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.
The closest the Republicans have to a front-runner is Romney, but he does not have the breadth of support that some previous front-runners did. He has worked to deepen his connections to party activists and elected officials, but he remains vulnerable to criticism that as governor he helped enact a universal health-care plan that is strikingly similar to the one President Obama signed into law this year.
Some rival campaigns expect Romney to form his team early next year and again attempt to demonstrate overwhelming financial strength. But an aide to the former governor said Romney thinks the process began too early last time. This time, the aide said, Romney is not likely even to form an exploratory committee until March. But he already has been lining up financial support and pledges.
If anyone is emulating the Romney of four years ago, it is Pawlenty. He registers in low single digits in polls, as Romney did last time, and has spent the past year diligently introducing himself to GOP audiences. Pawlenty has assembled a solid team of advisers, including in Iowa, where he has spent considerable time building relationships. His Iowa team is already interviewing potential state directors, according to one knowledgeable GOP strategist.
Most of the rest of the prospective field appears in no hurry to make public declarations, beyond standard statements that they will carefully consider their options through the rest of the year. Gingrich, who sounds more like a candidate than he ever has, will wait until April. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., two party pros with potential followings, have legislative sessions to deal with and aren't likely to announce decisions before spring.
Some Republicans have discounted the likelihood of Huckabee running again, but he signaled last week that he isn't ready to be written out of the discussion just yet. When the Iowa Family Policy Council, which will host him on Nov. 21, issued a statement saying he would appear "as a pastor, not a politician," Hogan Gidley, the executive director of his political action committee, set the record straight. "The governor is there to make a political speech," he said.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), like Pawlenty a young and handsome Midwesterner, has signaled his interest in a possible campaign and has a war chest from the Senate that could give him an early boost. But his vote for the Troubled Assets Relief Program is a potential obstacle. Spokesman Kyle Downey said Thune is focused on the lame-duck session of Congress and won't make a decision until early next year.
Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) has earned plaudits from conservatives for his votes and his rhetoric. He won a straw poll at the Values Voter Summit this fall. But he is weighing both a presidential campaign and a run for governor in his home state and isn't ready to announce anything yet. He has given up his leadership post in the House and will deliver a speech this month at the Detroit Economic Club.
Moving more rapidly is former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He lost his seat in 2006 but has made 19 trips to the first three primary and caucus states - seven to Iowa, six to New Hampshire and six to South Carolina. He plans another round before the end of the year as he tries to stake out a position as a favorite of social and religious conservatives.
But the list doesn't end there. Could an unknown or unexpected candidate win this nomination? Some Republicans think that's possible, given the turmoil in the party and the unpredictability of the voters. That kind of talk brings attention to people such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and even Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (Fla.).
The nomination battle has attracted so much attention - and speculation - because, in the estimation of most GOP strategists, every candidate has liabilities. "I don't think there is anybody who has a leg up, and everybody has pros and cons," said Joe Gaylord, Gingrich's longtime top political adviser.
Late last week, it was announced that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library would hold the first Republican candidate debate of the 2012 campaign, sponsored by NBC News and Politico. Most telling, however, was the absence of a date. The debate will take place next spring - once there are some candidates to invite.