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Long-shot candidates could bring surprises in 2012

Posted: November 22, 2011 9:46 a.m.
Updated: November 23, 2011 5:00 a.m.

At one point in time it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and then Herman Cain. All three were labeled potential presidential contenders and the strongest “anti-Mitt Romney” element in the 2012 race, but goofs and gaffes quickly had their poll numbers heading south.

Now Newt Gingrich has moved into that top-tier slot, but is he the real deal or just the flavor of the month?

With the number of skeletons hanging in Gingrich’s closet, it’s likely the latter. Too many past indiscretions as a congressman and even a few that occurred during the current campaign will probably sink any real chance for a successful Gingrich campaign.

So does that mean it’s a lock for Romney to win the party’s nomination and face Obama in 2012?

Possibly, but two long-shot candidates, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, may throw a curve ball into the process with their growing poll numbers in the two earliest campaign stops -- New Hampshire and Iowa.

While the level of national recognition and overall support is too insufficient for Huntsman and Paul to yank the nomination away from Romney, both could still significantly impact the Republican contest.

With Huntsman’s anemic poll numbers among Republicans on the national level, it’s become increasingly obvious that his campaign strategy is to put all his eggs in the New Hampshire basket.  

His aim seems to be to somehow win the Granite State, leapfrog the other candidates and win the party’s nomination.

With less than two months until the New Hampshire primary, he would need astronomically good luck to accomplish that feat. But a relatively strong second- or third-place finish could help him gain legitimacy in the other early voting states of Florida, Nevada and South Carolina.

But perhaps the overarching goal for the Huntsman campaign is to come out of the 2012 race with as little damage as possible.

Only 51 years old, the former governor of Utah and ambassador to China may be able to position himself as a viable candidate for future presidential campaigns. 

Huntsman obviously hoped his numbers would be stacking up better at this point in the campaign, but he may just want to keep his fingers crossed for another shot if Obama can beat the perceived “flip-flopper” Romney or one of the more “extremist” candidates next November.

 If the Republican Party can’t beat an incumbent president during a time of 9 percent unemployment, then the GOP may look to rebrand its image to a more center-right mentality in order to be more electable. Such a change would likely mean positive gains for Huntsman’s future political plans.

Paul, however, may have a more immediate impact on the Republican race. His poll numbers in Iowa have spiked high enough to be in a virtual tie with Cain, Gingrich and Romney in the Hawkeye State. In a political cycle where many voters seem to be looking for something dramatically different, Paul has been able to cash in on the anti-establishment trend that has turned into one of the many thorns in the side of Romney.

Voters in Iowa, however, don’t have the greatest track record for picking the party’s nominee. Eventual 2008 nominee John McCain, for instance, finished in a tie for third in the Hawkeye State during the last presidential election.

What could happen if Paul pulls off an upset and wins the Iowa caucuses? It may be a bit of a blow to Romney’s campaign, but he still has strong support in New Hampshire and many of the states scheduled beyond the first-in-the-South contest in South Carolina.

So far, Romney’s poll numbers have been fairly consistent, capping off near the mid-20s nationally. But what voters will soon decide is whether that static support will be a ceiling for Romney or a floor for him to attract additional campaign backers.

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