No clear favorite for 2012 GOP nomination

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 10:18 PM

The first Republican debate has been announced. The early media handicapping has begun. Anticipation in the political community is running high. By those signs, the curtain is set to rise on the 2012 GOP presidential campaign. But what about the candidates?

At this point four years ago, the race for the White House was already in high gear. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) filed his declaration of candidacy soon after the 2006 midterm elections. Barack Obama, then just a junior senator from Illinois, stirred Democratic hearts during a December trip to New Hampshire. Talented operatives spent the final months of the year juggling offers from rival campaigns in a furious bid to sign up staff.

In contrast to all that, the Republicans' 2012 campaign is off to a less-hurried start. Candidates are gauging fundraising needs and laying plans. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) will be in Iowa this month. But the timetable for announcements and serious engagement has been pushed into next year.

Is this a breath of sanity brought to a process that has moved ever earlier with each election? Perhaps. But there are more practical reasons that the candidates are heading for the starting gate at a more deliberative pace.

The biggest is the uncertainty that surrounds the GOP nomination battle. Compared with previous campaigns, no Republican dominates the field. No one can claim - or seemingly wants to claim - front-runner status. Thus, few fear that holding off for a while will damage their chances of winning the nod.

"I don't think anybody's going to miss out a lot by waiting a couple of months," said Mike DuHaime, who managed former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential campaign and later joined the McCain team. "You can't wait eight or nine months, but it doesn't have to be in December and January."

Another reason is the political upheaval of 2010. With a new Republican majority in the House and more Republicans in the Senate, more of the focus early next year will be on political battles in Washington than on the jousting among presidential candidates.

Still another reason is that the parties have established nomination calendars that call for the first primaries and caucuses to begin in February 2012, a month later than they did in 2008.

Once the campaign begins in earnest, Republicans will face the potential of another round in the battle between the party establishment and grass-roots insurgents. The insurgents, symbolized by tea party activists, won many of those primary battles in 2010, and the tension between those parts of the GOP probably will affect the shape of the nomination campaign. The risk is that candidates will be pushed too far right in the primaries, potentially compromising their prospects in the general election.

At this point, only a few potential candidates are considered certain to run, among them former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Others are likely to run, but a number appear far from a decision.

The most significant of those is Palin.

In public statements, Palin has inched closer to serious consideration of a presidential run. She will make two stops in Iowa over the next month as part of a book tour. But by all indications, her small staff is not engaged in any campaign planning.

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