Last Updated Mar 13, 2014 7:20 PM EDT
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., will launch an exploratory committee to run for Senate against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in neighboring New Hampshire, CBS News' John Dickerson and Nancy Cordes have learned, giving the Republican Party hope for a pickup as they push for a Senate majority in November.
Brown has been flirting with running in New Hampshire for many months, selling his Massachusetts home and making his New Hampshire vacation home his primary residence. Republicans believe that Shaheen, who is New Hampshire's former governor, is vulnerable because of her support for Obamacare.
Brown has informed some of his fellow Republican senators of his intention to form an exploratory committee, Cordes reports, and he's expected to make an announcement at a Republican gathering in Nashua, N.H., Friday afternoon. He has also started putting out feelers to potential campaign staffers. The move officially allows him to begin raising money and hiring staff.
Some of Brown's former colleagues were surprised that he decided to form an exploratory committee, instead of just announcing that he is running after all these months of playing coy, Cordes reports. He has signaled that he wants to go on a listening tour of sorts in New Hampshire, the way Hillary Clinton did when she ran for Senate in New York in 2000 to try to shed the carpetbagger label.
Brown spent much of the past two weeks calling key New Hampshire Republican officials and influential GOP activists, saying he was going to run and seeking their support. At the same time, Brown's camp has quietly begun offering paid positions to Republican operatives for a prospective New Hampshire campaign.
Several people involved in the discussions told the Associated Press that some in the GOP establishment remain skeptical given the former Republican senator's recent track record. The 54-year-old Brown angered Massachusetts Republicans last year after indicating he would run in the state's special U.S. Senate election, only to change his mind late in the process.
"He's been reaching out to opinion leaders, to grassroots activists, getting a sense of, 'Would you be supporting a Scott Brown campaign,'" said former New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta, who is running again for Congress and was included in Brown's outreach efforts. "That, to me, says he's serious. But I think only Scott Brown knows if Scott Brown is going to run."
Democrats hope he does not.
While recent polls give Shaheen a solid lead in a prospective matchup, Brown's near-universal name recognition in a state that shares a media market with Massachusetts and his national fundraising network would make him a serious contender on Day One should he enter the race.
Shaheen, a former governor, was widely expected to win her first re-election test in November before Brown began hinting late last year that he might cross state lines to challenge her. National Democrats already have their hands full defending more vulnerable Democratic incumbents across the country as they fight to retain their six-seat Senate majority.
With finite resources, they would rather not devote additional time or resources to a New Hampshire seat that was supposed to be safe.
But Democrats and their allies are already preparing for a worst-case scenario, having spent roughly $360,000 combined on television advertising against Brown in recent weeks. Conservative critics spent heavily to weaken Shaheen earlier in the year, led by the tea party ally Americans For Prosperity, which spent roughly $700,000 on television ads knocking Shaheen's support for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Whether he runs or not, there are risks for Brown, who is also hinting at a 2016 presidential run. He is set to visit Iowa later in the month.
He spent a weekend in Iowa last August and confirmed to reporters that he's considering a 2016 presidential bid. Brown told CBS affiliate KCCI that he's gauging interest in his "brand of politics." He sounded upbeat about his future while in Iowa, telling the Boston Herald, "There's a lot of good name recognition in the Dakotas and here - that's pretty good."
Some believe Brown's political future could suffer permanent damage should he ultimately disappoint New Hampshire Republicans by backing out of the Senate race after so much hoopla. But should he run and lose, Brown's resume would be tainted with two high-profile losses in two years.
He shocked the political world and rose to national prominence by winning the 2010 special election to replace the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, but he was soundly defeated in his first re-election test against Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2012. Despite the urging of Massachusetts Republicans, he declined to run in the state's 2013 special election to replace former Sen. John Kerry, who was tapped to serve as Secretary of State.
The conservative editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper, recently criticized Brown for holding the state party and other GOP candidates "in stasis."
"Even world-class publicity magnets like the Kardashians or Justin Bieber would be impressed by Brown's ability to monopolize media attention on what is, so far, a non-candidacy," the newspaper opined.
Brown has said he will make a decision by April, although it's unclear if that means by the end of March or April. He declined to respond to questions about his timeline this week, although a Brown adviser said a decision would likely come in weeks, not months.
In the meantime, Brown continues his role as a paid contributor for Fox News, renewing his contract less than a month ago. The news network has previously cut ties with Republicans when it became clear they were seriously considering running for office. The network said this week there was no change in its relationship with Brown.
Jamie Burnett, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist, called Brown the "one potential candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire that people are genuinely excited and hopeful about."
"People have gotten their hopes up," Burnett said. "They would be disappointed if he didn't run."