This story was written by Jonathan Martin.
Votes are still being counted in some races in last Tuesday's election, but no matter: talk of the potential Republicans field in the 2012 presidential election is already underway.
Too bad - just look around.
Two potential candidates will be in Iowa before month's end, multiple prospects - almost certainly including Sarah Palin - will make high-profile appearances next week at the Republican Governor's Association (RGA) meeting and Newt Gingrich's name has already being floated in a Bob Novak column.
For a party anxious to move past a brutal election up and down the ballot, and especially a presidential campaign they'd just as soon forget, it's not too soon to start thinking about 'next time,' as the pros call it.
Now, officially of course, any talk of a presidential run is verboten.
"Oh man," drawled Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, when asked about 2012 and specifically his own interest in a possible presidential run. "I'm going to tell you something. One of the worst things that can happen to the Republican Party in our effort to rebuild is for a bunch of people to start running for president. Anybody harboring that ambition needs to squelch it until after 2010 … Anybody out there running for president is undercutting what's important. You do this against your own interest."
Following Barbour's admonition, every likely candidate asked the same question by Politico demurred in all the time-honored ways politicians demur about such questions.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: "That's way too far away."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: "The most important thing I can do is be the best governor of Louisiana"
South Dakota Sen. John Thune: "I'm just looking to help the team."
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: "My day job is an honor and a privilege, and my focus is here."
That is, according to the holy "don't-get-beyond-the-next-cycle" writ of presidential politics, what they must say.
But don't watch their mouths - keep an eye on their feet.
Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, returns to the Hawkeye State on November 20th for stops in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines to hawk his new book, "Do the Right Thing: Inside the Movement That's Bringing Common Sense Back to America."
Huckabee, who is making his trek in a campaign-style bus with his likeness emblazoned on the side, is also slated to make five stops in South Carolina. The Palmetto State is home to the first-in-the-South GOP primary and a reliable indicator of who will get the party's nomination in every primary since 1980. It was also Huckabee's Waterloo this year, the place where he saw his presidential hopes slip away when Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney cut into his conservative vote share and enabled John McCain to snare a plurality win.
The book, he said, "makes the connection between conservative fiscal and social policy."
"The size and scope of government is related to the way people behave," noted Huckabee, who is also keeping his name fresh in the minds of Republican activists with a weekly talk show on Fox News.
Jindal, elected governor of Louisiana in 2007 after serving in Congress and holding health care posts in state and federal government, makes his first trip to Iowa on November 22nd.
He's keynoting the statewide banquet of the Iowa Family Policy Center, a Christian conservative group, in suburban Des Moines and will tour flood-ravaged Cedar Rapids, offering his insights as a hurricane-state governor to state and local officials.
Though only 37 and in his first year in statewide office, Jindal is already drawing rave reviews.
Asked in a post-election chat which Republican office-holders impressed him during the campaign, McCain campaign chief Steve Schmidt didn't hesitate: "Bobby Jindal, no question."
Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who wanted Jindal to be McCain's vice-presidential nominee this year, said flatly: "Jindal will be president. I don't know the year."
Thune, who is eyeing a Senate leadership post, will likely keep the majority of his travel confined between the Badlands and Siouxland. The freshman senator is up for re-election in 2010 and Democrats would like nothing more then to knock him off and ensure that their tall, handsome, hoops-loving president doesn't have to worry about facing a tall, handsome, hoops-loving Republican in 2012. That he also knocked off Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a close Barack Obama confidante, only adds to Democratic desire to send him the way of George Allen.
But to get a sense of Thune's ambitions, look back, not foreword, on the calendar. Since coming to the Senate, he's been a hot ticket for GOP Lincoln Day dinners. Freshman senators from the Great Plains senators don't trek to such party fundraisers in Kent County, Michigan (Grand Rapids) and Hillsborough County, Florida (Tampa) because they like the chicken and rice pilaf.
Pawlenty, a runner-up in McCain's veepstakes and frequent surrogate for the Arizona senator, will make his presence known this week in Miami, when the RGA holds its annual conference. He'll be featured at the kick-off luncheon and then appear at two more open press roundtables in what will effectively be the first of many GOP cattle calls ahead of the 2012 contest.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, another potential 2012 aspirant and the event's host, will close the session by giving a speech Thursday night focused on broadening the party, according to his closet political adviser.
"We can't win with what we have right now," said George LeMieux, who ran Crist's 2006 gubernatorial run, a rare bright spot in a difficult cycle for Republicans.
Crist made inroads with African-Americans in his 2006 race and feels strongly about making the GOP more inclusive - a demographic imperative made clear by Tuesday's election.
Predictably, LeMieux offered a standard-issue demurral on behalf of Crist when asked about 2012.
Barbour, Jindal and other prospects such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will also brave the November weather at the InterContinental Miami.
But there is little doubt who will be the star of the show: Palin is virtually certain to make her first official post-election public appearance in the Lower 48 at the RGA, according to GOP sources.
Asked about a future run by CNN's Dana Bash in the Phoenix Biltmore lobby on Wednesday, Palin observed: "2012 sounds so far off that I can't even imagine what I'd be doing then."
A source close to the Alaska governor says she has been bruised by the finger-pointing in her direction by anonymous campaign aides - something made plain by her denunciation of them as "cowards" upon returning home Friday - but that she's also "clearly an ambitious woman."
Then there is Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor was a dogged surrogate on McCain's behalf after their sometimes-bitter primary campaign and retains a loyal following in the party.
He declined an interview - he's actually in Alaska on a cruise sponsored by National Review, a magazine that endorsed him in the GOP primary -- but sources close to the CEO-turned-politician say he's very much uncertain about whether he'll run for elective office again and is keeping a close eye on what direction the party takes in the months ahead, especially with regards to Palin.
Romney is extraordinarily close to his family, and most are opposed to another run.
He is, though, likely to stay involved at least at a policy level.
"What I'd say is he's keeping his options open for now," said one source close to Romney.
And as for Gingrich, the always-plugged-in Novak seems to think he's running, and other longtime Republicans around Washington say the same of the former House Speaker.
His spokesman, Rick Tyler, even hints that it may be a possibility - edging dangerously close to speaking the unspeakable.
"We'll see what Barack Obama does," said Tyler.
By Jonathan Martin