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Top 5 Republican presidential contenders, and 2 on the way out

Top 5 Republican presidential contenders, and 2 on the way out
© Greg Nash

At just under three years before the Republican presidential primaries, it’s as good a time as any to start handicapping the GOP field.

#1 Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS US raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks MORE: Of course Trump is in the lead. Whether in name recognition, approval rating or ballot test, Trump is far in front of any conceivable competition. And he has signaled his interest in running, although not a firm commitment. But Trump’s star has noticeably dimmed. In spite of high polling numbers and the non-stop Trump lovefest at CPAC, Trump only got 55 percent in the preference poll — that’s a terrible number considering 97 percent of attendees "approved" of Trump.

It’s a similar story in other polls. Trump’s own pollster, Tony Fabrizio, found only 51 percent of Republicans backing Trump for the 2024 nomination — in spite of an 81 percent approval rating for him. Are Republican voters looking at Trump as a loser? Possibly. A recent CNBC poll showed 54 percent of the public wanted Trump “to remove himself entirely from politics.” With that number, Trump likely would not crack 40 percent on a 2024 ballot test against Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden taps California workplace safety leader to head up OSHA Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS US mulling cash payments to help curb migration MORE or Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report How Kamala Harris can find the solution for the migration crisis White House unveils official portraits of Biden and Harris MORE.

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Trump won’t run if he thinks he will lose.

He can keep his pride claiming to be the victim of a rigged election once, but not twice.

If you get pickpocketed once in a New York subway, you’re a victim. If you get pickpocketed again, you’re the dope who can’t hold on to your wallet.

#2 Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Amazon wins union election — says 'our employees made the choice' Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists The growing threat of China's lawfare MORE: The senator from Florida had a pretty good four years. He mostly stayed out of Trump’s firing line, made no significant gaffes, and kept a solid conservative voting record. By laying low, he is not readily identified with Trump’s various outbursts and the post-election mess. As a first-time presidential candidate in 2016 he acquitted himself well.

GOP voters tend to go with known commodities. Since 1944 Republicans have only nominated a handful of first-timer presidential candidates. And experience counts for a lot in national politics. Should Trump not run, Rubio is in prime position to re-activate his network from 2016 and present himself as a relatively unscathed candidate.

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Rubio does have some problems. For one thing the Trump circus has taken up permanent residence in his backyard, with endless opportunities to cause problems during Rubio’s 2022 Senate re-election run. Laying low put him out of the public eye and has allowed more bombastic hopefuls to grab some of the limelight. Rubio will need to excite a newly populist base and sharpen his elbows if he wants the nomination, making Daylight Saving Time permanent might be a nice boost.

#3 Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonMcConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists POW/MIA flag moved back atop White House MORE: Like Rubio, the Arkansas senator been cautious about Trump’s post-election antics. Not getting caught up in all the sturm und drang not only helps insulate him from the blowback, he also avoids getting sucked into the mercurial and turbulent activities of the former President. Cotton has figured out Republicans need to get a new economic policy. His proposed trade of a minimum wage hike for tougher enforcement of immigration laws is a smart pivot. Putting it together with Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (R-Utah) helps build a bridge to Trump-skeptical Republicans and independents. And angering the snowflakes at the New York Times can only help.

Being a rookie on that national stage is a problem. Cotton has a lot of work to do to build a sufficient network of support. Avoiding mistakes and stumbles along the way will not be easy.

#4 Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyMcConnell in tricky spot with GOP, big biz Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate MORE: The junior senator from Missouri has made quite a name for himself in a short time. Infuriating liberals, bashing big tech and gaining enough of a profile to be touted as a presidential contender is quite a rise. Like Cotton, Hawley has figured out the gravity of the GOP is more anti-establishment and populist than ever. His early support for helicopter money during the pandemic made that clear. With a newly enhanced profile and rising grassroots popularity, Hawley is as strong as anyone.

But Hawley may have overplayed his hand — as newcomers to the spotlight often do. Hawley’s objections to the Electoral College vote in the immediate aftermath of the absurdist theater of Jan. 6th is classic short-term gain for long-term pain. By identifying himself so closely with Trump’s position he certainly helped himself amongst Trump’s acolytes, but practically all Democrats, most independents and a large chunk or Republicans disagree. They may like Hawley, but if GOP voters think he’s a loser, he won’t get far.

#5 Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians Cruz on Boehner: 'I wear with pride his drunken, bloviated scorn' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Let's make a deal on infrastructure, taxes MORE: The Texas senator should be second on the list. He gave Trump the toughest run in 2016. He doesn’t have to run for re-election in 2022, allowing him to devote full energy to a presidential run. And he had a pretty good four years under Trump staying off Trump’s radar, casting good conservative votes and even partnering with progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezNew York City's suicide mission should alarm the entire nation Marjorie Taylor Greene rakes in over .2M in first quarter The strategy Biden needs to pass his infrastructure plan MORE (D-N.Y.) on an anti-lobbyist bill.

But Cruz has had a couple of bad months.

Tagging along with Hawley on the Electoral College challenge (see above) was a bad bit of “me-too” politics. But even worse was his tropical escape from the Texas freeze and blackout. Yes, it’s overblown when compared to the egregious behavior of New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoNew York City's suicide mission should alarm the entire nation New York's wealthy could face 51.8 percent tax rate: report Rep. Lee Zeldin announces bid for New York governor MORE — but it’s just the kind of thing that infuriates voters. When voters are suffering, they want their elected officials to suffer too. Don’t count Cruz out, but he has a lot of work to do.

Possible other contenders: Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisButtigieg hopes cruises will return by mid-summer The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - World mourns the death of Prince Philip Trump hands Rubio coveted reelection endorsement in Florida MORE of Florida, Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - World mourns the death of Prince Philip The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Five things to watch for at the GOP's donor retreat MORE of South Dakota, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, and Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottPassage of FASTER Act is critical for food allergy community 2024 GOP White House hopefuls lead opposition to Biden Cabinet Democrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer MORE of South Carolina.

And two who are out of the running:

First out — Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Let's make a deal on infrastructure, taxes Overnight Energy: EPA pledges new focus on environmental justice | Republicans probe EPA firing of Trump-appointed science advisers | Biden administration asks court to toss kids' climate lawsuit Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster MORE: Pence now knows what blind loyalty to Trump gets you: Nothing.

If Pence had been the GOP standard-bearer in 2020, he probably would have won. He campaigned well and was strong in the one debate with Kamala Harris. Pence’s steadiness would have been a strong antidote to the craziness of 2020. Too bad he was stuck as Trump’s number two.

Pence would be a clear frontrunner after Trump if it wasn’t for Trump’s fury that Pence would not utterly ignore the Constitution. If there is one thing that can be sure politically, it’s that Trump will do anything and everything to sabotage Pence.

Second out — Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyBiden funding decision inflames debate over textbooks for Palestinian refugees The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Let's make a deal on infrastructure, taxes Pence launches conservative political group MORE: It’s cruel but true, one mistake is all it takes to wreck presidential dreams. Haley was looking good right up to Jan. 6th. But she didn’t understand that she had to pick a side — and picking both sides is always fatal. After criticizing Trump and feeling the blowback, Haley tried to crawl back into Trumpworld. And that never works.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.