Texas governor Rick Perry’s impressive primary victory over Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is a signal. After the midterm election this November, the field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 (or later) is going to get bigger and possibly better.

The list is long: Mitch Daniels, John Kasich, Meg Whitman, Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and Jim DeMint. And Perry.

To qualify as a serious national candidate, Perry must defeat Democrat Bill White—and not in a squeaker—this fall for a third term as governor of the nation’s second most populous state. But his primary win last week was enough to prompt preliminary chatter about a presidential bid in 2012.

He has repeatedly and emphatically insisted he has no interest in any job outside Texas, and I take him at his word. But his situation may soon change. How? A groundswell of support for a Perry presidential candidacy that included a few prominent Republicans could cause him to reconsider. And it should.

A Perry-for-President bandwagon is all but inevitable, assuming he trounces White. The case for him is pretty simple: Perry is perhaps the most successful governor in the country. Texas has been a job creation machine on his watch. Even in the current recession, Texas has suffered far less than most states. And, by the way, Perry has a tough, tested crew of political advisers who will come in handy if he runs.

Despite four years of steep decline (2005 to 2009), the Republican party doesn’t require a total makeover, but it sure could use some fresh talent, preferably with respectable track records, at the national level. The easiest way for a Republican to escape the shadows and attract media attention is by seeking the presidency.

Several of the candidates left over from 2008 may run again. Mitt Romney already is. Mike Huckabee is a maybe. Ron Paul has nothing to lose. Only Romney, of the three, has a realistic shot at the nomination. But as a group, they’re not terribly exciting.

Republicans have benefited from the mistakes of President Obama and congressional Democrats. Opposition alone, plus Obama’s failure to revive the economy, should produce gains in the House, Senate, governorships, and state legislatures this fall. The next step is to improve the party’s stature.

That’s where the 2010 election comes in. One way or another, it will thrust a number of attractive Republicans front and center as credible presidential candidates in 2012 or potential candidates or merely as leaders.

Let’s start with John Kasich and Meg Whitman. If Kasich is elected governor of Ohio and Whitman governor of California, it’s possible they’ll run for president in 2012. Okay, it’s unlikely, but not entirely far-fetched. Woodrow Wilson pulled this off. In his first run for office, he was elected New Jersey governor in 1910. Two years later, he won the presidency.

What if Kasich quickly turned the Ohio economy around, and Whitman’s application of shock therapy to California’s out-of-control government spending and antibusiness climate showed significant signs of working? Again, unlikely. And they have to get elected in the first place, a hard task. But should they win, they’d be governors of big, important states, and at the very least, they’d be Republican stars and touted as future presidential candidates.

Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who’s open to running in 2012, will be more inclined if Republicans hold the Indiana senate (33-17 Republican now) and capture the house (52-47 Democratic) in November. That would ease the burden of governing in his last two years in office and allow time for campaigning for president.

Post-midterm elections, Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi must decide quickly what to do when their terms expire in 2011. Jindal has indicated he’ll run for reelection. He’s recruited a team of strategists and consultants with experience in national races. So if he forgoes a second term to run for president, he’ll have a senior campaign staff in place. Even as a reelected governor, he’d no doubt be a national figure, available for appearances around the country. I’m certain of one thing: Jindal is going to run for president sometime, though not necessarily in 2012.

Barbour has been an extremely active head of the Republican Governors’ Association, which pumped millions into the successful races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey in 2009. He flirted with a presidential bid in 2008. Like Perry and Jindal, Barbour is regarded as a successful governor, notably in guiding Mississippi’s recovery from Katrina. He’s done little to rebut speculation he’ll run for president in 2012.

Governors, or ex-governors, often make better presidential candidates. This may encourage retiring Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina has built a national network of conservative allies, which could be the basis for a presidential bid.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich. They’re already national figures. Palin seems to feel no urgency about 2012. She may be planning a presidential run, but there’s no evidence of it. Instead, she’s giving speeches, endorsing Republican candidates, appearing on Fox News, writing a second book, and trying to develop a TV show. Gingrich, according to various reports, plans to run.

But it’s Perry for whom 2010 may be the most consequential breakout year. He’s running for reelection on an anti-Washington theme, and he’s also antiestablishment, having beaten the darling of the Texas Republican grandees. For a Republican, that’s just about perfect positioning.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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