Iowa 2012 GOP Presidential Power Rankings: The field comes into focus

“Are you serious?” is the question our panelists appear to be asking the 2012 hopefuls for this seventh edition of our 2012 Power Rankings. And that question isn’t just limited to the Iowa caucuses or the emphasis candidates are placing on the first-in-the-nation process.

Panelists want to know not only who can be the best in Iowa, but who can be the one to beat President Barack Obama in November 2012. And while this list is likely to change substantially between now in the scheduled February 2012 caucuses — our predictions are based on who would win the caucuses if they were held tonight — this early list serves as both applause and caution to candidates. Those who are speaking directly to the people, listening to the people and making good staff hires are excelling. Those making poor professional decisions are suffering.

So, if the caucuses were held tonight, this is how our group of Iowans — political activists, pundits, reporters and academics — think the night would end:

  1. Tim Pawlenty — The former governor of Minnesota not only took first place in this edition of our rankings, he would completely blow other candidates out of the water if the caucuses were held tonight, according to our panelists. Each of our panelists gave him a ranking between first and third place, most pegging him as the winner.

    “Tim Pawlenty is the only candidate talking about specifics,” notes one of our panelists.

    Although Pawlenty’s economic address wasn’t as big of an event as it could have been due to other national news (Weinergate, Iowa flooding, Joplin tornadoes, etc.), our panelists agree that it was “well received” by Republicans and that it places him on the record with a policy statement. The panelists also continue to be impressed with his staffing choices and Iowa ground game.

    “Watch his fundraising numbers for the end of June,” a different panelist said. “It seems like money is hard to come by for candidates not named Romney, and if Pawlenty can compete at all, even set himself apart from others, he’ll be on the fast track.”

  2. Herman Cain — For the third time in a row, the businessman from Atlanta has moved up a slot in our Power Rankings. Iowans continue to like his speaking style, which is described as “fiery” and “straight shooting.”

    “Cain is attracting the types of voters that are most likely to talk politics with their friends and colleagues at church and work, which helps his popularity spread,” a panelist said while also noting that Cain has got to move into national front-runner status if he hopes to continue his climb in the Hawkeye state.

    Another panelist adds that Cain “hasn’t locked down either the tea party voters or those on the religious right” and that his support, although present currently, remains fluid.

    “He needs some Iowa endorsements — solid people that Iowans know and recognize. He needs a real staff in the state and a headquarters. He needs all of this because a candidate might be able to run on being an outsider who can create change, a campaign cannot. He needs to be a serious, legitimate candidate so that more Iowans will stand up and take note.”

  3. Michele Bachmann — Dropping for this edition is the Congresswoman from neighboring Minnesota, but don’t count her out of the race. Our panelists barely see a difference between Cain and Bachmann at this point in the contest.

    What seems to have lowered Bachmann’s fate with our panelists for this edition is a perception that she isn’t really serious about the contest, or the perception that she already believes that she already has a certain section of voters, be they tea party or social conservatives, in her corner.

    “[Bachmann] is the best fit chemistry-wise and issue-wise for the types of voters that dominate the Iowa Caucuses, but playing hard to get is not a good strategy for capturing the attention of voters,” a panelist said. “She has yet to show Iowans she wants them more than we want her, and that’s not good. Her recent decision to bypass a golden opportunity with the Polk County Republican Party just further feeds this perception. She needs to get here and get aggressive in front of as many Iowans as she can as soon as possible, otherwise the early bid gets the worm and her fellow Minnesotan will beat her to the punch.”

    Several of our panelists, even those who gave Bachmann a high ranking noted her core supporters within the religious community and in the tea party movement are being siphoned away by others in the field. There’s little doubt she will get a boost from her upcoming announcement, if she chooses to officially enter the race, but that boost will only carry her to caucus night if she is willing to burn some shoe leather.

  4. Ron Paul — The Texas Congressman remains a steady force in our rankings for the opposite reason Bachmann has slipped: A core group of unwavering supporters.

    “Not much in the way of news regarding Ron Paul’s campaign over the last two weeks. As before, his supporters are loyal and not likely to switch. On the other hand, he’s not gaining supporters either.”

    Another notes, “He’s loved by the Tea Party folks. The deficit crises is causing others to look in Cong. Paul’s direction. Although most of those new looks won’t vote that way, enough will to move him to third place.”

    Paul’s pin-point focus on the economy may be seen as a detriment in socially conservative Iowa GOP circles, but he’s also making inroads with evangelicals and other religious conservatives. Combine that with the fact that he’s picked up two Legislative endorsements, one by a lawmaker that is particularly beloved by tea party activists, and there could be some forward momentum in Iowa for Paul.

  5. Mitt Romney — Despite the fact that the former governor of Massachusetts has publicly indicated that he will not participate in the Ames Straw Poll and has hinted that Iowa won’t be his key focus in the caucus lead-up, our panelists note that he is a serious candidate who maintains serious support in Iowa. Beyond that, he is seen as an establishment, non-religious candidate that could keep the Iowa process elevated and also present a campaign that could offer a true challenge to incumbent Obama.

    “Mitt Romney finally made a visit to Iowa. Unfortunately for him, his speech in Des Moines was interrupted by fire alarms going off due to some burnt popcorn. That interruption might have saved him from some uncomfortable moments as he was apparently taking some pointed questions from the moderator of the event. Romney also began his talk by saying, ‘It’s good to be home.’ The line was meant to be light-hearted, but later reaction by bloggers suggested that it didn’t go over very well.”

    Romney’s core support group, according to the panelists aren’t enough to provide him a caucus win, and he runs the risk — by not being competitive in Iowa — that another candidate will catch fire and be pushed into the national spotlight as his ultimate undoing in New Hampshire.

Other 2012 candidates given a rank by our panelists, but not enough to rise them into our top five were former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. Both of these individuals are noted for their support from the tea party and social conservatives — demographics considered to play a large role in the upcoming caucuses. While the mention is a good thing for Palin, who has yet to commit to 2012, it’s more of a slap for Santorum, who continues to actively campaign in the Hawkeye State without winning much broad-based support.

But the biggest loser, so to speak, in this edition of the Power Rankings is former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrinch. A previous top-five mention by our panelists, Gingrich failed to garner even one ranking in our current rankings.

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