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For Republicans, a Narrowing List of Presidential Prospects

Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Mark Sanford

The Grand Old Party's 2012 presidential pool isn't looking so grand these days.

Add Nevada Sen. John Ensign's and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's extramarital affairs to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's unconvincing TV speech and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's family dramas, and the Republican presidential herd is thinning fast -- leaving many to wonder who will lead the party in its attempt to reclaim the White House.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels are the names now being whispered in Republican circles as potential winners -- although observers admit political speculations can change overnight.

"It's way too early to be playing the name game," said Dana Perino, former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush.

"I believe it will be a governor," said Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Ayers also stressed that it is far too early to make projections, but he said Pawlenty, Jindal and Romney are among the most promising prospects. 

But, he added, "The list goes on and on."

Ayers said Republicans are well-positioned for a comeback in 2012, but focusing on a candidate short list now is "totally irrelevant to the rebuilding of the party."

He added that the nomination could very well go to someone with little name recognition.

"When George W. Bush got re-elected in 2004, Barack Obama was a state legislator," Ayers said.

Still, as Republicans continue to battle a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House as well as recent scandals within their own party, talk naturally falls to who will emerge as the GOP nominee.

Barbour's appearance in New Hampshire for a party fundraiser on Wednesday got some attention.

Barbour, who has replaced Sanford as chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, has been on a tour of New Hampshire and Iowa this week, the nation's first primary and caucuses states, and arguably a make-or-break destination for presidential candidates.

Barbour told FOX News he has "no plans to run for president" even as he warned: "never say never."

The Mississippi governor, who once served as Republican National Committee chairman, was elected to office in 2003 and re-elected in 2007. He was  praised for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But a would-be candidate also faces the prospect of a Romney run. The former Massachusetts governor has earned credit for  his business credentials and budget management.

Romney, who worked as a CEO of a management consulting firm and co-founder of a private equity firm, has a formidable resume -- one some political observers say may be the best weapon for a party looking for a comeback.

Jindal, perceived by many as a rising star within the party, has also been named a possible choice. But the 37-year-old son of Indian immigrants was roundly criticized for what many perceived as a childish and weak televised response to Obama's address to the nation in February.

Daniels, 60, gained praise for his commencement speech at Butler University in Indianapolis, in which he blasted baby boomers as self-indulgent. The Indiana governor, who served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under the Bush administration, also won a second term overwhelmingly in a state carried by Obama during the election.

In a May 2009 FOX News poll, the majority of respondents said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani would likely be the top contender -- followed by Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Palin.

Giuliani said in May he has not ruled out the possibility of launching a second bid for the presidency.

But as the GOP searches for its most promising candidate, the party will need to find someone who can address public perceptions of the party as intolerant and irrelevant, not to mention marred by politicians who on the one hand are caught up in extramarital affairs while on the other they preach of family values.

Insiders say the party need not be shaken by Ensign's and Sanford's recent confessions or a seemingly slim presidential list.

"The Sanford and Ensign stories are unfortunate, but they don't define Republican principles -- those are well-defined, and we need to focus on them: keeping the country safe, keeping the country capitalist and free, and keeping focused on solutions for energy and health care," said Perino.