Two articles this morning, a WaPo piece by Dan Balz and another by Michael Sheer in the NYT, both use the excuse of Haley Barbour's exit to analyze why the GOP field is so small (at least if one only counts the candidates with a plausible chance of winning).
I can only repeat what I've been saying: it's not that the field is small; it's that the winnowing has begun early.
Now, on top of that, it's possible we'll wind up with a normal sized field of candidates in Iowa, with Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitch Daniels joining Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. But the key point here is that the GOP field for 2012 surely included those five and Barbour and John Thune and perhaps a couple others.
I sort of covered this yesterday, but just to be clear...we don't know what's happening with every case. But Barbour clearly was doing the things that candidates do who are running for the nomination when we're a year and less away from the Iowa caucuses, and it's not unreasonable to conclude that it didn't go as well as he hoped. Now, again, we don't know what his threshold was. Some candidates (say, Chris Dodd) are willing to keep pushing up to the point where the voters get involved, even if it's clear that their once-promising hopes have been reduced to a sliver of vague possibility. Others aren't willing to continue -- and that's the correct word, continue -- unless they retain a good chance of winning.
So what happened with Barbour (and Thune, and Mike Pence, and perhaps others)? Maybe he failed repeatedly to hit fundraising goals. Maybe some key endorsers notified him they were going with other candidates. Maybe the polling came back all wrong (not just the topline numbers, which we know stunk for him, but maybe they tested some attack lines and got bad news back).
And, yes, maybe given the same bad or mixed news, Dodd or Joe Biden or someone else might have stuck around; it could be that Barbour really did lack a bit of "fire in the belly" as he said in his withdrawal statement.
But, look, we call this period the "invisible primary" for a reason: just like in the state-by-state primaries to come next year, the current contest has winners and losers, and the losers tend to drop out. Now, some potential candidates really haven't contested the invisible primary...I haven't read anything, for example, about Jeb Bush. So I'll chalk him up as a "did not run." But those who hired staff, sought endorsements, traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina -- they contested the invisible primary. They were candidates for 2012. Even if they didn't quite make it all the way to 2012.