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.

Of course, presidential elections are not arguments in the abstract but arguments with a face. Hence, 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.

Which suggests 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. A strong showing in debates and a respectable finish would increase her national stature for 2016. But for now: 20-1 to win the nomination.

Donald Trump: He’s not a candidate, he’s a spectacle. He’s also not a conservative. With a wink and a smile, Muhammad Ali showed that self-promoting obnoxiousness could be charming. Trump shows that it can be merely vulgar. A provocateur and a clown, the Republicans’ Al Sharpton. The Lions have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl.

Mitt Romney: Serious guy. Pre-vetted (2008). Tons of private- and public-sector executive experience. If not for one thing, he’d be the prohibitive front-runner. Unfortunately, the one thing is a big thing: Massachusetts’ Romneycare. For an election in which the main issue is excessive government (see Axiom One), that’s a huge liability. Every sentient Republican has been trying to figure out how to explain it away. I’ve heard no reports of any success. Romney is Secretariat at Belmont, but ridden by Minnesota Fats. He goes out at 5-1.

Newt Gingrich: Smart guy. A fountain of ideas. No, 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. Rarely without a comeback, however. 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). Foreign policy unknown, assuming he has one. Alienated some conservatives with his call for a truce on—i.e., deferring—social issues. If he runs, 6-1.

Mike Huckabee: Has a good life—hosting a popular TV show, making money, building his dream house in Florida. He’d be crazy to run. Doesn’t look crazy to me.

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. Why risk it, and the inevitable diminishment defeat would bring?

A remarkable class of young up-and-comers includes Janesville’s 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. If Ryan acquits himself well, by summer’s end he could emerge as a formidable anti-Obama.

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?

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