Who will be the GOP's nominee in 2012? Place your bets now.

Because there's almost nothing more fun than speculating about presidential candidates, we present to you the earliest comprehensive list of Republican possibles for 2012.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

This week in ZDNet Government, we begin our in-depth political coverage of the upcoming 2010 mid-term elections. This article continues the election coverage, which began on Monday with Attacking the Tea Party head-on would be a strategic mistake for both major parties.

The 2012 presidential elections are more than two years away. Regardless of what pundits may say, the Democratic nominee is almost guaranteed to be President Obama.

On the other hand, after a disastrous election cycle in 2008, the GOP has no single probable nominee, leaving the field wide open to possibility.

Because there's almost nothing more fun than speculating about presidential candidates, we present to you the earliest comprehensive list of Republican possibles for 2012. This list contains 29 names you're probably going to hear more about over the next 24 months.

One of them is likely to be the GOP nominee. Who knows? It's also possible that one of the following will be a Tea Party nominee (or, heck, they could be the same thing).

No matter what happens, for those of us who view presidential elections the way sports fans view the World Series, the next two years are going to be fodder for glorious pontification and prognostication.

Next: The obvious choices  »

«  Previous: Place your bets

The obvious choices

Heading into a presidential primary, the initial front-runners are usually those who were successful in the previous election or who are strong figures in the party. Given that loose cannon Sarah Palin is the heir apparent, 2012 promises to be completely unpredictable and incredibly fun entertainment.

Sarah Palin

The former governor and 2008 Vice Presidential candidate would be the obvious top choice for the 2012 nomination, except for one factor: she's Sarah Palin. That makes her completely unpredictable. Palin's got media chops and star power that puts her in a class all her own. Her "mamma grizzlies" theme is resonating deeply with women and mothers all across the country, and despite (or perhaps because of) her detractors, she has a wildly loyal support base.

But does she have the discipline to run a national campaign and, after unexpectedly resigning as governor of Alaska, does she even intend to run? She is the single biggest wild card in probably the last 30 years of national politics and that's part of what makes her story so fascinating.

Mike Huckabee

Speaking of improbable front runners, there's former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee had no campaign organization and even less cash, yet finished the 2008 campaign with the second largest number of delegates, even ahead of the far more economically strong Mitt Romney.

Huckabee combines an every-man likability with a strong media reach due to his Fox television show. An ordained minister by profession, he surprised many pundits with his fairly poor showing among evangelicals in 2008. But, with an endorsement from Chuck Norris and a proven track record of creating astonishing success out of absolutely nothing, Huckabee's not to be dismissed out of hand.

Mitt Romney

The wealthy former Massachusetts governor exudes confidence and capability, but he found himself damaged in the 2008 campaign because he also seemed to be a bit more slick than most voters were comfortable with. Interestingly, his Mormon background didn't appear to cost him too many votes and he seemed to get along fine with those of other faiths.

Romney's real problem is he's just a bit too full of himself -- and that comes across in everything he says and does, to his detriment.

Ron Paul

Although Ron Paul didn't win any states in 2008's primary, he did wind up with 35 delegates, more than anyone else in the field other than McCain, Huckabee, and Romney. At 74, he's older than John McCain. His strident debate responses and obvious annoyance with the other candidates, along with with strong support of the Constitution and small government endeared him to much of populace while also sometimes making him appear a little nuts.

Wildly popular among some Tea Partiers, the 2010 conservative CPAC poll put him far ahead of all the other possible candidates polled.

While Paul often looks more like a mad scientist than a president, and his statements and political positions are often at odds with Republican doctrine, Paul's strong support of the Constitution and civil liberties along with his anti-interventionist (and therefore, anti-war) stance has made him a surprisingly popular figure, even across party lines.

Newt Gingrich

Professor Gingrich came to prominence in 1994 when he helped author the Republican Contract for America plan, which resulted in the GOP taking back the House for the first time in 40 years and making Gingrich the first Republican Speaker of the House in four decades.

Shortly after his historic victory, Newt allowed budgets to expire, effectively shutting down portions of the American government. Instead of seeming like a strong leader, Newt lost face when he implied part of the reason for the shutdown was that he was angry when President Clinton didn't invite him to a chat on Air Force One. His popularity with the House GOP collapsed after losing House seats in the 1998 midterms. He was also found to be cheating on his wife with a woman 23 years his junior while at the same time criticizing Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky tryst.

Although occasionally seen on television since the late 1990s, Newt's effectively been in suspended animation for the last decade. Having apparently been thawed out, he's seeing a resurgence in popularity at Tea Party events. Clearly one of the most intelligent and deeply knowledgeable of the GOP politicians, he often seems pompous and relatively unlikeable.

Gingrich is unlikely to win the nomination unless the other front-runners completely crash and burn. He is, however, a possible VP pick for Palin in that his intelligence and experience form a strong balance to her mix of inexperience and populist popularity.

Next: The rising stars  »

«  Previous: The obvious choices

The rising stars

Presidential elections aren't always won by the obvious choices or those with the most experience. Sometimes, as in the case with Barack Obama, the winners are those who are highly visible rising stars.

Bob McDonnell

Just days after assuming the office of Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address. The staging, in the Chamber of the Virginia House of Delegates, was unusual and may have violated one of the House's own rules.

Although McDonnell has little track record outside of a strong win for the governorship, he's got that presidential look and clear party support.

Scott Brown

A former male centerfold, the presidential-looking Scott Brown managed to score an upset victory for Ted Kennedy's senate seat in Massachusetts.

While it would have been a much more impressive victory if Ted weren't dead, Brown has operated with about as much of a middle-of-the-road strategy as it's possible to have in the Republican Party without being banished to the cheap seats.

Although he has almost no experience, he's quite appealing and as America has shown before (possibly to our detriment), we're often willing to elect appealing-but-inexperienced over more qualified candidates.

Chris Christie

The first Republican governor in New Jersey in 12 years, Christie won handily over John Corzine, who's campaign included digs against Christie's weight.

Although he claims he'd never run, the governor has distinguished himself with a "get the job done" attitude towards dealing with the state's fiscal problems and like most of us from New Jersey, could certainly hold his own in a fight.

Next: The used-to-be mentioned  »

«  Previous: The rising stars

The used-to-be mentioned

Four years is a very long time in politics and those who were the rising stars at the end of one election cycle are often the also-rans in the next.

Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal was a rising star until he was given the opportunity of a lifetime: giving the Republican response to President Obama's address to Congress. Unfortunately, Jindal came off as having all the on-screen presence of a wet blanket. The youngest governor in the U.S. and the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history, Jindal is quite popular nationally.

Unfortunately, Jindal can't seem to "bring it" with the star power, and so he stands almost no chance of competing with media naturals like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee on the national scene.

Tim Pawlenty

A conservative governor in Minnesota, a relatively liberal state, Pawlenty has managed to tread a fine line and appeal to both conservatives and leaning independents. Pawlenty was widely considered to be on the short list for McCain's VP (had the nominee paid any attention to the short list).

Retiring from office at the end of this year, Pawlenty seems to have lost much of that new-star smell. If he runs, he'll have to make his own momentum.

Next: The party power-players  »

«  Previous: The used-to-be mentioned

The party power-players

Popularity isn't the only way to win the nomination. Sometimes raw political power can help catapult a politician into the nomination.

John Boehner

Incessantly mocked on late-night TV for his unnatural-seeming orange-looking skin tone, the Ohio congressman hasn't indicated presidential aspirations, but has repeatedly gone toe-to-toe with Democratic House juggernaut Nancy Pelosi. He hasn't been able to regularly win against Pelosi, but he's definitely made her life miserable along the way.

Eric Cantor

This Virginia representative is two years younger than Barack Obama and has become a major Republican power-player in the House, acting as an enforcer and consigliere to Boehner.

The only Jewish Republican in the House, Cantor might make ideal VP-bait if the party nominates someone who wouldn't otherwise carry Florida and the northeast.

Haley Barbour

Courtesy of term limits, the popular Mississippi governor will be out of a job in 2011, freeing him up to play on the national scene. A highly-successful former chairman of the Republican Party and member of the Republican Governors Association, Barbour isn't a front-runner, but he could be a contender.

Next: The wild long-shots  »

«  Previous: The party power-players

The wild long-shots

American voters are often unpredictable and political pundits are often wrong. That potent combination means that it's possible for someone like an obscure Arkansas governor to come from nowhere and win the nomination. In honor of the fact that just about anyone can run for office, we present to you 2012's long shots.

Michael Steele

You'll notice that Michael Steele isn't listed in party power-players. That's because the GOP head has become more of an embarrassment than a power-broker, what with paid junkets to lesbian domination bars and whatnot.

Even so, Politico's Roger Simon thinks Steele has a chance because we don't always elect the serious candidate. What Simon says might be valid. No one is less serious than Michael Steele.

Michele Bachmann

Nobody in their right mind would nominate the almost insanely conservative Michele Bachmann for President. But Bachmann has shown some smarts by appealing to the extremes of the electorate and starting a Tea Party caucus in Congress.

She's a long-shot VP candidate, if the front-runner needs to tap the lunatic fringe for more votes.

Jeb Bush

The younger brother of the former President, John Ellis Bush might have been a serious contender if it weren't for the brand damage Dubya did to the Bush name. By all indications, Jeb was a good governor for Florida, but his careers in banking and real estate won't exactly endear him to an increasingly angry electorate.

Still, under the right circumstances, he has a chance and would probably make a credible candidate in his own right, although he claims he doesn't intend to run.

Rush Limbaugh

Some claim that Rush Limbaugh has become the voice of the Republican Party. With the highest-rated talk radio show in the U.S., Limbaugh's reach is something traditional candidates can only dream about. If he decided to run, it's clear he'd be able to draw on an army of "ditto-heads," but his very Rushness is unlikely to be able to move him into a mainstream campaign.

No, we didn't mention Glenn Beck. If you think Limbaugh is an unlikely candidate, then you'll agree Beck's even more unlikely. Stephen Colbert has a better chance than Beck. Heck, Claudette Colbert has a better chance than Beck and she's been dead since 1996.

Dick Cheney

Some say that when Darth Vader has nightmares, he dreams of Dick Cheney. Some say that every time a little child screams, it gives Dick Cheney the power to take another breath. All we know is he's called Mr. Cranky for a reason.

There's almost no chance that the physically frail Mr. Cheney will run for president, but you can be sure his trademark disapproving scowl will be seen all over TV during the campaign season.

Liz Cheney

Liz Cheney, the this-one's-not-gay daughter of the former Vice President, has somehow managed to make Michele Bachmann look moderate. In 2007, the distaff Cheney was one of the co-chairs for Fred Thompson's astonishingly short-lived and late-to-the-party presidential campaign.

More recently, she's become an increasingly visible spokesperson for conservatives and a proponent of "enhanced interrogation techniques". It makes one wonder how she'd approach the back-and-forth questioning in a presidential debate.

Jan Brewer

The current governor of Arizona wasn't elected, but instead took office when Janet Napolitano left office to become President Obama's head of Homeland Security. Brewer is on our list for one reason and one reason only: Arizona's controversial immigration law, which put her on the map.

On the ballet in her own right in November, Brewer's chance for higher office rests entirely on the question of how nasty the immigration issue becomes across America.

If a front-runner needs an anti-immigration poster child for a running mate, Brewer might be a Hail Mary choice, but that's only if she can stop embarrassing herself on camera.

Next: The might-be-rising-stars by 2012  »

«  Previous: The wild long-shots

The might-be-rising-stars by 2012

If you take one thing away from this article, it's that elections are unpredictable. This early in the game, it's tough to tell who will capture the public's imagination in 25 months. That said, some newly-on-the-scene politicians, if they win elected office, have the potential to go national.

Carly Fiorina

Much too early in her political career for this fired HP chief executive to win the 2012 nomination. She was mentioned often as a possible veep in 2008 and won the GOP California senate primary with the help of an endorsement from Sarah Palin.

Consider her on the short list of VP picks whether Palin goes all the way or not.

Meg Whitman

Worth billions, this former eBay chief is one of California's wealthiest woman -- and successful business builders. Unlike Fiorina, who was hired, then shortly later canned by her board, Whitman grew eBay revenues more than a thousand times over.

She's been less visible on the national scene, but definitely comes equipped with a solid business resume.

Rand Paul

Rand Paul is the ophthalmologist son of Ron Paul. A darling of the Tea Party set, Rand Paul recently won the Republican primary in Kentucky.

He trades on his father's name (for good and bad), but has a tremendous level of grass roots support, having broken fund-raising records repeatedly.

Next: The fun-to-mock  »

«  Previous: The might-be-rising-stars by 2012

The fun-to-mock

One of the greatest joys for those of us who comment rather than do is the opportunity to mock. Here, then, are the most mock-worthy for 2012.

Joe Lieberman

No one is more fun to mock than party turncoat Joe Lieberman. Now an independent, he's likely to take any safe opportunity offered to him. Odds of winning: none.

Mark Sanford

Before he was caught hiking the Appalachian Trail, this philandering phool was considered a rising star in the GOP. Somehow, he's still Governor of South Carolina, but he'll never be seen on a presidential campaign.

John McCain

John McCain's been in office so long, he was preceded by Barry Goldwater. Seriously. For real.

Resoundingly trounced in 2008, he's widely considered responsible for creating the Sarah Palin phenomenon. At 74, he just won the primary battle for yet another Senate term.

It's unlikely he'll for run for President again, but McCain's gotten increasingly conservative and increasingly critical of President Obama.

Rudy Guliani

Mr. 9-11 shocked everyone in 2008 by going from GOP front-runner to failure almost overnight. Apparently Rudy thought running for office involved sitting home and waiting for everyone to love him.

Since that strategy required no campaign infrastructure, no cash, and no effort, there's no reason to think he won't sit home in 2012 and once again wait for everyone to love him.

Next: The wish-they-could run  »

«  Previous: The fun-to-mock

The wish-they-could run

Finally, not every dream candidate can run. Some aren't qualified, some are barred by law, and some are just too young. But, hey, we can dream, can't we?

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Despite the Governator's reputation as an action hero, Schwarzenegger hasn't been able to keep California's fiscal situation under control. Since he was born outside the U.S., Schwarzenegger's not eligible to run for President, but wouldn't it be fun if he could?

Meghan McCain

John McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain is infinitely appealing, outspoken, and already politically savvy. Look for her on the ticket against Chelsea in 2024.

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Did I leave anyone out? What about Dems? Do think anyone stands a chance of challenging President Obama? Let me know in the comments below.

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