Karl Rove has a piece in today's WSJ on Handicapping the GOP Debate that helps put things in perspective:
At this point four years ago, Rudy Giuliani led the GOP field with 28%, trailed by former Sen. Fred Thompson at 23% and John McCain at 15%, with everyone else in single digits. When the dust finally cleared, neither Messrs. Giuliani nor Thompson was a serious contender—and Govs. Romney and Mike Huckabee pressed Mr. McCain hard before he prevailed. All of which means the 2012 Republican sweepstakes is far from over.
At times, there seems to such a rush to "narrow the field" and get down to the "real contenders" that it's easy to forget that even though the campaign for the GOP nomination has been going on for some time, there's still a long way to go and a lot that can happen. If such winnowing calls were heeded in 2008, we'd have been down to two candidates, neither of whom it turned out had the requisite fires in their bellies. Today, it might look like it's Perry and Romney and everybody else, but we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that current will continue. And we should still keep an open mind to other candidates who may yet surprise us.
It also raises the question that Saint Paul asked last week of whether Pawlenty withdrew too hastily. While the lifeblood of any campaign is money and you can understand why the underfunded Pawlenty didn’t want to continue, it seems likely that if he were still in the race there might be an opening for him right now. If we really are down to a choice between Perry and Romney, I think a lot of Republicans will opt for the one they view as least offensive. Pawlenty doesn’t have near the baggage from his days as governor that Perry and Romney do and he would likely be the most electable among the rest of the Republican field. Voters may never had become particularly passionate about Pawlenty, but those who have problems with both Romney and Perry could have opted for him as a safe alternative.
As Karl Rove says, the race for the 2012 GOP nomination is far from over and the eventual victor may not be one of the "real contenders" today. One thing we know for sure is that it won’t be Tim Pawlenty.