Here’s the worst kept secret in politics: Presidential campaigning never ends. For periods of time it becomes quieter–a little subtler–but it never stops. Every morning 100 senators, 50 governors, quite a few grandees in the House of Representatives, and an assortment of corporate titans all hear their Rice Krispies shouting “2012!” “FORM A PRESIDENTIAL EXPLORATORY COMMITTEE!” and “RUN … YOU’RE THE ONE!”

Democrats will shush Snap, Crackle, and Pop, pleading with them to instead say, “2016!” Republicans on the other hand, will pour another bowl, and ask the three sirens of Battle Creek, Michigan, to repeat what they just said.

Need proof of the 2012 jockeying taking place behind the scenes? Since November 4, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has chatted up any person with professional-grade video equipment (it’s called image reform, folks). Louisiana’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, has already booked a flight to Iowa (he will appear before the Iowa Family Policy Center’s “Celebrating the Family” banquet this Saturday). And Barack Obama placed Hillary Clinton at the top of his list for the job of secretary of state (Obama knows sitting presidents who face significant nomination challenges for re-election don’t fare well–I’m looking at you Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Obama wants to keep Ms. Clinton otherwise occupied).

Since no sitting president who decided to stay in the battle has lost a nomination fight since the 19th century, it is probably safe to assume that even with a contested nomination, Democrats will stick with Obama in 2012. But to whom might the GOP look for leadership during their wilderness year?

The “Celebrity”

Sarah Palin: Any such analysis must begin with the Alaskan governor and self-styled “hockey mom.” In 2008 she energized the conservative base of the Republican Party in ways that its presidential nominee, John McCain, could not. She was the first vice presidential candidate in recent memory to inspire bumper stickers that did not mention her top-of-the-ticket running mate (“SARAH!” they blared). The right loves her, and people on the right exercise considerable influence in Republican presidential caucuses and primaries–not to mention most gatherings of two or more Republicans. And she obviously wants to seize the titles “leader of the loyal opposition,” and “frontrunner” for the GOP’s 2012 nomination.

Palin has her strengths. She’s energetic and engaging. The television camera loves her. Plus she’s a governor and Americans love sending governors to the White House. Her star turn as the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee will fill her inbox with media invitations for some time to come, giving her the opportunity to extend her 15 minutes of fame well beyond the normal expiration date–if she’s savvy.

But Palin also has a crop of potentially debilitating weaknesses. Her debut on the national stage turned into an utter disaster. For all the love she inspired from conservatives, Palin left an especially bad taste with moderates and independents. Many voters watched her interviews with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, and CBS’ Katie Couric and deemed Palin unworthy for the vice presidency, much less the presidency. And Tiny Fey’s “You betcha!” winking portrayal of Palin on Saturday Night Live braided the Alaskan into the national zeitgeist not as a serious governor who might one day assume the office of chief executive, but instead as a cutesy, moose-shooting cartoon character. Palin has several years to repair the damage, but it will require more than a few Matt Lauer trips to Wasilla to get the job done. She needs to find a way to look like a thoughtful policymaker with commander-in-chief gravitas if she wants Hail to the Chief to precede her entrance into a room.

The Early Contenders

Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor recently revealed that he asked Team McCain not to vet him for the 2008 GOP vice presidential nomination. After watching how his fellow novice governor, Palin, fared, Jindal probably has few regrets about the decision. A son of immigrants from India, Governor Jindal already is proving attractive to some Republican party-builders who want to give the GOP a more diverse look as it adjusts to life in Barack Obama’s America. Only 36 years old, Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar, already has held a series of significant executive and legislative positions: Louisiana’s secretary of health and hospitals, assistant U.S. secretary of health and human services, member of Congress, and now reform-minded governor of a state that desperately needs a reform-minded governor. Residents of Iowa and New Hampshire: Be ready to see a lot of Jindal.

Mitt Romney/Mike Huckabee: Former Governors (and 2008 presidential aspirants) Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee will likely find their way back to Des Moines International Airport in the coming years. While they both have name ID from their failed primary bids, they both still carry the same liabilities that weighed them down earlier this year. Social conservatives and southerners don’t really trust Romney because of his late-in-life conversion to their issues (and some evangelicals’ concern about his Mormonism) while economic conservatives don’t trust Huckabee (because he never pretended to convert to their issues). They’ll try to look the part of leader-in-waiting, but Huckabee’s future probably lies on Fox News Channel, while Romney’s will be enjoying his picture perfect family and hundreds of millions dollars.

Newt Gingrich: It wouldn’t be proper 2012 speculation without the obligatory Newt Gingrich mention, so there you go.

Seriously Listening to Their Breakfast Cereal

Haley Barbour: The Mississippi governor was one of the few politicians to survive Hurricane Katrina with his reputation intact. Barbour ran the Republican National Committee during the 1994 Republican Revolution and is popular among the GOP’s old guard and the “money people.” He will also be leaving office in January 2012, which would give him plenty of free time to devote to campaigning.

Mark Sanford: Sanford, a former Congressman and current South Carolina governor, is widely admired among GOP fiscal conservatives. He is so unafraid to get “mavericky” (to borrow a phrase from Tiny Fey’s impersonation of Palin) that he once vetoed a budget passed by his state’s GOP dominated legislature because he thought it contained too much pork.

Tim Pawlenty: Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty received serious consideration for the Republican ticket in 2008, and now he may be giving serious consideration to running for president in 2012.

The Best of the Rest

Long-term leadership may not come from the ranks of presidential contenders, if Barack Obama builds a strong lead in 2012 comparable to the ones Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan constructed by the time they stood for re-election. Republican leaders who may not necessarily be researching caucus and primary rules for 2012 (or ever) start with Virginia’s 7th District Congressman Eric Cantor. As the GOP’s margin in Congress has shrunk, Cantor is one of the party’s few leaders in the House to gain stature. A policy wonk with a sophisticated political mind, many have touted Cantor–the soon-to-be House minority whip–as the next Republican who will wear the title “Mr. Speaker.” Former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele has thrown his hat into the ring for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, and likely a large public role during these GOP out-years. An African-American, Steele would help to add a dash of diversity to a party badly in need of one.

November 3, 2009, (Election Day for those lucky states with off-off-year elections) might bring to the fore new GOP names currently little-known outside of their home states. IfBob McDonnell, the likely 2009 Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, can find a way to reverse the GOP’s losing streak in his decidedly purple home state, he can expect many a camera to click in his face, and many a presidential aspirant to show up at his door with one question, “How can I do what you did?”

Ditto that for New Jersey’s Chris Christie. He’ll probably run for governor of the Garden State as a Republican in 2009, and lose. But don’t underestimate how little New Jersey residents think of their current governor, Jon Corzine. One poll this year found only 24 percent of the state’s voters want him re-elected. That’s why Corzine is campaigning so hard to become Barack Obama’s treasury secretary, because he might lose in 2009. A serious moderate, with the crime and corruption-fighting credentials of Christie might (with heavy, heavy emphasis on “might”) be attractive. If Christie does win as a Republican in a deep-blue state like New Jersey then the GOP world will beat a path to his door–and for good reason.

But never underestimate America’s political tradition of falling in love with the dark horse. In November 1972 few would have foreseen Jimmy Carter’s rise four years later; same goes for Bill Clinton in 1988 and Barack Obama in 2004. The next GOP Moses currently may be on some city council in Bakersfield, California … or in the State Senate of Illinois. SNAP, CRACKLE, and POP are whispering to them, too.