As 2011 dawns and all the political world turns its attention to the GOP presidential nominating contest, it is worth noting that anything can happen. For example, it was largely unimaginable a year ago today that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) wouldn't be a senator from Delaware if a Biden chose not to run. Same with Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), a year ago; who expected Massachusetts voters would choose a Republican to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the Senate?
In surveying the broad field of potential GOP contenders — Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThunePolls: Hiking estate tax less popular than taxing mega wealth, income Will Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall MORE (R-S.D.), Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, John Bolten, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE, Mike Huckabee and Govs. Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour — we can assume that some of these names will soon fall off the list.
At this point, whatever happens will be a surprise. The Republican Party, which has no leader, has been cleansed by a leaderless movement, the Tea Party. As Matt Bai described it in his New York Times column this week, this dynamic could lead to the "most unruly and flat-out fascinating contest Republicans have staged in 35 years." Bai notes the last GOP contest that truly kept Republicans on the edge of their seats was in 1976, when "Reagan channeled a grass roots movement that was still reeling from what it saw as the ideological betrayal and humiliating corruption of the Nixon era, just as today's Tea Party members are smoldering over the party's record during the Bush years." This time, he said, there is no "default candidate" to turn to.
The lack of an obvious No. 2 makes the contest so unpredictable, more exciting and ultimately more of an opportunity for the GOP to define itself anew. Romney, though everyone argues he is next in line after 2008, is not safely positioned at the front of the pack this year. Yes, some big-money people are with him, and he wins big straw polls, and he might be the most experienced and best-organized candidate who learned from the mistakes of the first time. But Huckabee now tops the polls of likely Republican voters and some time spent talking privately with senior Republican operatives will convince you that his vulnerabilities over his own bout with passing healthcare reform in Massachusetts could have damaged him irreparably with the grassroots conservatives who were so decisive in the 2010 midterm elections. (Bai also points out Romney won fewer delegates than Huckabee did.)
People who are in on the conversations say Pawlenty and Romney are in, that Thune wants to run and so does Barbour. Barbour has had a bad few weeks with his comments about the segregated South and the use of his state plane, but considering that he is one of the best strategists in the entire Republican Party and one of the best-positioned to raise the most money, it is entirely possible that he could be the last man standing. Palin wants everyone to think she is running, and at this point, why wouldn't she want us to think that? Huckabee appears to want in, but money is a concern.
Let's also stop assuming the Tea Party influence will be decisive in two years. The Tea Party, which moved both parties to the right, might not ultimately move the 2012 election in the same direction. As the debate over the role of government heats up during the next year as the two parties work to cut spending, the 70 percent of voters who don't want to cut defense spending or Social Security or Medicare will have to make choices. They will soon learn that entitlement spending eats up most of the budget, and their reactions to decisions made in Congress or proposed by President Obama will likely steer the nominating process as much or more than the Tea Party will. Does the Tea Party primary purging of 2010 repeat itself in 2012, or will the Republican Party coalesce around an establishment candidate like Barbour or Daniels?
A year has never been longer in politics, given how volatile this electorate is. There is no telling what will happen come January of 2012.
Happy new year!

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