Romney tops Hotline’s inaugural list of GOP 2012 contenders

Alternate headline: “Blogger panders shamelessly for 800-comment thread.”

Seriously, Haley Barbour ahead of both Huckabee and Palin? C’mon.

1. MITT ROMNEY
The GOP has a history of nominating the person who has stood in line, and after finishing second behind John McCain in 2008, Romney is now that person. He’s got the necessary infrastructure, fundraising ability, and intangibles to be the undisputed front-runner, but how convincingly he answers nagging questions about his individual mandate in Commonwealth Care will determine how long he keeps the top spot…

4. HALEY BARBOUR
Many believe Barbour is the best tactician, and one of the best politicians, in the Republican Party. His tenure at the Republican Governors Association was a virtually unqualified success, and he can claim credit for down-ballot wins, too. But as the Mississippian himself points out, he’s a lawyer, a lobbyist, and a politician – three strikes in an atmosphere that distains the establishment…

5. MIKE HUCKABEE
Whether Huckabee is serious about running or just wants his name out there to make money is an unsolved mystery. But no one should underestimate the most charismatic man in the field. He won Iowa once, he can do it again. Still, fiscal conservatives don’t like Huck, and he’ll have to answer for releasing a criminal who murdered four police officers in Washington state late last year.

6. SARAH PALIN
As with Huckabee, we question Palin’s intentions. We’d take her potential candidacy more seriously if she weren’t banking millions from books, speaking engagements, and reality shows. Is she only keeping her name in the 2012 conversation to stay relevant? One thing is for sure: Palin has a stronger connection to an ascendant base than any other candidate. But if she’s serious about running, she will need to assemble precisely the sort of traditional campaign she has eschewed in the past.

Follow the link up top for their criteria. All they’re really measuring at this point is how much money each has raised and how far each has advanced in building a campaign organization. Romney and Pawlenty are indeed ahead of the curve at the moment and Barbour could pull things together quickly thanks to his track record at the RNC and RGA. The surprise is Thune at number three, which I don’t really understand. Yes, yes, he’s handsome and conservative and has a heartland pedigree and very little paper trail — which makes him an ideal cipher against Obama if the economy stays poor and 2012 becomes a pure “referendum” election. But … no one’s heard of him. Shouldn’t base voters be able to pick him out of a lineup before we anoint him a heavier favorite than Palin?

PPP’s also out with a multistate poll today showing good news for Romney in New Hampshire, where they have him at 40/13 over Huckabee. One of the Conservatives4Palin people dutifully e-mailed me to warn that an AP exit poll last week had it 39/18 for Romney over Palin, with Huckabee at 11. Either way, he’ll be a heavy favorite there early — which, as PPP notes, might not be a good thing for him:

If Romney really does run he puts the New Hampshire primary at some risk of being irrelevant. If he continues to post huge leads in the polls there other top contenders could end up just writing it off and focusing their efforts on states like Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida that could have more competitive contests.

What does he do then? Stay there and campaign anyway, knowing that it’s a must-win and he can’t afford to take any chances, or start moving money into South Carolina and Florida sooner than expected? He needs momentum to compete on a social-con playing field in South Carolina; if everyone else pulls out of New Hampshire early, the momentum from winning there will be diluted. What’ll be really interesting is if Daniels or some other dark horse makes a run at him up there, forcing him to defend the state, while the winner of the Iowa caucuses moves directly on to SC to start campaigning there. In that case, you’ll have the “centrist” candidates waging war on each other in New Hampshire while the “true conservative” is already busy stumping for votes in the next, and most important, primary. What would Karl Rove say?

Here’s Rick Perry issuing the obligatory warning to Romney to repudiate RomneyCare sooner rather than later. Skip ahead to around four minutes in.

Update: Almost forgot. Isn’t there a rather conspicuous omission from Hotline’s rankings?