The 2010 congressional and gubernatorial elections have barely passed, yet the speculation for 2012 has begun in earnest. Although some of that speculation can be found on the Democrat side, it would take a political earthmover to remove Obama as the candidate.

Interestingly, two Democrat pollsters, Doug Schoen and Pat Cadell, have urged the president to remove his name from contention in the upcoming election. I don’t think he’s going to take that suggestion seriously. Others continue to harbor hope that Hillary Clinton will reenter the fray. That’s highly unlikely at this point. Again, only an unforeseen event of significant magnitude could create that option.

The more serious pondering is on the Republican side. There are numerous names floating around as the potential nominee. High on everyone’s list are the three who seem to dominate the early polls among Republican voters: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. A second tier of candidates includes Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then there are Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, South Dakota Senator John Thune, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who, I believe, who comprise another—and lower—tier.

Among the second tier, Daniels has a solid reputation for fiscal sanity, as Indiana has done well on his watch. He did make a statement, though, that social issues need to take a back seat at this time. Personally, I’m bothered by anyone who wishes to separate the two. Can he reintegrate the economic and the social? They really do belong together, and he needs to understand that issues such as abortion and marriage are the glue that binds social conservatives to the Republican party.

Pawlenty served well as governor of Minnesota. Perhaps his greatest strength is that he was able to win and govern as a conservative in a state that’s well known for its liberalism. Not many politicians can claim that type of success. I have heard as well that he is an evangelical Christian, which is a key factor in my calculations. The one knock against him is that he’s not very exciting. On the one hand, being exciting is no barometer by which to gauge a person’s effectiveness as a leader. Yet it is true that the candidate will have to energize the voters. Can Pawlenty do that? The verdict is still out.

Gingrich was the leader of the Republican takeover of Congress back in 1994. He’s always been full of ideas and can be an electrifying speaker. He’s articulate and always focuses on the positive, pointing Republicans toward a future of economic growth. Lately, he’s also been more outspoken about his newly revived faith, having recently become a committed Catholic. As many commentators note, though, there is a lot of baggage with Gingrich. On the political side, he is sometimes considered a “bomb-thrower,” as his comments have led to problems in the past. Then there’s the fact that he’s abandoned two wives. His third wife, to whom he has been married for the past decade, had an affair with him while he was Speaker and still married to wife number two. Even if he has repented of that, can he really be trusted to stay the course morally with that kind of track record? It’s a genuine concern, as personal morals can undermine the best political agenda.

Barbour, Thune, and Santorum are long shots, but you never know in this atmosphere. Yet most of the attention belongs—rightly, I believe—on the top three: Palin, Romney, and Huckabee. I want to take time to evaluate them carefully in separate posts. That will be my goal for the rest of this week.