Thanks to my chairmanship of the Executive Roundtable for the Republican Governor’s Association, I have had the privilege of knowing some of the party's most influential leaders. This, plus concerns on the current Administration’s direction (think assault on free enterprise and march toward socialism) have led me to some early thoughts on who might both lead our party back and who might be our nominee in 2012.
So, for better, or for worse, based on my personal experiences, here are my top ten who are leading the debate today, some of whom we should be looking to for 2012. Given that I believe the solutions to most of our country’s problems aren’t found in Washington, you will find few on my list who serve in Congress.
1. Mitt Romney -- The almost-nominee with the established organization, fundraising network, time, and talent to get the nomination this time. He does retain an image problem with some Republicans, who are not sold on his conservative credentials or upset with him for changing his emphasis of issues from his time as governor to presidential candidate. But he is self-aware and very smart. I believe he will start reintroducing himself early on, and possibly be in the best position when the serious campaigning begins in early 2011.
2. Mark Sanford — Mark is the soft spoken but thoughtful and challenging leader of RGA. He could be a challenger to Mitt or on the ticket if he decides to go that way. His leadership on the stimulus funds was extremely important to the integrity of our small government values by rejecting the federal bailout in the first place and solution-minded innovation by agreeing to accept the money if and only if the South Carolina legislature used it to pay down the state's debt. At a time when the Republican Party needs to offer creative solutions, Mark is doing exactly that.
3. Haley Barbour -- Extremely sound on policies, clear thinking and the best political strategist, well liked by all factions, more likely a king maker than king, but one never knows. As governor of Mississippi, he did a far better job responding to Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath than Kathleen Blanco. Now she is not in office, but Barbour still is. He does not have the best name recognition, which may be a good thing considering that much of his career had been based in Washington. Now that he has credibility as an effective governor, that background may no longer be a liability, and should help him with fundraising. And he has always been a terrific organizer. Haley was RNC chairman during the 1994 Republican revolution. Maybe he has some ideas about how to recapture that spirit.
4. Dick Cheney -- That's right, I am putting Dick Cheney on this list. He deserves to be. He is willing and able to take it to Obama, no matter the criticism, and he's on point in defending the Bush-era policies that led to 8 years of safety, now endangered by the new administration letting political correctness trump clear thinking on national security. Of course, we know that he won't run but if the past few weeks tell us anything, he will be around. His presence alone will challenge other future leaders in the party to be more prepared, less squishy and sharper on core issues like foreign policy. And it would be fun to see the liberal establishment howl.
5. Emerging GOP Senate candidates in blue states -- Think Charlie Crist, and possibly George Pataki, Mark Kirk, or Mike Castle. Yes, they are moderates and especially a few weeks after Arlen Specter's opportunistic party switch "moderate" is all but a four-letter word. But can we ever expect to be a majority party without embracing a tent big philosophy that encourages those at the middle of the spectrum to think of themselves as Republicans? We need people like Mark Kirk and people like Mark Sanford both to be proud members of the GOP.
6. Sarah Palin -- She is vastly underestimated by the press, has an enormous grasp of issues and a strong devotion to what is important to Alaska, where she will be re-elected easily, and will be the most powerful money and mobilization magnet in GOP for some time.
7. Bob McDonnell -- No one outside of Virginia knows him yet, but he's the best GOP candidate for governor in many years. He is also and able to build a center-right majority. As such, he will win the 2009 race, and this will embolden others to run and start the way back for the GOP. If you have any doubts, look back at 1993 when after a 1992 drubbing for the GOP, the election of Allen and Whitman paved the way for takeover of Congress in 1994. Bob's victory will propel him to become one of the party’s biggest new stars.
8. Jon Huntsman -- His clarity and charismatic style combined with his call for inclusiveness and outreach continues to register with those who believe in the big tent approach, while being a strong leader on traditional issues dear to hearts of conservatives. If he does run for president, many will consider it an experiment in Republican re-branding, and the results may be far-reaching.
9. Paul Ryan -- At 39, Ryan is the the go-to budget expert in the House, with a clear and compelling message on economic reform. He is sure to continue prodding others to new policy ideas and proposals with his clear-thinking views. I believe he is sure to emerge as one of the party's leading voices and one who will be short-listed for VP in 2012. As a protégé of my great friend Jack Kemp, Paul Ryan is the real next coming of Jack.
10. Eric Cantor -- Like Ryan a forceful and clear-thinking leader with energy, charm, and smarts. His rise from working in his family's small business and then the Virginia legislature to a leadership role in the House GOP caucus is a true testament to his talent and dedication. My guess is he has what it takes to become Speaker of the House, and I'd bet that one day he will.
I've thought of others, like John McCain, for still being the most talked about and followed in Senate. Another promising leader is Mitch Daniels, who excelled in the Bush administration and is starting his second term as Indiana's governor. And perhaps I have missed a few, and can learn something from you. I welcome your feedback in the comments. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.