Analysis: Wannabe stars, failed hopefuls and the GOP drama that wasn't

In the beginning, the GOP field included Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Hermain Cain, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.

Story highlights

  • It started off exciting, but GOP race seems to have fizzled, Steve Krakauer says
  • Cast of candidates such as Sarah Palin and Chris Christie never materialized, he says
  • Potential contenders faded as soon as primary season officially began, Krakauer says

Nearly a year ago on February 12, 2011, Rep. Ron Paul won the CPAC straw poll. But the result was less important -- it was a straw poll after all, and we know how much they mean -- than who was included on the massive 15-person ballot. Chris Christie! Sarah Palin! The pizza guy Herman Cain in his pre-999 days! This was going to be such an exciting 2012 GOP race.

And then ... it wasn't.

Now, two weeks into January, we're already down to the final few, and Mitt Romney is thinking about a clean sweep in the primaries and caucuses as he inches closer to nominee status heading into South Carolina and Florida. How did we get here? Where's the drama, the intrigue, the subplots worthy of intense media salivation? Let's take a look back:

Chris Christie
Christie, the New Jersey governor, may be the most disappointing noncandidate in this cycle, beloved by many in the Republican Party, as well as the media. He polled well in the all-important hypothetical contests but held strong to his initial decision to sit this one out -- even if he did flirt with the idea briefly. He went on to endorse and campaign strongly for Romney, partially nullifying the rabid support he once held.

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But now, a storyline the media can get behind: Christie for vice president?

The Fox stars
There were the media stars who looked poised to make the political switch, and while Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum gave up their Fox News jobs to enter the race, Mike Huckabee decided to keep his public affairs/live music show on the network and avoid the 2012 grind. Another potential nominee who decided to continue picking up a Fox News paycheck is John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who recently endorsed Romney, too.

Donald Trump
Then there's the whole Donald Trump thing. He enjoyed a mind-blowing rise to front-runner status -- he even topped GOP polls for a couple of weeks -- until he dropped a few F-bombs and dropped out, preferring to play kiss-my-ring from his New York office/TV studio. The decision to stay sidelined seemed strange at the time, but maybe it all makes sense in this current media landscape.

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Who has more power, a weekend host on Fox News, a reality TV star or the guy who finishes second in the GOP primary?

Sarah Palin
Speaking of reality TV stars -- and Fox News personalities -- there's Palin. She released ads and toured the country like a candidate but ultimately decided against taking the plunge. She was polling well and would have garnered a ton of attention. But like most of her political career, she went rogue. She decided not to run and has since largely stayed out of the spotlight, much to the dismay of her ardent supporters and what she calls the "lamestream" media.

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The governors and other officials
While not nearly as exciting as the possible media-centric contenders, another group garnered support from certain factions within the GOP. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour explored the idea and had some modicum of support before choosing not to run. And that may not have been a bad call, given the reaction last week to his hundreds of pardons. Another governor, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, had a following ready to throw support behind his candidacy, but he declined, citing family reasons.

A pair of New Yorkers -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. George Pataki -- played coy with the media about their possible runs. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota was discussed but decided against it early and has joined the chorus of Romney endorsers, as did Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Jim DeMint of South Carolina considered but held a presidential forum instead.

And then there was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who consistently said he had no interest in running in 2012, yet constantly gets mentioned as someone who could enter late and become a front-runner. He hasn't yet endorsed, but he has praised Romney.

The dropouts
We did get some excitement from candidates who briefly dipped their toes in the GOP race, like with the meteoric rise -- and subsequent quick fall -- of Cain. Cain coined a catchphrase economic plan that is sure to stick with political audiences for 999 years, and gave some fantastic interviews. But largely due to a bevy of outside factors (all right, women alleging affairs), he dropped out and started CainConnections.com (really, he did). He certainly injected an immense amount of personality into the race, and it was fun while it lasted.

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So is Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She was also was the front-runner for a few weeks but faded quickly -- which makes total sense after a straw poll win. Her ability to create tension and soundbites during debates can't be duplicated, but after Iowa, she was done. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took the quick exit and threw his support behind Romney. And while he never gained traction and dropped out Monday, Jon Huntsman was a media favorite, and he and his daughters provided some good Twitter fodder.

Overheard on CNN.com: Who's next?

The survivor
The only person still in the race who was somewhat of a surprise is Rick Perry, who initially said he wouldn't run but decided otherwise. He got an incredible surge to start, made gaffes during debates and fell to the back of the pack. If he doesn't outdo Gingrich or Santorum in South Carolina, we're likely to say goodbye to him, too.

Some of the smartest political minds are suggesting the possibility of a "mystery candidate" to emerge, echoing the sentiments of not just the media but many within the GOP. Wishful thinking, most likely -- unless you count Stephen Colbert, who announced he was forming a presidential exploratory committee and is polling in the 5% range in South Carolina.

The "truthiness" is Romney appears to be the presumptive nominee. And the truth is, in what seemed like a race that would be filled with personality, the drama may be coming to a screeching South Carolinian halt in less than a week.

      Election 2012

    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage with first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden after his victory speech on election night at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
    • Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
    • US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. President Barack Obama swept to re-election Tuesday, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
    • Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.