Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led the pack in polls released last week. A trio -- Georgia businessman Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- are chasing him. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota started strong -- winning the Ames, Iowa, straw poll -- but since has dropped rapidly.
Four candidates, however, are trying to muscle their way into the top tier of contenders. Each brings something special to the campaign -- whether a lengthy stint in national government or serving in the diplomatic realm -- and all hope for something to goose their campaigns forward.
While candidates' support ebbs and flows, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has reason to be optimistic about his stuck-in-the-middle campaign. A recent Fox News poll showed the campaign of on-and-off front-runner Gov. Rick Perry was losing steam and early front-runner U.S. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota plunging to the bottom. Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's support was steady as Gingrich and Georgia businessman Herman Cain moved up.
Newt Gingrich, who made a "Contract with America," rode a wave of voter discontent in the 1990s to a GOP takeover of the House for the first time in four decades.
"The elite media said several weeks ago this was now a two person race," Gingrich said in a clip played on a recent segment of CBS' "Face the Nation." "And Herm and I have decided it may be right, but they have the wrong two people."
Gingrich is well known but has lots of well-known baggage. On the positive side of the ledger, he served in Congress for 21 years, pushed bipartisan passage of key legislation, including welfare reform, and presided over two balanced budgets that included surpluses. BUT … he's been married three times, had a liaison with a staffer while investigating Clinton's tryst and was reprimanded and fined $300,000 for ethics violations.
Gingrich "was reasonably popular back [in the '90s]. He was the yin to Clinton's yang," Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Florence's Francis Marion University, told The State. "He's just run into trouble on every front . ... I don't see him doing all that well here [in South Carolina]."
Gingrich, polling an average of 7.7 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics.com poll of polls, has been on the road 24 days in September and participated in every Republican debate.
"When you go through the debates, at the end of the day, it's always, 'He's the adult on stage,'" said Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina Republican political consultant not affiliated with any presidential campaign this cycle. "Enough of those kind of performances and people will start to pay attention."
But a sustained campaign needs money, and Tompkins says the key for Gingrich is whether he can raise enough money to survive.
"When the air wars start," Tompkins said, "will he get himself in position to not be completely drowned out?"
The former House speaker, trying to kick-start his campaign, unveiled an updated version of his 1994 Contract with America."
"The scale of the challenge and the intensity of the opposition require that we approach a 21st Century Contract with America with a much more profound and serious strategy than the original 1994 Contract with America," Gingrich said, referring to the manifesto developed when Republicans swept into the majority in the House and Senate.
Citing the dismal economy and high unemployment he said are "killing" jobs and endangering national security, Gingrich said on his Web site, "The 2012 election is not a political election in any normal sense of ambitious people competing for power within an accepted framework of values and principles. It is an historic election in which the outcome will potentially change the nature of America for generations to come."
Jeremy Mayer, a public policy professor at George Mason University, told Fox News Gingrich is more electable than other middle-tier candidates such as Cain or Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
"I think that the Republican unhappiness with their choices is really fueling a second and third and fourth look at Newt Gingrich," Mayer said. "This is a moment for substance ... so Gingrich is going for that substance group within the Republican Party."
But Mayer gave Gingrich a "very small chance" of surging ahead to clinch the nomination, saying may Republicans consider him as "damaged goods."
Agreeing with that sentiment was political commentator Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Gingrich is a bright, articulate man who is a good debater, but the broader public "is not very warm toward him" Schier said, adding that some consider him "yesterday's Republican."
While Gingrich said he would seriously consider accepting a vice presidential spot if asked, Schier said the Georgia Republican isn't good vice presidential material.
Gingrich, Bachmann and Paul all "are free spirits and mavericks," Schier said. "People like that are difficult to have as running mates."
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum admits he's not a household name and voters aren't familiar with his record, but he hopes to change that, The Washington Post said.
"Every debate is a chance for me to get people paying a little bit more attention," Santorum said.
He says he'd love nothing more than to spar with Romney over his state healthcare plan that has been compared unfavorably to the national healthcare law.
"The frustrating part of the previous debates for me is that whoever the top contender was with Romney -- whether it was [former Minnesota governor Tim] Pawlenty or Bachmann or Perry -- always had the opportunity to spar with Romney and nobody else really has. I really haven't had a chance unless I sort of butted in," Santorum said.
Santorum says his fundraising numbers for the third quarter aren't impressive -- less than $1 million -- but that his campaign is financial healthy. Fundraising notwithstanding, Santorum told Fox News he's seen some momentum gains and has more than enough money to soldier on.
"We feel like we are building traction … and at the right time," Santorum said. "We have enough money to do what we need to do."
An endorsement from a national GOP figure -- such as Sarah Palin -- would help push his campaign off the dime.
"Her being out of the race and potentially getting involved in a campaign with somebody else could be a big lift," Santorum said on ABC's "Top Line.
"We'd like your endorsement by the way," he joked, looking right to the camera.
RealClearPolitics.com's average of polls indicates Santorum -- who says he's "the conservative alternative" to candidates such Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Cain -- pulls 2.4 percent, although the candidate says he does not pay any attention.
"I don't want to be depressed by watching national polls," Santorum told ABC. "I just tend to focus on what we're doing on the ground and know, just like in the Ames straw poll where no one gave us any chance, every poll said we were way, way back in the pack and we finished a pretty strong fourth."
And, political statistician and journalist Nate Silver said polling has been "unusually volatile" so far in this cycle, with each of 10 candidates having led at least one poll of Republican voters since Jan. 1, a Yale undergraduate journal of politics said.
Santorum has a lifetime conservative rating of 88 percent from the American Conservative Union and is known for his hard line positions on social issues. His wife and children, highly visible during his senatorial campaign are just as visible during the 2012 GOP nomination tilt.
Santorum, 53, says he's the best candidate because "I have the best record and the best plan and a good track record of showing that we can execute those plans and actually get elected in tough states."
Santorum recently repeated comments made during a debate that he opposed allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in the U.S. military, going further by conjuring up the image of soldiers in communal showers to explain his support for reinstating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"The problem is that sexual activity with people who you are in close quarters with who happen to be of the same sex is different than being open about your sexuality," Santorum said recently on "Fox News Sunday."
"They're in close quarters, they live with people, they obviously shower with people," Santorum said.
His unapologetic conservative position is getting attention, said political commentator Schier said, "but he's not that well known to the public. He doesn't have what I would call a warm and inviting personality."
Schier said Santorum could be running "to get his name out there."
Apart from the presidential race, Santorum has been trying to get Google to eliminate sexually explicit search results linked to his name. Santorum told ABC that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt basically told him "this is just how the algorithms work, and it is what it is," something Santorum says he doesn't buy.
Jon Huntsman Jr.
Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and Obama's ambassador to China, has the executive experience and foreign policy chops to be a very attractive candidate.
So why is he polling about 1.2 percent in RealClearPolitics.com's average of polls?
"He's the most moderate candidate in a party dominated by conservatives," Schier said. "While he has a lot of good candidate traits, [the party is] not supporting him because he's not sufficiently conservative."
Last week Huntsman outlined his foreign policy position, trying to present himself as less hawkish than Romney, but still dynamic enough to attract party support, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"The world needs American leadership now more than ever. Yet we are struggling to provide it," Huntsman said in a speech streamed online. "President Obama's policies have weakened America, and thus diminished America's presence on the global stage. We must correct our course."
On foreign affairs, the Republican Party is divided between an isolationist wing, which includes Paul, and the camp that calls for U.S. involvement in world affairs, where Huntsman falls.
Huntsman, saying Obama's policies have weakened America, would scale back U.S. involvement in international conflicts so America can focus on rebuilding the economy, the Huffington Post said.
"America cannot project power abroad when we are weak at home," Huntsman said. "The world is a better place when America leads. The world is a safer place when America leads. ... But to lead abroad, we must regain strength at home."
Huntsman backer Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and the nation's first Homeland Security secretary, introduced the ex-Utah governor at an event in New Hampshire, pitching the candidate as the one who would lead the United States to the "Reagan way," The Salt Lake City Tribune reported.
"You can't be secure [as a nation] unless you're prosperous and you can't be prosperous unless you are secure. This country needs someone who understands that they intersect," Ridge said of Huntsman.
Huntsman, whose moderate positions on domestic issues set him apart from others in the GOP, defends his time as Obama's ambassador to Beijing.
"I was raised with the idea that you put your country before party," Huntsman said while stumping in New Hampshire. "You stand up and do what's right for your country."
A Mormon, Huntsman jumped to the defense of fellow Mormon Romney, saying a Baptist preacher's calling the faith a "cult" was nonsense, CNN reported.
"I think that we have such limited bandwidth in terms of what this nation focuses on and discusses and makes a priority," Huntsman told reporters after a New Hampshire event. "This is a political sideshow."
Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church Dallas, sparked the controversy when he called on Christians to vote for Perry over Romney because of Romney's Mormon faith.
Huntsman later told CNN, "The fact that some moron can stand up and make a comment like that ... [is] outrageous. Anyone who is associated with someone willing to make those comments ought to distance themselves in very bold language."
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson freely admits he's the least known among the Republican candidates vying for the presidential nomination.
"I'm different," Johnson told Yahoo!.
He has passionate but modest following of fiscal conservatives and social liberals drawn to his policy ideas, which include legalizing marijuana, balancing the federal budget, repealing the healthcare law and allowing same-sex marriages.
"Of all the other candidates," Johnson said, "I'm the only social non-conservative out there."
His poll numbers are around 1 percent and his campaign's ho-hum fundraising hasn't allowed him to participate in some of the bigger events such as the straw poll in Ames, Iowa.
Johnson, who served two terms as the Republican governor from 1995 to 2003, made a name for himself by vetoing more than 700 spending bills, a third sponsored by Republicans.
The Tea Party also has a love-hate relationship with Johnson, loving his calls to balance the budget but seething over his views on marriage, immigration and ending the wars.
"It's a mixed bag," Johnson told Yahoo!. "If tea partiers are looking for a balanced budget, if they're looking for a fiscal conservative, I'm that person. If they're looking for a social conservative, which a lot of them are, I'm not that person."
Johnson, 58, who's competed in marathons and triathlons, said this campaign will be his last. He said he's marrying and looks forward to heading to the home he built in northern New Mexico at the base of a mountain
Johnson, along with fiancee Kate Prusack and his adult son, Erik, took off on a campaign swing through New Hampshire, a six-day, 458-mile bike tour he dubbed the "Ride for Freedom," Time magazine reported.
Johnson has a beef with the media, saying outlets have denied him a chance to raise his profile. Cable networks excluded him from all but one Republican debates, even though he's met the 2 percent threshold required to participate, Time said. Johnson was sidelined in last Tuesday's debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire -- hence the bike tour.
"Never in my life did I think I would be denied a seat at the table," he told Time. "I'm not on the poll. Is that right? Is that fair? Is that America? Not the America I envisioned. Not having been a successful governor."
Johnson lacks money and is a Libertarian, Schier said, adding "there's already a Libertarian in field and that's Ron Paul."
Plus, Schier said, Johnson favors legalizing marijuana, a tough sell for the conservatives who dominate party primaries.