This is worth next to nothing. I'm not generally very good at predictions (although I did correctly predict who would be the final Cylon, nine months in advance). But here's my suspicion of what will happen in the GOP primary for the 2012 race for U.S. president.
Currently Newt Gingrich has been enjoying his brief turn at the top as the non-Romney candidate, as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have done. Like the others, he will soon drop. Indications are strong that Ron Paul will briefly occupy the top spot, perhaps even winning the Iowa caucuses and the NH primary. During this time, he'll finally get the exposure his fans have wanted. Moderate and mainstream conservatives will see how significantly he wants to dismantle the federal government. Libertarian Republicans will see that he isn't really one of them but is just an extreme federalist who doesn't want the federal government doing much, but his social conservatism will turn them off. Social conservatives will stop being fooled by his pro-life and other socially-conservative positions when they see that he has no backbone to stand of for such concerns on the federal level. Non-isolationists will be offended at his unwillingness to engage in any ventures of foreign policy to help around the world, and anyone concerned about national security will be scared to death of his willingness to dismiss Iran by saying we just need to be nice to them. To many, he will make Obama look like Dick Cheney. Most important, people of any moral conscience will see his willingness to pal around with racists and tolerate the use of their publications for political gain.
That will leave Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum as the two unvetted candidates. Each will have a turn as the non-Romney, for perhaps a couple weeks each. Huntsman will probably be first. His willingness to work in the Obama Administration and his out-of-context quotes that have wrongly led many to see him as a moderate instead of the genuine conservative that he is will lead Santorum to have a brief time in the spotlight. He is mostly untested. He's known as a social conservative. The left has successfully portrayed him as an extremist, despite the fact that his views are pretty mainstream for social conservatism. That will all occur in an extreme way, and he'll be given the Sarah Palin treatment, as Bachmann was. His statements will be taken out of context. Some of his views that are quite mainstream will be made fun of as neanderthal and called beyond the pale. He does have some strange notions of the Constitution that might or might not become the main issues. I tend to think they won't, because the focus from the left will be not on his odd views but on his mainstream once, which they will portray as ridiculous. But I think his views of foreign policy will be his undoing. GOP primary-goers will dismiss the left's hand-waving on those issues and will worry about views of his that just don't sound reasonable to most Republicans. I know only a little about his views on such matters (I haven't had time to watch more than bits and pieces of the debates, and he's not getting much attention), but being in the room when one debate focusing on those issues early on happened to be playing led me to think that he was making Ron Paul sound mainstream.
What will happen after that is wide open. At this point we'll be getting to a number of bigger states, and the early states will have been all over the map, leading each one (and several are simultaneous) to go in different directions. Candidates with strengths in certain regions will win more states in those regions. It's possible there will be a consensus. The non-Romney supporters will eventually concede and go with Romney, or the Romney supporters may eventually settle on some other candidate. But I'm guessing this will go on for a while, perhaps with no candidate receiving enough delegates to have a clear candidate by the time of the convention. This may well be the first brokered convention in decades. Just four years ago, pundits were claiming that we could never have such a thing again. I'm not so sure. This year looks like a really good chance for it. My suspicion is that Romney will eventually win, although I wouldn't rule out Huntsman, and Gingrich may still have a chance. I don't think Paul, Gingrich, or Santorum will be the nominee. But I can't even really be sure of that. I'd be a little surprised if the first few states turn out to settle things as quickly as they usually do, however.
If this is all right, the GOP will have a harder time using the convention to promote their candidate, which will help Obama a bit. But at the same time he'll have a harder time crafting his own campaign with an opponent in mind, which will mean he won't be able to craft his public image or message in contrast to anyone in particular. There might be some advantage in that, because he'll continue to be able to run against the House Republicans, as he's been doing so far. But I suspect it will frustrate him greatly, and it will play to his weaknesses as a president rather than his strengths as a campaigner.
As to who will win, my prediction is that if Romney gets the nomination he'll have a strong chance of winning the presidency. I think the same is true of Hunstman. Perhaps he would have an even easier time, because he doesn't have a record of changing his mind on one big issue, like Romney has, with every other minor statement being misused out-of-context to pretend he can't take a stand on anything. Perry could pull it off but would have a much tougher time of it, and I think he would more likely lose than win. I don't think Gingrich, Paul, Bachmann, or Santorum could have much chance against Obama unless he tanks much more than he has so far (and he's just gotten a bit of a boost, actually). Gingrich would clean house in the debates, of course. But all four figures have lower positives and as-high negatives as Obama. Even Obama's negatives would, therefore, not help them.
If GOP voters want to make Obama a one-term president, their best shot will be to focus on Romney or Huntsman. They'll have to learn to be more charitable than people largely have so far in interpreting what they've said, and they'll have to settle for the inevitable conclusion that they won't like everything about their candidate. I suspect any other path is likely to lead to another term for Obama, and GOP efforts at some notion of ideological purity would end up leading to what it led to in 2010, this time with the presidency at stake rather than the control of the Senate (if Colorado, Delaware, and New Mexico had nominated more mainstream candidates we might have ended up with a Republican Senate at present).