Welcome to the inaugural edition of PoliticalDerby.com’s 2012 Power Rankings. We were the first to rank the horses for the ’08 race, and now the first to rank the horses that will vie for the GOP nomination to challenge President-elect Obama. (Unless something truly scandalous happens, Obama will not face competition for the 2012 nomination.)

For now the rankings obviously won’t be updated very often. But make no mistake, the race for 2012 is underway.

Republican Horses

1. Sarah Palin – By default, Palin begins our rankings in the top spot. Unless post-election analysis can peg the loss on her (early indications are that she was a very slight net plus for McCain) Palin’s automatically the front runner in 2012. The key argument democrats (and some republicans) made against her was her “lack of experience”. That issue is off the table four years from now. If America can elect a man with two years in the Senate (at campaign launch), they can elect a six-year governor from Alaska. Palin has become a fundraising machine and will spend the next two years campaigning on behalf of candidates, shooting moose and democrats, and, one hopes, buying her own wardrobe. Her path to the top of the ticket in 2012 won’t be easy, but it’s realistic.

2. Mitt Romney – Most conservatives who fell off the Palin bandwagon at some point during the campaign found themselves longing for Romney and his business cred. That probably has less to do with the man himself and more to do with the economy taking over the election and Romney’s prowess on the issue. Regardless, he’s arguably more popular now with the party than he ever was during his own campaign. He’s done more events for McCain than any other nomination castoff and has raised buckets of cash for candidates up and down the ballot. Fair or not, can he put the flip flopper label behind him during the next three years? Can he stay in the public eye? Will he still have that enviable head of hair?

3. Mike Huckabee – A very close of friend of the former Arkansas governor tells us it’s a lock Huck runs again. Not only that, they believe very strongly that if Fred had dropped out earlier, they would have won the SC primary and been propelled to the nomination in 2008. So they feel it will be “their turn”. Huck has a platform, albeit a small one, on TV every week and his good name with Evangelicals isn’t going anywhere. If his “primary” problem in 2008 was money and name ID, shouldn’t he be considered a top-tier horse in 2012?

4. Mark Sanford – The Derby has liked Sanford as a national candidate for a long time. Rumors suggest that there were only four reasons he said no to the 2008 race: Marshall, Landon, Bolton, Blake. His four young sons. Will they still be too young in 2012 or will dad be more willing to kiss them goodbye and live on the trail? If so, he’s an instant front runner and would make a party eager to nominate a genuine conservative in 2012 simply giddy.

5. Bobby Jindal – The popular Jindal was a sexy pick as McCain’s veep in 2008, but never seemed to want it quite like Huck, Mitt or Pawlenty. That reluctance will serve him well in 2012. He already has amazing party name ID considering he’s governor of a smallish southern state and has never run a national campaign. So how much brighter will his star be two years from now when the ’12 campaign begins in earnest? Or will age could be an issue? He’s just 37 now and at age 41 would be 6 years younger as a candidate than Obama was in 2008.

Other horses receiving votes: John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Rudy Giuliani