Republican presidential candidates hiding in plain sight

The GOP presidential nomination so far has been a game of hide and seek, or hiding in plain sight, for many of those thinking about entering the horserace.

With the first GOP primary debate coming up on May 5 in South Carolina, the pressure is on to decide on a course of action -- to run or not to run, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to take up arms against the incumbent president who many favor to get another four years in the White House if the economy doesn't nosedive, or to go quietly into the night and accumulate wealth.

Businessman and reality showman Donald Trump says he no longer wants to suffer the slings and arrows of the Obama administration, OPEC and China, so he has taken up arms against the president as well as the nascent GOP field of candidates.

It's difficult to determine whether The Donald is serious about running for president or just taking advantage of the spotlight, in which he has become the presidential aspirant of the moment.

While declared candidates like Tim Pawlenty can barely buy a headline, Trump is minting them. And, he has taken the lead in some polls, thanks to his celebrity and name recognition, and the amount of airtime he has received with his challenge of President Obama's birth credentials and his outsized personality and claims. He has clearly dominated the media coverage among the potential candidates, as documented by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight. As is evident in the chart below, media attention--an indicator of popularity and controversy, not necessarily electability--shows that April is the month of Trump, compared to Palin, Gingrich and others who might join the GOP primary field:

Source: FiveThirtyEight

An early favorite and declared candidate Mitt Romney is lying low, perhaps waiting the for Trump flame to burn out. Similarly, Sarah Palin, the lioness of the Tea Party who has been flirting with a run for a year, has slipped from view, causing her team to hit up the press for coverage. Quote-worthy Newt Gingrich dominated March headlines, but is barely audible in April.

Press coverage may not spread the attention evenly, but according a CBS/New York Times poll a majority of Republican voters aren't jazzed about any of the potential GOP nominees. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee led the pack, but there are many signs he won't join the horserace.

CBS News/New York Times

But the horserace is about to start in earnest, and the headlines will spread out as candidates declare their intentions and come out of the shadows. April 29 is the deadline set by Fox News and South Carolina Republican Party to file with the FEC in order to meet the requirements to participate in the first debate there on May 5. In addition to Romney and Pawlenty, only former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer and political consultant Fred Karger have filed with the FEC, but they may not have sufficient poll strength to qualify for an invite to the debate.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour  is on the fence as the first debate approaches, while former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Representative Ron Paul are expected to file in time for the debate.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is clearly warming up for a run at the nomination and a chance to knock Mr. Obama off his pedestal. Speaking in primary state New Hampshire this week, Gingrich said he was "calmly confident" he could win it all, and described the president as a "perfectly fine, extraordinarily brilliant, sadly shallow, left-wing activist who has never yet become president." 

Also in New Hampshire, Romney offered a video message earlier this month announcing his exploratory committee: "I have become convinced that America has been put on a dangerous course by Washington politicians, and it has become even worse during the last two years. But I am also convinced that with able leadership, America's best days are still ahead."  

And, this is just the beginning of the horserace palaver and endless polling, including the just released Rockefeller Center's 4th Annual New Hampshire State of the State Poll that showed Romney as the only Republican expected to run who could beat Mr. Obama in the state.  (Colin Powell also beats Mr. Obama in the poll, but he has offered no indication that he is considering a run.)

4th Annual New Hampshire State of the State Poll from Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth College

So, as of mid-April, New Hampshire Republicans apparently like Romney and think he could thump Mr. Obama, but he isn't making national headlines.  And according to the CBS/New York Times poll, 15 percent of Republican voters view him unfavorably and 43 percent don't know enough about him, despite spending more than $40 million of his own money to vie for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Just as Mr. Obama came from the back of the pack to defeat a seemingly invincible Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary of 2008, the GOP field is open for someone to come out of hiding and take the crown, or reality show headliners such as Trump or Palin (or a Palin and Trump ticket) will face off with Mr. Obama in November 2012. In America, almost anything is possible.