From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
With the disappearance of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, it prompted us to take a look at the other potential Republican 2012 candidates. Just how have they fared in these first five months of Obama's presidency? It's been a tough stretch for many in the group.
Who's up? Who's down? And who comes out ahead?
We took a brief stab at this in First Thoughts, but here's a more detailed look.
MARK SANFORD: The words "I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail" will forever be engrained in the American lexicon to be colloquially akin to "AWOL" or "MIA." But, in a stranger twist, Sanford, himself, revealed he didn't go hiking at all. He thought about it, but, in fact, he took off for Buenos Aires, Argentina. When it first came to light that Sanford had been missing for days, his staff said, in part, the governor was "taking some time away from the office this week to recharge after the stimulus battle and the legislative session." Sanford stepped into the 2012 spotlight, taking on President Obama on the stimulus and taking the bold move of rejecting funds for his state. Critics -- Democrat and Republican -- hammered away, particularly because the stimulus money would have gone to help crumbling schools. He was then rebuffed by his state's Supreme Court and forced to take the money. Then, he bolted.
Video: Rachel Maddow reports on Sen. John Ensign's, R-NV, warm reception by fellow Republican senators in spite of his scandalous behavior.
JOHN ENSIGN: What's worse than disappearing for days and not telling anyone, not even your wife? How about revealing an affair with a former staffer? Just weeks after testing the 2012 waters by gripping and grinning in Iowa, the married Nevada senator admitted to an affair. While Nevadans appear ready to accept the transgression, any 2012 hopes Ensign had were dashed.
SARAH PALIN: First, there was her refusal of stimulus funds. Then, her debt fueled by those pesky state ethics grievances. And her slipping approval ratings. But what took the cake was the continued bad blood between her and Washington Republicans. There was the controversy over whether or not she would speak at the biggest Republican fundraiser of the year. The NRSC and NRCC announced she was speaking. The GOP then replaced her with Newt Gingrich, when her staff said it was never confirmed that she'd do the dinner. She eventually did attend, but was not allowed to speak -- so as not to upstage Gingrich. And that's not mentioning the Bristol-Levi break-up messiness.
Video: A political panel debates whether the Republican Party really thinks former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the man to lead them back into the majority especially with all the outlandish remarks he makes against the Obama administration.
NEWT GINGRICH: Speaking of Gingrich, his star seemed to rise, until it fell with one fell Tweet. Gingrich had flirted with a 2008 presidential bid. And the party seemed to turn to him for ideas. That is until he Twittered that Obama's Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor -- the first Latina nominated for the post -- was a "racist." Gingrich backtracked just days before he was set to keynote the biggest Republican fundraiser of the year.
BOBBY JINDAL: Jindal seems to be exactly whom the party was looking for: experienced, smart, young, and a minority -- that is until his response to President Obama's first address to Congress. His too-folksy approach (and those volcanoes) was widely panned. He didn't sound or look like the Jindal political observers had come to know and the 37-year-old Louisiana governor has since taken a step back from the spotlight.
RICK PERRY: Fired up at a "tea party," Perry -- a fierce Palin ally who likely faces the fight of his political life in 2010 against Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison -- intimated that Texas should secede from the union. "We've got a great union," he said. "There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot." It's hard to run to lead the UNITED States when you talk about seceding.
MITT ROMNEY: By default, Romney perhaps comes out of this first five months looking the best of any of the GOP potential candidates. He hasn't had any major fumbles, stumbles or gaffes. And he's kept himself as a prime booking on the morning shows to serve as the tempered opposition to Barack Obama.
TIM PAWLENTY: Pawlenty's job approval took a hit when he wavered on whether or not he'd sign a certification for Democrat Al Franken if the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor after the never-ending Senate race between Franken and Republican Norm Coleman. He has announced he's not running for a third term, fueling speculation that he might run in 2012. In a wide-open field, Pawlenty -- who has bucked the conservative hard line, calling for a big-tent party -- could see a resurgence, if he can keep himself in the spotlight.
CHARLIE CRIST: Front-runner for the Senate in 2010. Who knows what's next. He's certainly ambitious, was on the short list for McCain's VP and has high approvals as governor. He's struck a more moderate tone, but his outspoken support for the stimulus still provides a significant hurdle with the GOP base. But first, he's got to win his primary against Marco Rubio and then the general election...
HALEY BARBOUR: The Republican Party has gotten whiter, more Southern and older, but Barbour -- who fits those three boxes – appears to be testing the 2012 waters. He's in New Hampshire today and Iowa tomorrow. The outspoken Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman and vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has upped his profile this year. On Monday, Barbour campaigned with Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Bob McDonnell and was on Capitol Hill yesterday attacking Obama's and Democrats' health care proposals. (By the way, the chairman of the RGA is Sanford).
MIKE HUCKABEE: Has bucked his party, going after the National Republican Senatorial Committee for its endorsement of Charlie Crist in the GOP primary. He's taken a tougher tone toward the president and tried to keep himself in the spotlight with his FOX TV show and Huck PAC. Going after the GOP establishment is risky business. But his top finish in Iowa in '08 will keep his name out there. Huckabee's problem was always that he didn't have a real campaign organization, and he admitted he doesn't like raising money. So far, there aren't any signs he's ramping up any of this. But it's very early.
OTHER 2012 POSSIBILITIES.
The freshman senator made his name during the auto bailout hearings. He has stayed generally quiet and out of the spotlight since. But he's clearly ambitious and has made sure to get his office's press releases in national reporters' e-mail inboxes.
JOHN THUNE: Clearly ambitious, he's maneuvered to be the favorite to replace Ensign to the No. 4 elected GOP leadership spot. The election to replace Ensign happens tomorrow.
MIKE PENCE: Pence has led the House GOP opposition to Democrats' energy plan, labeling cap-and-trade "cap-and-tax" over and over and over. He took a really tough tone at CPAC, criticizing President Obama on the stimulus and more with red meat for the activist crowd. He's made the cable rounds, but it remains to be seen if average voters could pick him out of a lineup – as is the case for all on this list.
PAUL RYAN: Seen as one of the party's rising stars -- he's young, affable and articulate. He's been given some opportunities to speak out. This past weekend, he was on FOX Sunday and criticized the administration for wanting to take the U.S. to a more "European" model, and he criticized a public/government option this way: "[H]aving the government compete against the private sector -- it's kind of like my 7-year-old daughter's lemonade stand competing against McDonald's. It's the government being the referee and player in the same game." The words are as tough as any House Republicans, but his tone isn't as hot.
OFF THE TABLE.
JON HUNTSMAN: Obama's former Campaign Manager David Plouffe named Huntsman as one potential 2012 threat. Soon after, the former Utah governor – a fluent Mandarin speaker and health reform advocate – was named Obama's U.S. ambassador to China.