We’re less than 18 months away from election day 2012, and one thing is certain… the Republicans don’t have a candidate.

Newt imploded immediately after announcing.  We’ll just have to hope he stays in the race for comic relief.

The teabaggers seem to like Herman Cain.  Yes, the same people who criticized candidate and even President Obama for his “lack of experience” wants to run the former head of a pizza company?  Put to the very basic test of appearing on Fox News Sunday yesterday, Cain pulled a Palin when softballer Chris Wallace asked him his thoughts on the Palestinians’ “right of return” — like a deer in headlights, or Palin when asked about the “Bush doctrine”….

Yeah, Herman Cain, who’ll tell you his policy on Afghanistan once he’s in the White House. Um, Herman, that’s really not how it works.

Mitch Daniels decided to blame his wife and kids when he announced he wouldn’t be running. So, that leaves us with Mittens, Huntsman (watch out for the quiet one) and Tim Pawlenty, who announced his official candidacy this morning (and none of the TV news channels carried it live…).

While some may dwell on the mundane personality of Pawlenty, I prefer to point out his “Willie Horton” problem. You see, while governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty pardoned a man convicted of statutory rape because his wife wanted to open a daycare center in his home. The reason he was granted the pardon extraordinary was so that she could do that. The fact that the victim of the statutory rape (at age 14) went on to become the man’s wife was also taken into account in this decision!

What they didn’t know (or bother to investigate) at the time, was that the statutory rapist had been regularly raping the daughter he had with the girl he knocked up at 14 and later married! Oops….

Read the full account in this 2010 article.

I find it odd that we haven’t heard more about it… until now.  Just this weekend, Politico ran a story about the leading GOP contenders and their various possible “Willie Hortons” in the political closet.   C’mon Dems, what are you waiting for?

Meanwhile, just proving that the Dick Armey hasn’t got a clue, in the wake of Mitch Daniels opting out of a run, he floated the idea of drafting Paul Ryan.  Oh please do!

As I said on the show Thursday, I still think our best chance of ever having a truly progressive president would be to start by electing real progressives to Congress.  Howie Klein does his part in trying to make that happen.  Along with the amazing Digby and John Amato of Crooks & Liars, he runs the Blue America PAC – whose purpose it is to vet potential candidates to find the true progressives, and then help them raise the funds necessary to mount a credible race.

Howie joined me on the show this morning to talk about what happened in the special election last week for CA’s 36th district (the progressive vote was split, ensuring a sleazy candidate with a D next to her name wins), and what is likely to happen tomorrow in the special election in NY’s 26th (where a Dem is likely to win in this Republican district for the first time in over 40 years).

Howie also filled us in on his contention that Paul Ryan just might be the reason the GOP loses control of the House in 2012.  I agree.

In hour two, Nicole Belle returned for our weekly Fools on the Hill segment to deconstruct the Sunday talking head shows.  Here’s what she brought us this week:

I think this Sunday was notable not so much for what was said, but what wasn’t said.  First and foremost, there’s almost nothing said from the left side of the aisle at all, but that’s hardly surprising.

Then there’s Newt Gingrich, who has had a very bad week since launching his presidential run.  He’s had to flip and flop and pledge his loyalty to the Paul Ryan budget plan and Rush Limbaugh.   Then news came out that Callista Gingrich disclosed an outstanding credit owed to Tiffany Jewelers somewhere upwards of a quarter million dollars.  Bob Schieffer asked about this fairly high sum, and Newt insisted that he is debt free and frugal.   Apparently, this is just another in a long list of issues –multiple marriages, corruption and ethics, financial impropriety–about which that you have to accept at face value he has no longer any problems.  That is the sum total of his method of dealing with the mountain of oppo research on him: “well, yeah, that was a problem then, but NOW I’m the right solution for America.”

Herman Cain is the newest Republican to toss his hat in the ring.  His first interview with Fox News Sunday shows that Cain is just not ready for primetime.  He tells Chris Wallace that he won’t disclose his Afghanistan policy until he’s elected President because he doesn’t have all the intel.  Huh?  Likewise, he said that he wants a flat tax of 23%, even though Bushies looked at it and determined that the lowest flat tax they could go with was 34%.  He didn’t even understand the concept of the Palestinian right of return to the occupied territories.

Dick Armey, the godfather of the Tea Party movement, tells Candy Crowley that he’s unimpressed with the candidates on the Republican side.  So he thinks it’s time to draft Paul Ryan to run for president.   For the record, Ryan’s not interested in 2012, but he won’t rule it out entirely.  I think what Armey is looking for, quite frankly, is a candidate who he can control, but that won’t ever be said out loud.

Speaking of Paul Ryan, he tells David Gregory that he thinks America will thank him for destroying the social safety net.  That’s why all these Republican congressman are carefully managing their town halls, because their constituents are just thanking them really loudly.

And then finally, listen very carefully to David Gregory in this web-only exclusive recap of his show.  Gregory talks in glowing, admiring terms of Paul Ryan, saying that Ryan’s budget is the defining issue of the election.  Of course, that ignores that most Americans polled say that they want Congress to focus on jobs and not spending cuts, by a margin of two to one.   Then Gregory moves on to Obama’s speech in front of AIPAC, but his framing is assumes entirely that this will be a problem for Obama.  Yup, that David Gregory really has his finger on the pulse…of the Republican agenda.

And just because everyone needs to see it… John Lithgow in one of his best performances ever, reading the Gingrich campaign’s press release after the meltdown of his ambitions to be president: