A close No. 2 is Mitt Romney. Romney doesn’t have the political gifts of Mike Huckabee. He is stiff on the campaign trail. He doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor. In his last campaign, he seemed to run away from some of his most impressive achievements as governor (healthcare). He did run as a right-wing Christian conservative. But that didn’t seem believable to right-wingers (they don’t win statewide races in Massachusetts), nor to most Christians (especially Southern Christians who have a hard time accepting his Mormon religion) nor to conservatives, who don’t see him as one of their own. But Romney has other advantages. He has truly impressive experience in the business world, he has access to a lot of campaign cash, he has real ideas on how America can compete on the global stage, and he has much of the party’s elite, who fear Huckabee’s Christian populism, on his side.

Sarah Palin is the great unknown. She has a passionate and loyal following, and the ability to make news at the drop of a hat. The more the national media attack her, the more passionate her following gets. She earned a lot of chits in the last campaign, and she has proven that she can give a speech with the best of them. But she has some obvious vulnerabilities. She hasn’t shown the ability to turn her passionate followers into an effective army. She doesn’t seem like she has much in the way of organizational capability. She is prone to gaffes and to silly statements that have proven to be better than gold bullion to our nation’s comedy writers. Her polling among moderate Republicans, female voters and independents is toxic. And it is unclear if she is running for president or working to get her own talk show.

Another great unknown is Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty’s greatest attribute seems to be that he can win in a blue state like Minnesota. He did yeoman’s work as governor, he has a good record, for the party’s base, on life and tax issues, and he has an inspiring life story. He seems to be running, as he has hired talented campaign staff to help him navigate the first steps to making a run. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTo woo black voters in Georgia, Dems need to change their course of action Senate panel again looks to force Trump’s hand on cyber warfare strategy Senate panel advances 6B defense policy bill MORE was rumored to have seriously considered him for his vice presidential running mate before changing his mind and going with Palin (I wonder how that would have changed things). He is largely untested on the national stage, however, and it is unclear how he will raise the money necessary to make a serious run.

These four seem to be the top candidates right now for the Republican nomination in 2012. Here are three who should consider running, but probably won’t.

Mitch Daniels: Daniels is not the most exciting communicator of the bunch, but he is an effective manager, he knows how government works (and doesn’t work) and he is a political success story (having won reelection in Indiana in a tough year for Republicans). And he has one attribute that might be very important for the next president, after the big-spending ways of the current occupant: He is cheap. Daniels is notoriously tight with the taxpayers’ money. I, for one, want a cheap president next time around.

Haley Barbour: Probably the best natural politician that Republicans have on their team right now is the Mississippi governor. He showed during Hurricane Katrina how he could effectively manage a crisis, and he has helped his home state recover from that devastating natural disaster. Yes, Barbour is a Southerner and yes, he was once a lobbyist, but he knows how to put together winning coalitions. It was Haley Barbour who helped lead the GOP to its first congressional majority in 40 years. He is very, very popular with the Republican base.

Jeb Bush: Most analysts think that Jeb, not George, should have been the Bush to take the White House after the Clinton years. He is flat-out smart. Unlike his brother, he digs deep into policy, and when he was governor of Florida, he got his fingernails dirty in the real work of governing. Bush governed as a competent conservative, and he was tested consistently when his home state was battered by continuous hurricanes. But the Bush name is still a bit radioactive, and he is likely to sit this one out.

And here are two dark horses:

David Petraeus: The same folks who were pushing Colin Powell in 1996 and 2000 are now pushing Petraeus for 2012. There is no evidence that he is even remotely interested, but the general could be a formidable force should he decide to run. The architect of the successful surge strategy in Iraq, Petraeus is currently overseeing the strategy in Afghanistan, among other regions. Should the president reject the recommendations of the Pentagon on troop increases, and should that decision prove to be a mistake, Petraeus could be a real contender in three years.

John Kasich: People forget about how Kasich electrified the Congress and led Republicans to a balanced budget in the late 1990s. An excellent public speaker who combines policy wonkiness with political acumen, he dropped out of politics for the last decade after losing the presidential primary to George Bush. Kasich is currently running for governor of Ohio next year. Should he win in that increasingly blue state, he could become a household name and a serious contender for the White House.

It is awfully early to predict how this is all going to work out. Huckabee and Romney basically tied for second place in the Republican primary last time, and Republicans usually like to pick the candidate who has earned the title “It’s his turn.” Clearly, should Palin run, that would make Romney happy and Huckabee unhappy, as she would split the social-conservative vote. Should Palin not run, look for Huckabee and Romney (who clearly don’t love each other very much) to tear each other up, giving Pawlenty his opening. Should the spending continue to grow out of control, someone like Daniels has an opening. Should the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan grow worse because of the president’ s decision, a “draft Petraeus” movement could grow stronger.

The future remains unclear. What is clear is that the Republican Party needs a leader who can not only unify the base, but also can attract independent voters, who increasingly make up a bigger percentage of the voting population. Without those swing voters, the next presidential election might just swing back to President Obama.