Donald Trump departed from the 2012 presidential race, which he never actually entered, in typical Trump style, supremely confident that he would have won if only he actually had run.
That's also what he said when he flirted with a presidential run in 1988 as a Democrat and in 1999 as a Reform Party candidate. For some people, running for president is a life-long ambition. For Trump, it's become a marketing scheme.
His announcement happened to coincide with NBC's deadline for a decision on whether he would be around to host his reality-style game show "Celebrity Apprentice" next fall, the New York Times reported. His new contract may pay him as much as $50 million, the Times says. Such a deal.
But as we watch the golden glow of Trump's would-be candidacy and famous comb-over fade into the sunset, his joke of a candidacy tells us something serious about the overall 2012 race. He saw his opportunity because Republicans at this late date still have no clear front-runner. Enter the Donald.
He soared to the front-ranks of hopefuls, tying former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in polls for first place, largely because of TV-boosted name recognition. Significantly, Huckabee used his own Saturday night variety show on Fox News as a platform to announce his own non-candidacy and boost his program's ratings. That's show biz.
The swarm of candidates left behind by their departures can best be sorted into three categories of viability: The TV Stars, the Cult Heroes and the Viable Invisibles.
Category One: The TV Stars have media fame that precedes them.
Like Huckabee and Trump, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would have to walk away from lucrative media stardom to run for the White House and what she so colorfully called "actual responsibilities" in 2008. If "actual responsibilities," as she described her former job as mayor of Wasilla, are what she wants, she'll have to explain why she walked away early from her job as governor.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania lost their Fox News contracts as paid contributors when they launched presidential bids.
Although the telegenic Mitt Romney doesn't have a TV job, he's a star after his 2008 presidential race. The former Massachusetts governor's misfortune is to be burdened with glaring flip-flops on such issues as guns, gay rights, abortion and healthcare.
Category Two: The Cult Heroes have passionate but noticeably narrow support. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favorite among libertarians, leads this pack based on his high name recognition, although his 2008 presidential turnout never emerged out of the single digits.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota hasn't decided whether to run. She's a darling of the tea party crowd who shows remarkably little desire to campaign to anyone else, although with Huckabee out, tea partiers might be all she needs in Iowa.
Moving up fast is Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. His poll numbers surged after his liberal-bashing performance at the first-of-the-season candidates' debate ("The objective of the liberals," declares Cain, "is to destroy this country"). With Trump out of the race, watch for Cain and Bachmann to rise on the shoulders of the right's rage, fear and resentment voters.
Category Three: The Viable Invisibles.
These are the promising, pragmatic, managerial conservatives who make good governors and appeal to the Grand Old Party's establishment but still remain largely unknown and unexciting outside of their home states. Like Romney, they have been pushed to the right to please the GOP base while trying not to alarm the moderates that the eventual nominee will need to beat President Barack Obama.
With Huckabee out of the race, Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty could have the best chance of winning Iowa, giving him some badly needed help with his name recognition. If Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels decides to run, he probably won't win values-conscious Iowa. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon like Romney, appeals to the party establishment but is burdened by having been Obama's China ambassador, a role that Obama does not hesitate to praise at every public opportunity.
See a pattern? The candidates with the best chance to beat the incumbent president tend to have the least chance of winning their own party's nomination. At this point, President Obama's biggest worry should be overconfidence.