Any list of potential 2012 Republican Presidential candidates can be broken down into the die-hard wingnuts & wingnut-wannabes (Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Mark Sanford, Mitt Romney) and the relatively ("relatively" being, well, a relative term) moderate Republicans (Charlie Crist, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty).
The wingnuts are going full-wingnut, especially since the tea parties. But a funny thing happened to the relative moderates on the list. Maybe it's the right-wing purification the GOP has lately undergone, but it looks like the relative moderates are conceding that President Obama will win a second term, and are instead focused on preparing for 2016. (Perhaps, seeing the Republican Party's unabated hard drift further to the right in the wake of Election Day '08, the relative moderates have also given up on someone who is not a wingnut winning the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012, which also effectively cedes a second term to President Obama.) Just look at the events of the last week.
Charlie Crist, who had voiced emphatic support for President Obama's economic stimulus bill, opted to run for Senate out of Florida in 2010 rather than re-election to the Governor's office. In addition to allowing Crist to eject himself from the budget ditch into which he has driven Florida's state economy, this allows Crist to build his national portfolio. And, oh, by the way, should Crist win the Senate seat, his term would expire in 2016.
Jon Huntsman Jr., who governed conservative Utah but voiced support for not-so-right-wing-friendly policies like same-sex civil unions, has seen his name included more frequently in these discussions of potential Republican Presidental candidates. Just a few days ago, though, he went from potential Obama opponent to Obama employee effectively as he accepted President Obama's nomination to serve as Ambassador to China. After establishing his domestic executive resume as Governor of Utah, Huntsman can now shore up his international affairs bona fides in one of the most critically important roles in our nation's diplomatic corps. As it's unlikely that Huntsman would serve in the Obama Administration for a short period of time and then turn around and run against him in 2012, it seems more likely that he is setting himself up for 2016, seeing President Obama as "too popular to fail" in 2012.
Tim Pawlenty was given an opportunity to earn some post-partisan cred by serving as a moderating force against Norm Coleman's endless appeals in MN-Sen. Pawlenty could have shown some spine regarding the seating of Senator-elect Al Franken, perhaps urging Coleman to concede should he lose his appeal before the state Supreme Court so that Minnesota could again enjoy its full Senate delegation. Rather, Pawlenty provided only wishy-washy answers in order to stay in the far-right-wing's good graces, possibly seeking the political table scraps of again being mentioned as a possible running mate in 2012, thereby surrendering membership in this club.
With Obama-Biden ostensibly set to be the Democratic ticket in 2012, and with Vice President Biden turning 74 in 2016 (making a Biden Presidential candidacy in 2016 less than guaranteed), there is no clear Democratic favorite in 2016. By taking steps that both work with the Obama Administration and likely take themselves out of the 2012 sweepstakes (in which the GOP will likely go further right than any time in recent memory), Crist and Huntsman as setting themselves up to be the post-partisan successor to President Obama in 2016. Such moves effectively concede that Crist and Huntsman expect President Obama to win a second term and Republicans' further-rightward pull to fail in 2012.