As the 2012 field of GOP prez nominees begins emerging, there is still plenty of reason to think that any such nominee stands a great chance of winning simply by virtue of being the Not Obama. But obviously, that could change with a better economy and 2 years worth of Obama playing the pragmatist against cranky ideologues.
The greater the number of potential nominees at the Iowa starting gate, the more it makes sense to consider the "game theory" dimensions of the primary process as it intersects with media coverage and financing. Unless any given candidate can develop truly long-term staying power (translation: a giant pile of dough or a steadily flowing money hose), that candidate is at the mercy of appearing viable as one of the top 3 within the first, what, 5 or 6 primaries.That can be sensitively dependent upon the number of other candidates who hold similar positions.
For example, if socons split between 2 or 3 socon darlings, then someone else from a different GOP faction with less internal competition can emerge. In 2008, McCain, seemed to emerge because his support was broader than anyone else even though it wasn't especially broad. Just as a big a problem was that it lacked any real depth of passion.
Ultimately, whoever becomes the nominee really stands a great chance of winning by being the Not Obama. But being the Not Obama means different things for socons and for independents. And being the Socon Not Obama means risking alienation of independents. Is that risk bigger than the risk that the Independent Not Obama alienates socons? I would guess yes, but then I'm an independent. Who really knows?
One thing to look out for is candidates who will try to thread the needle by using different customized speeches for different audiences. Though many politicians seem to persist in this approach, the advent of various social media suggests it's problematic. In 2012, can a reasonable-appearing candidate successfully obscure substantial socially conservative views simply by endlessly chanting "jobs, jobs, jobs?" Sooner or later, you're expected to speak at Bob Jones U. They want their pound of red meat, everyone's watching.