Fred Malek, a heavyweight Republican fundraiser and kingmaker, has singled out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the GOP’s leading contender in the early stages of the 2012 Republican presidential derby.
In a largely unnoticed post to his blog late last week, Malek, a wealthy businessman who served as national finance co-chair of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, ranked Romney No. 1 on a list of influential Republicans “who might both lead our party back and who might be our nominee in 2012.”
Malek, who did not return an email requesting comment from POLITICO, blogged that Romney has “the established organization, fundraising network, time, and talent to get the nomination this time” and predicted he could “be in the best position when the serious campaigning begins in early 2011.”
Though Malek conceded Romney “does retain an image problem with some Republicans, who are not sold on his conservative credentials or upset with him for changing his emphasis of issues from his time as governor to presidential candidate,” he called Romney “self-aware and very smart.”
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who is popular among fiscal conservatives, ranked second on Malek’s list. Sanford recently attended a dinner with major GOP donors at Malek’s McLean, Va., home. The dinner, held the night before this month’s White House Correspondents Association event, was intended to help party donors shop for a 2012 candidate.
Malek praised Sanford’s initial stand against accepting federal stimulus funds and asserted he “could be a challenger to Mitt or on the ticket if he decides to go that way.”
Malek, the founder and chairman of Thayer Capital Partners, also invited Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the dinner but Palin was unable to attend due to flooding in Alaska and instead sent her husband Todd. In January, Malek hosted her at another dinner in his home on the weekend of Washington’s prestigious Alfalfa Club dinner.
Palin, who ranked sixth on Malek’s list, “is vastly underestimated by the press, has an enormous grasp of issues and a strong devotion to what is important to Alaska, where she will be re-elected easily, and will be the most powerful money and mobilization magnet in GOP for some time,” Malek wrote.
Malek pegged Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour third, praising him as “extremely sound on policies, clear thinking and the best political strategist,” but pointing out “he does not have the best name recognition” and asserting he’s “more likely a king maker than king, but one never knows.”
At No. 4, Malek floated former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“That’s right, I am putting Dick Cheney on this list,” he wrote. “He deserves to be. He is willing and able to take it to Obama, no matter the criticism, and he’s on point in defending the Bush-era policies that led to 8 years of safety.”
“Of course, we know that he won’t run but if the past few weeks tell us anything, he will be around. His presence alone will challenge other future leaders in the party to be more prepared, less squishy and sharper on core issues like foreign policy,” Malek noted.
At No. 5, Malek lists a group of four moderate Republicans who are eying Senate races: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk and Delaware Congressman Mike Castle. Though he concedes moderates aren’t popular with the GOP base, especially after Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties, Malek asks, “[C]an we ever expect to be a majority party without embracing a tent big [sic] philosophy that encourages those at the middle of the spectrum to think of themselves as Republicans?”
Rounding out the list after Palin are Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell (“able to build a center-right majority”), President Obama’s Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (who had yet to join the administration at the time of Malek’s post), Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan (“a clear and compelling message on economic reform … who will be short-listed for VP in 2012”) and Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor (“My guess is he has what it takes to become Speaker of the House, and I’d bet that one day he will.”).