Election in Sight, Possible GOP Presidential Candidates Stay Coy

On January 16, 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama released the video at left announcing that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee. It was essentially an announcement that he would be seeking the presidency - one that came almost 22 months before the election.

Mr. Obama was far from the first to jump into the ring. As Slate's David Weigel noted this week, 14 candidates announced they would be running for president or creating an exploratory committee before Mr. Obama released that video - among them Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani.

We're about 22 months out from the 2012 election - at about the same point we were when Mr. Obama released the video at left. Yet the field of announced candidates remains remarkably empty.

We did get one potential entrant into the race this week: Former Godfather's Pizza CEO and talk show host Herman Cain, who announced an exploratory committee on Wednesday. Cain, an African-American social and fiscal conservative, lost a bid for the GOP Senate nomination in Georgia to Johnny Isakson in 2004.

"The American Dream is under attack," he said in a statement on his website. "In fact, a recent survey found 67% of the American People believe America is headed in the wrong direction. Sadly, this comes as no surprise to those of us who have watched an out-of-control federal government that spends recklessly, taxes too much and oversteps its Constitutional limits far too often."

The only other candidate to have formed an exploratory committee - and even run an ad - is Fred Karger, an openly gay former aide to Ronald Reagan who is trying to raise $5 million for a run.

Both Cain and Karger are extreme long shots for the Republican nomination - though, at this point, they technically don't have any competition. Unlike in the 2008 cycle, the big name potential candidates seem content this year to bide their time.

2012, Romney, Palin, Pawlenty, Gingrich
Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich.

There are two candidates who appear almost sure to run: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (We'll be talking exclusively about Republicans, though it's possible, if extremely unlikely, that Mr. Obama will be challenged in his reelection campaign.) Both have been taking steps to lock in staff, win allies and raise their profiles in recent months, and their entry into the race is taken by most in Washington as a foregone conclusion.

Then come the big name possibles: Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich. Palin says she is considering a run, a prospect that has the Republican establishment -- fearful that she is too polarizing to win a general election -- desperate for a viable alternative. Huckabee remains popular with social conservatives, and his Fox News show has provided him a valuable platform. But fiscal conservatives in the GOP ranks think little of him, complicating efforts to raise the money necessary for a run.

As for Gingrich, he is promising to make a decision "by the end of February." The former House speaker has flirted with a presidential run before, however, and though he appears more serious this time, some think he is openly discussing a bid to raise his profile and will ultimately forgo the race.

If they do want to run, there's little upside for Palin, Huckabee or Gingrich in entering the race relatively early - they have enough name recognition to make a splash no matter when they jump into the fray. Furthermore, declaring a candidacy could be complicated for Huckabee and Palin if they wish to continue as paid contributors to Fox News.

There is somewhat more incentive for other potential candidates to get in early in an effort to build up name recognition - the buzzed-about alternatives like Sen. John Thune, former Utah Gov. (and ambassador to China) Jon Huntsman and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. But even if they want to run, they don't want to look too much like ambitious politicians - which also means they have an incentive not to get out in front of the process.

For many of these candidates, the deciding factor may be Palin - her presence in the race would dramatically alter the race, essentially transforming it into a contest for who can present the most credible alternative. Until she makes up her mind - or it gets late enough that playing coy becomes no longer viable - expect most of the rest of the field to remain, unofficially at least, on the sidelines.

MORE: Potential 2012 GOP Hopefuls Step Up their Profiles

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