Whos running in 2012 Check the El Al manifest

Even before this year’s presidential campaign ended and the polls opened Nov. 4, Republican leaders were writing off John McCain and preparing for the 2012 election, which — to the distress of weary voters — unofficially kicked off as soon as polls closed.

One good way to tell who is thinking of running in 2012 is by looking for politicians planning trips to Israel.

First in line is Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who leaves Dec. 11 for a weeklong trade mission. The Jewish Comm-unity Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas is helping to plan his trip.

Pawlenty will be following a well-traveled path for politicians who see the road to the White House going through Jerusalem.

In one of his first trips outside the United States, Gov. George W. Bush went to Israel in 1998 with a group of Republican Jewish leaders and made an important friend in another politician looking to move up — Ariel Sharon.

Some of those same Jewish leaders took former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to Israel in January 2007. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been there more than once, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made nine trips to Israel before running.

In 2008, both McCain and Barack Obama went to Israel soon after locking up their party’s nomination.

Gov. Sarah Palin may visit Israel sooner rather than later. Some pundits think she will be an early front-runner for 2012 because of her vibrant personality and her ability to energize the social-conservative base of the party.

“I have nothing to lose,” Palin said about the 2008 campaign. But some Republicans may disagree. Many leading newspapers that had never before endorsed a Democrat said their decision to back Obama was influenced in no small part by what they felt was McCain’s poor judgment in picking someone they considered unqualified for the presidency.

Palin’s supporters counter this, saying she drew bigger crowds than McCain, had her baptism of fire on the campaign trail and will have four years to hone her credentials and skills.

Some other familiar faces should show up on the 2012 campaign trail, including Romney, who has money, campaign and gubernatorial experience and name recognition, and Huckabee, one of the most skilled and entertaining candidates in either party this year.

But many — like Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich — will find their political futures are behind them. Don’t look for Jeb Bush, either; the former Florida governor whose dream was usurped by his older brother won’t be able to overcome the stigma of two failed Bush presidencies.

The 2012 hopefuls include several vetted by the McCain campaign and passed over for the VP slot. One is Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives and a rising star in the GOP leadership. Three others are sitting governors: Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Charlie Crist of Florida.

Keep an eye also on Linda Lingle, Hawaii’s first female — and Jewish — chief executive; Carly Fiorina, former head of Hewlett Packard and a McCain economic adviser; and Gen. David Petraeus. The party will try to lure him into the political arena if he produces successes in Iraq and Afghanistan — a very big if.

A new crop of fringe candidates might appear, even though Bob Barr, Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader and Ron Paul failed to generate much interest in 2008.

Expect all the 2012 Republican wannabes to claim to be the true heir to Ronald Reagan, the last popular two-term Republican President. Expect none of them to invoke the name George W. Bush.

This is only a partial list, and remember, when playing this popular guessing game: Four years ago, Obama was largely unknown, on no one’s short list and hadn’t even been sworn in to the Senate yet.

Douglas Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who was former chief legislative lobbyist for AIPAC.