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Unofficial field emerging for 2012 GOP presidential candidates

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amny Photo Credit: amNY Photo Illustration/Getty Images

Speculation on which Republican would challenge President Barack Obama in 2012 began practically the moment he won his historic election, but Americans will soon have a better sense of which Red State favorites might have real electoral edge.

Republican hopefuls, none of whom have announced their candidacies yet, will sell themselves for three days before the influential Conservative Political Action Committee gathering in Washington, which kicks off Thursday.

They’ll find themselves negotiating the complex terrain set by social conservatives, Tea Party activists and traditional fiscal conservatives, and will be subject to a straw poll that could hold symbolic power for one lucky candidate. (It was Mitt Romney in 2007.)

Still, all eyes remain on one person who is sitting out the conference: Sarah Palin.

Whether she decides to run or not, GOP hopefuls must declare soon if they want to secure campaign staffers and donors. After all, they have less than a year to mount campaigns before the Iowa caucuses. amNewYork sizes up the prospects of the potential GOP challengers:

Mitt Romney
Chances of running: High
Chances of winning GOP nod: High

“He’s been out there, he’s loyal to the Republican party, he’s earned it, so to speak,” said pollster Craig Charney. The former Massachusetts governor benefits from name recognition and strong fundraising. Romney, 63, is already besting Obama by a hair in a recent Rasmussen poll. He’s been careful of overexposure and has played up his economic expertise as a former businessman, but his overhaul of health care in Massachusetts promises to haunt him with conservatives.

Sarah Palin
Chances of running: Low
Chances of winning GOP nod: Moderate

The Tea Party leader and Fox News contributor is not necessarily a Republican shoo-in. “She certainly has a base, but there’s an equally loyal group standing against her,” said political analyst Keli Goff. Palin, 46, also may not be willing to risk her icon status by running and possibly losing the primary. She’s also wary of a media landscape where, as in 2008, she doesn’t have control of her message.

Mike Huckabee
Chances of running: High
Chances of winning GOP nod: Moderate

The ex-Arkansas governor and host of Fox News’ “Huckabee” is an “affable, a less-polarizing Palin,” Goff said. Huckabee, 55, a Christian right darling, paid a statesman-like visit last month to leaders in Israel, where he voiced support for Jewish settlements. He’s popular with the right, but his record in Arkansas could be a minefield for conservatives looking to find fault.

Jon Huntsman
Chances of running: High
Chances of winning GOP nod: Moderate

Huntsman, 50, may well be the first Republican to declare, having resigned from his job as ambassador to China as he begins to distance himself from former boss Barack Obama. The former Utah governor has established foreign relations credibility, but experts said he needs to increase his visibility. He’s more centrist than other likely GOP candidates, with reportedly progressive views on climate change and gay rights, but that moderation may give him appeal beyond the party’s conservative base. Like Romney, he was raised Mormon.

Tim Pawlenty
Chances of running: High
Chances of winning GOP nod: High

The ex-Minnesota governor, who was on McCain’s shortlist for veep in 2008, earlier this month visited early voting state Iowa on his book tour. He’s a social conservative who’s been vocal in condemning Obama’s health care law and arguable overspending. Political scientist Charles Dunn said Pawlenty, 50, is a consensus-builder comparable to Ronald Reagan. Pawlenty is also a technocrat who’s won points for likeability, but a problem is that he’s still relatively unknown.

Newt Gingrich
Chances of running: Moderate
Chances of winning GOP nod: Low

The former House speaker, 67, has experience leading a GOP resurgence and is well-respected among establishment Republicans. He’s been seen in Iowa, New Hampshire and Ohio, each early voting states, and said he’d announce by March whether he’ll run. His fundraising has so far outpaced his lesser-known potential GOP rivals, but while they have the advantage of being able to introduce themselves to voters in upcoming months, Gingrich suffers from notoriety. He’s been out of government for more than a decade, but stays in the spotlight largely for controversial statements.

Rudy Giuliani
Chances of running: Low
Chances of winning GOP nod: Low

“America’s mayor,” 66, has said he’ll “take a look at 2012.” He’s kept himself in the public eye since focusing his resources on Florida just to lose the state and squander his frontrunner status in the 2008 race. Still, Giuliani has not gained traction since then. How Giuliani or any fiscally conservative-socially moderate candidate fares will depends on how much attention the economy is still getting in 2012, said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University public affairs professor.

Wildcard: Bloomy for prez?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 68 and an independent, repeated denies he has his sights set on the White House, but he has the funds, the staff and the connections to make a strong campaign happen. Current events dictate elections, Zelizer said, and if Election Day was tomorrow, Bloomy would get props for his gun-control advocacy in light of the Tucson shootings and jeers for his blizzard cleanup muck-up. “The snowstorm snowed him in,” Goff said. “If you can’t even run a snowstorm cleanup, how are you supposed to run a war?”

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