The libertarian-right went bananas back in April when Ron Paul polled dead even with President Obama in a hypothetical match-up. I haven’t the space to go into detail, but I don’t think Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is a realistic candidate in 2010. Here’s my handful of bullets as to why:

  • The media would torpedo a Paul presidency if he won and remained principled.
  • To “work with” Congress, Paul would have to sell out. “Dr. No” is fine as a Congressman. But as an executive, that tack will eventually bring popular outcry.
  • Paul isn’t likely to get anything meaningful from Congress either (i.e. something he’d sign).
  • The media would likely erode his presidential aspirations from the start by painting him as a wacko.
  • Frankly, Paul doesn’t have a lot of charisma. It’s not everything, but it counts for something--especially against Obama who’s at his best in an election.

As a freedom-loving libertarianish type, I feel a bit icky admitting all of this. I like Ron Paul. Indeed, I’m not saying I relish the idea of a Congress built on compromise, America’s worship of personality cults, or the media as piranha. (And I’m pretty sure that every Ron Paul zealot who reads this will want banish me from the club.)
Such is the price of honesty.

The Top Five

So who are the realistic Republican presidential candidates? That is: who will appeal to those fed up with big government; who will resonate with the tea party; and who understands the need for political shrewdness in a world of rule-by-compromise? In balancing principles with pragmatism, here are my top five:

Five - Gary Johnson - Okay, okay. I’m going out on a limb for this first one. But the guy was a two-term governor (NM). He shares a lot of Ron Paul’s principles and could be a big draw for independents who are currently leaning libertarian-right. He’s also got pretty good charisma, but doesn’t wear his principles so much on his sleeve that he won’t be able to get anything done. That said, Johnson will need a prolonged get-to-know-you period to become viable.

Four - Chris Christie - Is America ready for a bad-ss? It’s hard to say. But Gov. Chris Christie has taken the “straight talk express” and driven it right through the New Jersey legislature. In a state that sends its best and brightest fleeing to neighboring states to avoid high taxes, Governor Christie has declared it’s time to stop the flight. In a state plagued by teacher’s unions, Christie has taught the termite class a thing or two about “fiscal solvency” and “economic reality.” Could he do the same in the White House?

Three - Bobby Jindal - After a weak showing as the ‘heir apparent’ early in the Obama Presidency, Bobby Jindal is back. He’s shown that he’s not only willing to play coordinator-on-the-ground after the oil spill, he has a demonstrated record of post-Katrina success in Louisiana--particularly in areas like school reform, corruption control and economic recovery. If he can get a little more comfortable and animated in front of the camera, he will be a strong contender in 2012. (Weirdly, Louisiana’s unemployment rate is under 7 percent, while the national rate is nearly 10 percent.)

Two - Mitch Daniels - Indiana’s two-term governor has pulled off some really interesting things. He’s done some cutting-edge stuff with highway privatization, his five favorite books are enough to make libertarian geeks get goosebumps, and he’s got budget surpluses and unemployment declines during a deep recession. The problem? He’s painted himself into a pretty tight corner by promising he has no presidential aspirations. Of course, politicians do that all the time (and subsequently feel “called” by the people), but Daniels has been much more determined in the framing of his promise, as you can see here.

One -  Paul Ryan - He’s young, good-lookin’ and smart. He’s read his Hayek and his Milton Friedman. If it weren’t for the fact that he voted for the first bailout, I’d gush even more. But Paul Ryan is solid. He put together a excellent entitlement and healthcare reform proposal that put the Rs squarely into the conversation when it came to healthcare reform. One can see definite parallels with Obama’s rise in the young Ryan -- and he might actually be a (mostly) principled, effective leader.

Okay, so some big fish didn’t make the cut. As you can see, my picks don’t track with the results of the CPAC straw poll. So if you’re a fan of Romney, Pawlenty, Palin or Paul, please throw your tomatoes in the comments...

But consider a final note:

My selections are based on a balance of principles and pragmatism (that is, not populism or establishment credentials). These picks aren’t intended to be political science. For example, there are very good arguments for finding a governor from a big state. Rubio’s performance thus far suggests his stock is going up, and bagging Florida would be huge for the GOP. If any skeletons that might be in Marco Rubio’s closet fail to trip him up, he may be a viable running mate or even a Presidential contender himself. A moderate from a Midwestern state may also work well in the calculations of caucuses, primaries and super Tuesday enthusiasts.

But that’s not my schitck. My schtick is rather narrow: Who comes close enough to the principles of the American Founding and can get our country back on track economically? And who stands a chance among carnivorous media, a horsetrading Congress and a fickle electorate?

These are the criteria for my top five.