Unified Field Theory of 2012, Axiom One: The more the Republicans can make the 2012 election like 2010, the better their chances of winning.
The 2010 Democratic shellacking had the distinction of being the most ideological election in 30 years. It was driven by one central argument in its several parts: the size and reach of government, spending and debt, and, most fundamentally, the nature of the American social contract. 2010 was a referendum on the Obama experiment in hyper-liberalism. It lost resoundingly.
Axiom Two: The less attention the Republican candidate draws to him/herself, the better the chances of winning. To the extent that 2012 is about ideas, about the case for smaller government, Republicans have a decided edge. If it's a referendum on the fitness and soundness of the Republican candidate -- advantage Obama.
Axiom Three: No baggage and no need for flash. Having tried charisma in 2008, the electorate is not looking for a thrill up the leg in 2012. It's looking for solid, stable, sober and, above all, not scary.
Given these Euclidean truths, here's the early line. (Remember: This is analysis, not advocacy.)
Michele Bachmann: Tea party favorite. Appeals to Palinites. Could do well in Iowa. Hard to see how she makes her way through the rest of the primary thicket to win the nomination.
Donald Trump: He's not a candidate, he's a spectacle. He's also not a conservative. The Lions have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl.
The major candidates
Mitt Romney: Serious guy. Pre-vetted (2008). Tons of private- and public-sector executive experience. He'd be the prohibitive front-runner except for Massachusetts' Romneycare. For an election in which the main issue is excessive government (see Axiom One), that's a huge liability. He goes out at 5-1.
Newt Gingrich: Smart guy. A Vesuvius of ideas. Some brilliance, lots of lava. Architect of a historic Republican victory in 1994. Rocky speakership. Unfortunate personal baggage. 12-1.
Haley Barbour: Successful governor. Experienced Washington hand. Abundant charm. Baggage: Years of lobbying, unforced errors on civil rights, early neo-isolationist deviations. 7-1.
Tim Pawlenty: Formerly, unassuming, unprepossessing, solid two-term Minnesota governor. Currently, mouse that roars. Up-tempo style, middle-of-the-road conservative content. Apparently baggageless. Could be the last man standing. 5-1.
Mitch Daniels: Highly successful governor. Budget guru. Delightful dullness satisfies all axioms (see above). Alienated some conservatives with his call for a truce on -- i.e., deferring -- social issues. If he runs, 6-1.
Likely not running
Mike Huckabee: Has a good life -- hosting a popular TV show, making money, building his dream house in Florida.
Sarah Palin: Same deal. Showed her power in 2010 as kingmaker and opinion shaper. Must know (I think) she has little chance at the nomination and none in the general election.
Even less likely to run -- the 2016 bench
A remarkable class of young up-and-comers includes Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley. All impressive, all new to the national stage, all with bright futures. 2012, however, is too early -- except possibly for Ryan, who last week became de facto leader of the Republican Party. For months, he will be going head-to-head with President Obama on the budget, which is a surrogate for the central issue of 2012: the proper role of government.
One problem: Ryan has zero inclination to run. Wants to continue what he's doing right now. Would have to be drafted. That would require persuasion. Can anyone rustle up a posse?