should be phased out.

Story: Pawlenty launches 2012 White House bid

Huntsman, who just finished a stint as ambassador to China, is spending five days campaigning in New Hampshire, which holds its primary shortly after Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus in February.

Story: Huntsman: Ditch bickering in name of patriotism

The next tier of candidates includes the well-known Newt Gingrich, who was House speaker in the mid-1990s. Party insiders say Gingrich's legacy of bombastic statements and messy divorces gives him a steep hill to climb.

Story: Gingrich soldiers on, suggests immigration plan

These party activists give even slimmer chances to other contenders such as former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Pawlenty, unlike Romney and Huntsman, lacks the personal wealth to sustain a campaign for weeks or months without winning major victories to trigger big donations.

"Pawlenty has to win in Iowa," said Republican strategist Rich Galen. That could allow him to survive the next three contests: New Hampshire, where Romney should be strong; Nevada, bordering Huntsman's home state of Utah, and South Carolina, where Gingrich or a lesser-known social conservative might break through.

Bigger threat: Pawlenty or Huntsman?
Pawlenty would have to rack up victories after that. But a strategy of being everyone's second choice might allow him to outlast Romney in the spring of 2012.

Galen thinks Huntsman could be a bigger threat to Romney than Pawlenty. Huntsman's family wealth could buy him time to build an organization and craft a positive image among voters who don't know him.

"Huntsman is a blank page," Galen said. If he does reasonably well in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, while winning the Nevada caucus, he could go "all in" in Florida, Galen said. The Sunshine state has proved pivotal in past elections and might again.

Many GOP officials are lukewarm about Romney. Still, he's the best known of the party's current candidates.

According to the most recent AP-GfK poll, 66 percent of Republicans nationwide view him favorably, and 22 percent unfavorably. Eleven percent have no opinion. His positive numbers are higher among self-described conservatives (75 percent favorable) and "strong" Republicans (81 percent favorable).

Evangelical Republicans give Romney a 63 percent favorable rating. That suggests his Mormonism might not be a serious problem, although party activists in South Carolina often raise the topic.

Huntsman (who also is Mormon) and Pawlenty are less well known. About half of Republicans have no opinion of Pawlenty. That rises to two-thirds for Huntsman, although the poll was conducted before his New Hampshire trip, which generally drew good reviews.

For all his advantages, Romney has a long way to go to close the deal. In New Hampshire, where he has a vacation home, 32 percent of likely GOP voters say they would vote for Romney if the election were today, says a new CNN/WMUR poll. But an overwhelming majority said they might change their minds in the coming months, opening opportunities for Pawlenty, Huntsman and others.

Story: Democrats meddle in slow-starting GOP race

"Voters in New Hampshire tend to reject the advice of the Washington pundits and the chattering class, and prefer to reach out and give the lesser-known candidates a chance to make their case," said Bob Stevenson, a New Hampshire native who has worked in several GOP campaigns.

Call for more candidates
Some prominent Republicans want other candidates to jump in. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Monday he would like to see House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan make a run.

"Paul's about real leadership," Cantor said, pointing to Ryan's crafting of a plan to cut spending and revamp Medicare and Medicaid. "I think that's what this public so desperately wants to see right now."

Cantor wants Ryan in race for president

Real estate mogul Donald Trump, who toyed with a presidential candidacy, told Fox News it's vital "that we choose the right person, and at this moment, I don't see that person."

Republicans are waiting to see if Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a champion of the Tea Party movement, will run. She has drawn large crowds in Iowa, her native state, and possibly could win the caucus there because of her appeal to social conservatives.

But several campaign veterans think it would be difficult for Bachmann to carry on in New Hampshire, Nevada and beyond. James Garfield was the last president elected directly from the House.

Other names often mentioned include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. All of them, along with Ryan, have said they won't run in 2012.

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is Sarah Palin.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

The former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee draws crowds and controversy everywhere she goes. Her approval ratings have fallen in recent months, and party insiders think that she, like 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, is unlikely to surrender her lucrative TV appearances, books and speeches.

"I can't imagine Sarah Palin is going to get into the race and give up all that," Galen said.

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

Video: Romney riding high after this week

  1. Transcript of: Romney riding high after this week

    REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Well, you're right, David , it sounds like the Republicans are doubling down on their plan to end the Medicare guarantee. You know, Newt Gingrich had it right a week ago on this show. It is a radical plan, it is right wing social engineering, and it is, for this reason, because they take away the Medicare guarantee. They say to seniors, you've got to go into the private insurance market. And the independent

    Congressional Budget Offices point out two things: In that market, prices keep going up; and under their plan, support for seniors under Medicare goes down. Which is why it's going to cost seniors more and more every year as this goes on.

    MR. GREGORY: But he is saying that he is willing to negotiate, and he's also saying, accurately, that you Democrats don't have a plan and we have a budget crisis .

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: Well, two things there. Number one, the president has put a plan on the table. And let's remember that the Affordable Care Act , the healthcare reform bill, had some significant Medicare reform. In fact, as, as Paul indicated, in the last elections, they ran all these ads against Democrats . We ended the overpayments to the Medicare advantage plans. We made some other reforms to incentivize provision of value of care over volume of care, and there are other things that had been proposed, and the president mentioned some of those. But here's where the Republicans have not come to the table. You didn't hear one word about how we need to deal with the revenue side of the equation. Every bipartisan commission that has looked at our deficit and debt problem has said you can't do it with a one-sided, lop-sided approach, which is what the Republican plan is. You need a revenue component. These guys won't even agree to get rid of the subsidies for the big oil companies. If you're serious about the deficit, why won't you come to the table and say, when you got record gas prices, record profits, you're not going to ask the, the oil companies to chip in and get rid of their subsidies.

    MR. GREGORY: Final, final point on this. The Republicans say, "Look, the prescription drug benefit under Medicare came in under budget and is very popular, and that the current path is simply unsustainable, to keep giving a guarantee to people that can't be paid for without absolutely busting the budget and increasing the deficit." Is the Democratic leadership prepared to put reformulating Medicare in some dramatic way on the table?

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: What we've said about Medicare is what the president said, which is that, number one, some reforms have been made; number two, additional reforms can be made. But that's not the place you start, by going to say, you know, beneficiaries are going to take the big hit . There are other reforms you can make. Let me give you one example. When it comes to prescription drugs, you mentioned Medicare Part D. In fact, under the Medicaid program, the taxpayer gets a much better deal in terms of the price for the purchase of drugs. We've said for folks who are on Medicare and Medicaid , dual eligible, "Take the lower price, save the taxpayers some money." So there's a lot you can do. And the Republican proposal , the reason it's such bad politics is because it's terrible policy.

    MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to come back to this. I want to invite everybody now to weigh in, we'll weigh in on this. But I want to get to some of the big political news this morning, and we'll put up the headline this morning from the Indianapolis Star , Mike Murphy , Daniels decision, not running. "I love my country; I love my family more." This is a big deal . I said at the top, this is -- he was seen that...

    MR. MIKE MURPHY: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: ...candidate on the white horse for a lot of people.

    MR. MURPHY: Old rule of politics, if you're going to run, make sure your wife is going to vote for you. And, you know, so I thought he had a great statement, and it's true. People were very excited about him as a candidate. He would have been a heavyweight in the contest. So now we're back to where we were. I think there's a little too much talk in Washington about there's not enough excitement. There may not be enough in Washington . For real voters, it hasn't even begun yet. And I think there's only one last Hamlet question, which is Chris Christie of New Jersey , who is a big Republican star, will he take another look at a late entry, which I think is possible. That would shake up the race. If not, I think you're going to have a lot of noise candidates around, but it's going to be down to Romney , Huntsman, Pawlenty , and then a kind of an entertaining candidate who won't get nominated, one of will emerge, maybe Herman Cain .

    MR. GREGORY: Well, Andrea Mitchell , what about Paul Ryan ? I mean, he didn't close the door completely to being on the ticket. He said, "I'm, I'm not running for president."

    MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: He didn't close the door. I think that because of the Medicare -- the toxicity really of what he's proposed on Medicare in terms of politics, that I think it would be very, a very big reach for him to be nominee of the Republican Party . But he ought to be considered. Certainly, I think that Mike would say for vice president, he could be in those sweepstakes. He -- when he said on -- to you that leaders change polls...

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MS. MITCHELL: That, that's leadership that people are hungry for.

    MR. MURPHY: Yeah.

    MR. GREGORY: And he did say that anybody running in 2012 basically has to be either with him or against him, that he is that, you know, in that, in that center place.

    MS. MITCHELL: Or show leadership on entitlements.

    MR. GREGORY: Or show leadership, right. Gene Robinson , here's our list of who's in, who's out, who's on the fence. We've got -- our cork board here is moving around a lot. So, you see who's now out.

    MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

    MR. GREGORY: You see who's in, including as of tomorrow Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain got in over the weekend. And then that additional list of who's kind of out there but not officially in. Mitt Romney is going to be in, but he's just not official. John Huntsman and Santorum, Rudy Giuliani , Michele Bachmann , and Sarah Palin . And look at the polling, as of now, just so we have some context around all of this. Romney is still at 20 percent. Palin at 12 percent. She said this week she's got fire in the belly. Gingrich at nine, and so on and so forth. Where does it stand?

    MR. ROBINSON: Well, it, it's very confused. Mitt Romney , everything that's happened the last few weeks has been very good for Mitt Romney .

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MR. ROBINSON: I mean, he, he is sort of the default option, I think, for the Republican Party . Chris Christie has made Sherman -like statements about not running this time. I think he -- I, I personally think he's serious about that, and I think one reason is that he can look ahead to 2016 ...

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MR. ROBINSON: ...and, and see that as a better, better chance.

    MR. GREGORY: What about the message, Andrew Ross Sorkin ? I mean, you cover Wall Street , you cover all things financial. A fiscal discipline message, a "We're going to get it right on the economy" message, that is still the right message for Republicans going into next year.

    MR. SORKIN: I got to tell you, I got an email while the show was going on, while Ryan was just speaking, and even though the Medicare plan may be unpopular, the view by a Wall Street CEO was this guy at least is proposing something.

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MR. SORKIN: I think they like the idea of leadership. They want to get behind that. I don't know if Ryan is their man. I think from a money perspective you're seeing all the money go to Romney . But I think there's a real worry that there is a lack of leadership. And, and as one CEO said to me this week, "At this point, we are only playing for the Senate ." I mean, in terms of what our real opportunity is, because I don't think they have someone who has really ignited, ignited at least the business community.

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MR. MURPHY: Yeah, the Senate is the hedge on the presidential race.

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MR. MURPHY: Let me speak about Ryan for a minute to defend him, because there is a feeling in the country -- and it's right, I believe, at least a perception -- that a lot of people in Congress , you know, they're on the federal payroll, and they spend a lot of their time maneuvering to get re-elected. Paul Ryan , whether you like the plan or you don't like the plan, is about the bravest guy in Washington because he's taking on the entitlement monster, which is a huge threat. Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, everybody agrees this spending thing is out of control. And so Ryan 's got a plan that involves a lot of political pain. Whether it's fair or not, it's incredibly brave. What I'd like to see is some grown-up politics for a change. So instead of the Democrats just doing the "mediscare," let's have an equally adult, somewhat scary plan from the left, so voters can have a real comparison because they're grown-ups. Pick the harder choice rather than the hard choice vs. the demography of the -- you know -- and Medicare as we know it, which is a scam.

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: But, but, but...

    MR. GREGORY: Congressman -- yeah. Yeah.

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: Mike , Mike , political courage on the Republican side means taking on the revenue piece. That's why you've had a couple folks get in so much -- Senator Coburn raised his head on that. Grover Norquist tried to chop it off. It doesn't take a lot of courage on the Republican side to slash Medicaid by $700 billion.

    MR. MURPHY: Well, you know, I'm going to agree with you on, on the revenue thing. But...

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: It doesn't -- but -- here are these guys that they won't even agree to say to the oil companies , "Look, you've got to get...

    MR. MURPHY: Yeah, I know. But look...

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: No, but, Mike -- but, Mike...

    MR. MURPHY: But, Congressman, with all due respect, very, very quickly...

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: ...this, this is the issue.

    MR. MURPHY: ...when you go to the oil company and all this stuff, you're going to the poll test and stuff to win the election, it's your job.

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: Yeah. Yeah, Mike, Mike...

    MR. MURPHY: But will you guys endorse Simpson-Bowles ? Because I will. I'd do it right now as a Republican.

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: Let, let, let's go to go in -- OK. I think there's...

    MR. MURPHY: I'm for a little bit of taxes.

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: There's a lot of good in Simpson-Bowles , and what the Simpson-Bowles did was they took a balanced approach.

    MR. MURPHY: Right.

    REP. VAN HOLLEN: The Republican budget is not balanced. In fact...

    MR. MURPHY: But where's the Democrat to balanced budget ?

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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