By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 3:46 PM
DES MOINES - Sarah Palin isn't the only potential Republican presidential candidate keeping the party guessing. Rarely have there been so many questions surrounding so many candidates as there are right now about the GOP's possible White House field for 2012.
Republicans long have followed a familiar pattern: nominate the heir apparent, the next in line, the front-runner. In many previous years, the identity of that person was obvious. That didn't preclude a crowded field or a competitive race, but the outcome seemed, in the end, preordained. Not this time.
Most voters won't begin paying serious attention to the contest for the Republican nomination until much closer to the primaries. But in Iowa, where party caucuses will formally start the race in early 2012, reading tea (and "tea party") leaves is a preoccupation for party activists. What they see is a pattern of uncertainty.
"As I talk to my fellow Republicans, I don't sense there's any coalescence around anybody," said Dave Roederer, who oversaw campaign operations in Iowa for George W. Bush and John McCain. "In my opinion, it's a wait-and-see as to who's around and who gets in and who doesn't. I've never seen it like this."
The Republican nomination contest has started slowly. At this time four years ago, Iowa had been overrun for months with presidential candidates - Democrats and Republicans. They were campaigning for candidates, meeting activists, signing up operatives and competing for endorsements. This year, the activity has been kept to a minimum.
Partly that's because Republicans are heavily focused on maximizing their possible gains in the November midterm elections. Partly it's because prospective candidates are watching their potential rivals for clues as to who will run and, more important, how. Partly it's because the party is in the middle of an internal battle.
The anti-establishment fervor inside the party, which has played out repeatedly in Senate primaries this year, has the potential to scramble the battle for the GOP nomination in 2012. Every candidate, particularly anyone who is at all identified as part of the establishment, is grappling with how to accommodate the new mood inside the party.
Palin has best captured that mood with her endorsements of tea party-backed candidates and her challenges to the party establishment. Her star power is obvious. Her appearance here Friday night drew the largest crowd in the history of the Iowa GOP's Ronald Reagan Dinner fundraiser.
But will Palin run for president? And if she does, can she go the distance? Opinions on both differ greatly within the party. In the audience Friday night were many Iowans who want her to run and say they will support her if she does and others who found her speech too defensive and filled with references that flew over the heads of Iowans.
Veterans of past campaigns also question whether someone who communicates mostly through Facebook and Twitter, who has developed few real relationships with party leaders in the states, who operates in an unorthodox fashion can put together the kind of disciplined organization generally required to win the nomination.
"Caucusgoers are used to be communicated with one on one and in groups," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance and Iowa GOP national committeeman. "She'll have to employ those tactics in the very near future if she wants to run for president."
The competition for religious and social conservatives in Iowa could be fierce. Palin would appeal to many of them. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the caucuses four years ago, retains a church-based network that could be reactivated if he runs. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has visited the state. One Iowa strategist called him "as authentic a culture warrior as there is in the bunch."
Nobody may have a harder decision about navigating the new contours of the party in 2012 than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. His attributes are obvious - good looks, intelligence, a successful record in business, lessons learned from his unsuccessful 2008 bid. But so are his liabilities, the biggest one, say other Republicans, is the trouble he had four years ago projecting an authentic persona. He is anything but an anti-establishment candidate. The question is whether he can unify the rambunctious party.
Romney has a particular problem in Iowa, where he competed hard four years ago only to lose to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. In Iowa, religious and social conservatives (rather than tea party activists) dominate the caucuses. Many remain skeptical of Romney.
If he becomes a candidate, one of the first questions he'll face is what to do about Iowa. "Mitt can't come here and spend $10 million and finish second," said an Iowa GOP activist.
Questions surround two current governors: Mississippi's Haley Barbour and Indiana's Mitch Daniels. The two served together in the Reagan White House. Both are highly respected for their knowledge of politics and their records in office.
Both are conservative on social issues but neither wants the GOP to make those issues front and center. Barbour came here last year and gave his standard "big tent" speech. Republicans here are still talking about it, and not all favorably. Barbour has been more attentive to the nuts-and-bolts of courting Iowa activists, which has been interpreted here as a sign of his genuine interest in running. The question asked here is whether the 2012 race can accommodate both of them.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is running an old-fashioned Iowa campaign. He has been the most diligent of all the prospective candidates about starting early, visiting often and beginning to build an organization. His national team includes people with long experience in Iowa and he has already signed up some of the state's most talented people. But his strategy requires time and patience and good luck.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has toyed with running in other years but has always pulled back. This time, Iowa Republicans say he has been particularly aggressive in signaling his interest to run, and is attracting positive reviews from different parts of the party.
No one has been more provocative in his rhetoric about President Obama than Gingrich. The most recent was his controversial claim that Obama exhibits a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" mind-set. Gingrich watchers see this as no accident, but rather an effort to prevent Palin or anyone else from becoming the vessel for some of the strongest anti-Obama, anti-establishment sentiment within the party.
One clear sign that Gingrich is thinking seriously about running and sees Iowa as a potential springboard is the fact that his political action committee has already given $33,000 to state legislative candidates this year. In an e-mail, Gingrich said he plans to ship $67,000 more soon. That $100,000 is a hefty figure that dwarfs what anyone else is doing.
Many other Republicans may be looking at the race, or hoping to influence it from the outside. In a few months, intentions will become more apparent. Look for a wild ride ahead.