There's a front-page article at the LA Times site that identifies what it calls the GOP's "Top Tier" of candidates: Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. It's still very early and things might change radically, but as of now I agree with the article's premise. Here are my premature thoughts on them as candidates, both for the nomination and the general election.
Michelle Bachmann I think Bachmann has a shot at the nomination, but that her chances fell dramatically with the entry of Perry. On the other hand, I think Bachmann's status as a "true conservative" is rock-solid. If Perry falters, or starts to be seen in a more negative light among the GOP faithful for whatever reasons, Bachmann might surge in front of him.
As for the general election, I have my doubts that Bachmann can win. The demonization has already begun in the media, and her religious and strong social conservative views are going to be a turn-off for many independents. Unlike Perry, she can't balance that out by pointing to her record as the governor of a state with economic success. Her strength there is mainly in the form of ideas and principles, rather than many concrete actions. Like candidate Obama, she's underqualified for the presidency. There are going to be many people who don't want to risk seeing another inexperienced president flounder incompetently for four years. I think Bachmann is a dark horse at best -- at least for now.
Rick Perry. He just got in, but right now I think Perry is the favorite for the nomination. First, he's a governor. Like Romney he has the executive experience and record to run on. Second, unlike Romney, he isn't seen as a squishy Republican too close to things like Obamacare. Third, barring some sort of drastic changes before the election, the economy is the number one issue. Perry can point to actual results from his policies in Texas. I think he's acceptable to the base, certainly more so than Romney, and the perception that he has a better chance to win should give him the edge over Bachmann. But it's real early for him. There's no doubt that Democrats and the Democratic-biased media (and probably GOP competitors too) are already frantically digging for things that damage Perry. As we learn more, his position could change dramatically.
My first impression is that Perry is a strong candidate in the general election. But I see one big problem. Bush Derangement Syndrome is still strong in the U.S. Is it too early to elect another GOP governor from Texas that can be painted as Bush-like? It might be. If he gets the nomination I expect a full-on effort from Democrats to portray him as another Bush, but even worse. I can see that strategy working to keep Obama in the White House.
Mitt Romney. Romney's advantages in the nomination are his money and the possibility that the GOP establishment might decide that it's his turn. But his base support is weak. Many hardcore Republicans do not view him as very conservative. On the other hand, he's tested as a candidate. It's unlikely that any scandal or other disqualifying revelation is going to knock him out of the race. He might get it by default as the most solid, serious candidate. He might also get the nomination by the John McCain path, winning big in open primaries and gaining unstoppable momentum, especially if Bachmann, Perry and some of the lesser candidates split the hardcore GOP vote.
Of the three I think Romney is the most electable in the general election. He projects competence and leadership in contrast to Obama, and is fairly moderate and able to appeal to independents fed-up with the last four years. I don't think he's a lock to win though. Obama isn't good at much, but he is good at raising money and getting elected. Whichever GOP candidate emerges is probably in for a tough fight.