2012 Election: Twelve GOP Candidates Who Might Challenge Obama

The 2012 presidential election is years away, but there is already a growing crop of Republicans who are toying with the idea of seeking the GOP's presidential nomination.

The first test will come April 8-11 when the Southern Republican Leadership Conference will hold a widely attended cattle call in New Orleans, which several potential GOP presidential candidates are expected to attend.

ABC News spoke with strategists, Republican Party officials and conservative leaders to narrow down the list of GOP candidates who seem the most committed to taking back the White House.

Here's a look at a dozen Republicans whose names have emerged as possible contenders to take on President Obama in 2012. In the end, not all of these Republicans will run. But as of today, they seem like the 12 best bets to get into the race.

One Republican not on the list? Scott Brown. The newly elected senator from Massachusetts is the conservative darling at the moment. Insiders say, however, that his support for abortion rights and the overlap between his political team and that of Mitt Romney will keep him out of the 2012 race.

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney
Pro: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is widely seen by political insiders as the frontrunner for the GOPs 2012 presidential nomination. His strengths include being seen as "the next guy up" in a party with a tradition of rewarding second-time candidates (think Nixon in 1968, Reagan in 1980, Bush I in 1988, Dole in 1996, McCain in 2008). Other assets include his personal wealth; his efficient staff; his fire-in-the-belly; his work on behalf of Republican candidates around the country; and his business background. Like many aspiring presidential candidates who have come before him, he has written a new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," which is set to be released March 2.

Con: Romney, who dropped his support for abortion rights as he got closer to his 2008 presidential run, faces lingering questions about his authenticity. There also remain certain evangelical Christians who are not sure if a Mormon qualifies as a Christian. Romney showed in 2008 that he can endure the rigors of a presidential campaign. His previous run, however, also makes him something less than a fresh face.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin
Pro: The former Alaska governor is the No. 1 star in the GOP. No other Republican is capable of attracting the same kinds of crowds and media attention that she can. Her recently published memoir, "Going Rogue," sold like hotcakes. Since stepping down as governor of Alaska, Palin has shown that she can get more attention with a post on her Facebook page than her rivals can get from giving a major policy address. As a woman who decided to go forward with her pregnancy even after she learned that her son, Trig, would have Down syndrome, Palin has a strong following in both the special needs and pro-life communities.

Con: The downside with Palin is that her run for vice president in 2008 left many voters with the impression that she lacks the intellectual firepower to be president. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in November, three out of five Americans think Palin is not qualified to be president. Although her resignation as governor of Alaska freed her up to pursue one of the most widely publicized book tours of all time, the resignation fed an image of her as highly volatile -- not necessarily a quality one would look for in a potential commander-in-chief. Palin told Oprah Winfrey on Jan. 22 that her gig as a Fox News contributor does not preclude her from running for president in 2012. Some Republican leaders say, however, that she is more interested in enriching herself than in building the party. Other Republican officials note that the fascination with her is akin to the fascination with celebrities and that it would not necessarily translate into political support once the nominating season begins. Finally, she has not put together the kind of staff typically required to run a successful national campaign.

Tim Pawlenty

Tim Pawlenty
Pro: The Minnesota governor is packaging himself as a conservative who managed to win and govern in a state which has produced such well-known liberals as Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone and Al Franken. "If I can do it in Minnesota, we can do it elsewhere," he likes to say. Pawlenty, who has talked about the GOP as being "the Party of Sam's Club," is the personable son of a truck driver who is good at portraying the GOP as the party which delivers a better value than the Democrats. Pawlenty was as active as anyone in 2009. He has hired a large and experienced staff and he is not seeking re-election this year so that he can campaign full-time for president if he makes the final decision to move forward with a White House run.

Con: Pawlenty's weakness is that he does not enjoy Romney's personal wealth and he is overshadowed by Palin's star power. He also came under scrutiny last year when Dan Balz of the Washington Post characterized his moves to the right as being "Romneyesque."

John Thune

John Thune
Pro: If the South Dakota senator decides to jump into the presidential race, he will compete with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to be seen as the leading mainstream alternative to Romney. Thune's strengths include his telegenic looks, sunny demeanor and conservative record. Although South Dakota does not provide him with a large home-state fundraising base, Thune developed a 100,000-person fundraising list by knocking off longtime Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in 2004. While Thune has avoided the high-profile political travel of Romney and Pawlenty, look for him to start traveling the country on behalf of Republican Senate candidates once South Dakota's March 30 filing deadline passes and he does not draw a significant challenger. Given the geographic location of South Dakota, some of Thune's television ads for the Senate have aired in the western part of Iowa, giving him early exposure in the state, which holds the first presidential nominating contest.

Con: As a sitting United States senator, Thune is not able to tell a story of having achieved results outside of Washington the way the former governors in the field can do. He also worked for a short period of time as a lobbyist. And it's still not clear that Thune has the same fire in the belly as Romney or Pawlenty.

Haley Barbour

Haley Barbour
Pro: The Mississippi governor is widely seen as the savviest Republican strategist in elected office. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Barbour led his party to wins in 2009 in Virginia and New Jersey. Barbour, who served as political director in the Reagan White House, is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). During his tenure at the RNC, Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. As governor of Mississippi, Barbour earned high marks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If Barbour enters the race, his folksy and homespun style could prove popular in the early nominating states.

Con: Barbour's biggest weakness may be cosmetic. He himself has joked with friends that a "fat boy from the South is not going to get elected president in 2012." Another strike against him is his background as a Washington lobbyist at a time when the public seems to be in revolt against "business as usual."

Mike Pence

Mike Pence
Pro: The House Republican Conference Chairman from Indiana is currently trying to decide between running for the Senate against Democrat Evan Bayh in 2010 or running for president in 2012. While Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts may suggest that this is a good year to run for the Senate, one advantage to running for president is that Pence would not have to give up his House seat if he were unsuccessful in the GOP primaries. The congressman's core strength is that he is a full-spectrum conservative. Pence, who opens meetings with a prayer, connects well with conservative Christians. At the same time, he differs from Mike Huckabee in that he is not saddled with a history of having gone along with higher taxes. As a former radio broadcaster, Pence also is adept at communicating in soundbites.

Con: As a sitting House member, Pence suffers from a political stature problem. The last House member to go directly to the White House was President James Garfield.

Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich
Pro: The former House Speaker is often described as the best "ideas guy" in the Republican Party. Through his political advocacy group, American Solutions, he has advanced what he calls "tripartisan" solutions to creating jobs, fostering energy independence and reforming education. Gingrich, who recently converted to Catholicism because of his wife, stays in the public limelight as a Fox News contributor and prolific author.

Con: While Gingrich covets the increased attention that comes from being covered as a potential presidential candidate, most Republican insiders think he will ultimately pass on a 2012 race. Although he is revered by conservative activists for leading the GOP to its first House majority in 40 years, many Republicans remember his tenure as Speaker as a stormy one. There is also a concern that Gingrich's personal and political baggage from the 1990s would impede the GOP's ability to make the election a referendum on the Obama administration.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee
Pro: The former Arkansas governor is one of the most gifted talkers in American politics. Witty and soundbite-friendly, he stunned the political world in 2008 by beating the much-better funded Romney in the Iowa caucuses. Huckabee, a former pastor, has a strong following among evangelical Christians who appreciate his steadfast support for the sanctity of life. He was an early and consistent opponent of the Wall Street bailout and has a politician's knack for remembering names and ingratiating himself with those with whom he comes into contact. Huckabee continues to do better than any other Republican presidential candidate in hypothetical match-ups with President Obama, according to recent public opinion polls.

Con: Despite his incredible win in the Iowa caucuses in 2008, Huckabee never put together the kind of national staff or national fundraising network which would have allowed him to overcome Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for the nomination. One reason why Huckabee did not advance further than he did was that he was targeted by the anti-tax Club for Growth which accuses him of going along with higher taxes in Arkansas during his tenure as governor. Huckabee's stock was hurt last year when word spread that he granted clemency to notorious cop-killer Maurice Clemmons. Although the clemency has not yet hurt his standing with the public, it will probably become the subject of attack ads if he becomes a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. It's not clear whether Huckabee, who has put on weight since 2008, still has the same drive that he had last time.

Ron Paul

Ron Paul
Pro:: The representative from Texas is weighing another run for president if the country's economy does not improve before the start of the nominating process. Paul, an OB/GYN doctor by trade, has delivered more than 4,000 babies. He surprised political observers in 2008 by outraising several of his better-known GOP rivals. Paul's legion of devoted followers were drawn to his record of backing low taxes, free markets, sound money and a noninterventionist foreign policy.

Con: If Paul runs for president again in 2012, he will be forced to compete with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson for the support of Libertarian-leaning Republicans. Paul would also be the oldest candidate in the field: He will be 77 by the next presidential election.

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson
Pro: The former New Mexico governor is positioned to build on what Rep. Ron Paul tapped into in 2008. Johnson believes in less spending, lower taxes, and a noninterventionist foreign policy. As governor, he vetoed 750 bills, a total that at the time was more than that of the other 49 governors in the U.S. combined. An early opponent of the Iraq War, Johnson has been vocal about his opposition to President Obama's surge of troops in Afghanistan, saying it will cost more American lives and not solve the terrorist threat.

Con: Johnson's outspoken support for legalizing marijuana may help him raise money among advocates of that position but it could also limit his support among Republicans who might otherwise be drawn to other parts of his small-government agenda. Johnson may also be hampered in the GOP primaries by his support for abortion rights.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum
Pro: The former senator from Pennsylvania recently told ABC News' "Top Line" Webcast that he is "absolutely taking a look" at running for president in 2012. A staunch foe of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration, Santorum could appeal to some of the socially conservative voters who participate in the Iowa caucuses. As part of his exploration of a presidential run, Santorum has traveled to Iowa and South Carolina.

Con: Santorum's biggest weakness is that it is hard to make the case that you should be your party's presidential nominee when you were defeated in your most recent bid for re-election to statewide office. And yet that is exactly the situation that Santorum finds himself in: The Pennsylvania Republican was defeated in 2006 by Democrat Bob Casey. Santorum has also been criticized by Mark McKinnon, a former Bush and McCain adviser, as being "dangerous" for the future of a GOP that needs to attract Latinos.

George Pataki

George Pataki
Pro: The former New York governor has not received much attention, but there are several signs that his is interested in making a run for the White House in 2012. Top GOP donors have asked him to run against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., but he has told them that he does not want to enter the race because he has his eye on the White House. Pataki dipped his toes in the presidential waters by traveling to Iowa last year, the state that hosts the first presidential nominating contest. In February, he is planning to visit New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary.

Con: Pataki actively flirted with running for president in 2008 but ultimately passed on the race. Many of the questions which were raised then are still relevant now: How does a Republican who supports abortion rights and gun control win the nomination of a party that has become increasingly conservative?

ABC News' Matt Loffman contributed to this report.