Image: Huckabee
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks in Washington.
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updated 12/27/2010 2:26:30 PM ET 2010-12-27T19:26:30

This month's early, under-the-radar campaigning by potential Republican challengers to President Barack Obama is a reminder of something too easily forgotten: Running for president is harder than it looks, and Obama ultimately will stand against a flesh-and-blood nominee certain to make mistakes along the way.

Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and other possible GOP candidates stumbled over health care, taxes and other issues in December, even as Obama coped with the harsh political reality stemming from his party's "shellacking" in last month's elections.

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No serious contender has officially launched a 2012 campaign. But with the Iowa caucuses less than 13 months away, at least a dozen Republicans are jockeying for position, speaking to groups throughout the country, writing op-ed columns and taking potshots at one another.

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As all politicians learn, the more deeply they delve into contested issues, the likelier they are to stumble.

Thune, Romney stumble early
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., got caught in the middle of his party's quickly changing views about congressional earmarks, the pet projects that some lawmakers sprinkle throughout big spending bills. Earlier this year he tucked more than $100 million in earmarks into a massive year-end spending bill that many had expected to pass.

But after Tea Party successes in the Nov. 2 elections, elected Republicans swung hard against earmarks and pork-barrel spending. At a Dec. 15 news conference in the Capitol, Thune came uncomfortably close to echoing Sen. John Kerry's infamous line about voting for an $87 billion bill "before I voted against it."

Sarah Palin
Virginia Postic  /  AP
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin talks during a book signing in Columbia, S.C.

Thune told reporters: "I support those projects, but I don't support this bill, nor do I support the process by which this bill was put together."

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Meanwhile, Romney was put on the spot when a federal judge ruled that Obama's health care law is unconstitutional because it requires everyone to buy health insurance. Romney included virtually the same mandate in the 2006 health law he enacted as Massachusetts governor.

Romney took pains to say his plan was different from Obama's, mainly because it takes a state-by-state approach rather than a federal one-size-fits-all solution. Pawlenty, who rejected such mandates as Minnesota's governor, was among those taking jabs at Romney.

A 'pants-on-fire' rating for Pawlenty
But Pawlenty also had his problems this month. In a Wall Street Journal column, he said most labor union members now work for governments, which Obama has rendered "the only booming industry left in our economy." Since January 2008, he wrote, "the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000."

The nonpartisan research group PolitiFact gave the column its worst rating for accuracy, "pants on fire." The group said Pawlenty mangled the time frame, contradicted his definition of federal workers and "repeated a statistic that had been criticized as inaccurate as long as six months ago."

Pawlenty's office said he based the statistics on a June article by Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University, on the Big Government website run by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart. After reviewing the article, PolitiFact said it stood by its analysis that "the 590,000 number doesn't encapsulate the time frame or definition set out by Pawlenty," and it is "still skewed by a large bump in temporary Census jobs."

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Huckabee, Barbour try to find clarity
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee didn't have an easy December, either. Writing about the much-debated proposal to "cap and trade" greenhouse gas emissions, Huckabee said, "I never did support and never would support it, period."

But at an October 2007 meeting of the Global Warming and Energy Solutions Conference in New Hampshire, Huckabee said: "I also support cap and trade of carbon emissions. And I was disappointed that the Senate rejected a carbon-counting system to measure the sources of emissions, because that would have been the first and the most important step toward implementing true cap and trade."

Addressing the contradiction, Huckabee said it is fine for companies to voluntarily engage in cap and trade. "But I was clear that we could not force U.S. businesses to do what their Chinese counterparts refused to," he said.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, meanwhile, felt compelled to issue a statement last week calling racial segregation "totally indefensible." It came a day after liberal bloggers said he went too easy on anti-integration forces in recent remarks about the desegregation of his hometown's public schools in 1970.

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Low profile for Palin, Gingrich
Other potential GOP challengers, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, kept fairly low profiles this month. But it's clear the 2012 race is under way, even if unofficially.

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Palin's and Romney's criticism of the New START treaty with Russia and the compromise bill on tax cuts, both supported by Obama.

Americans want Washington politicians to solve big problems by finding common ground, he responded.

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"There will be great pressure to do otherwise, as people begin running for president," Gibbs added. "There will be plenty of time with which to conduct a presidential election in the fall of 2012."

The past few days have made that time seem a lot closer.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Panel eyes possible 2012 GOP field

  1. Transcript of: Panel eyes possible 2012 GOP field

    MR. GREGORY: We are back with more from our roundtable, final moments. Tom Brokaw , you know, at this stage of the 2008 cycle, we were getting ready for the new year and some new announcements as to who was going to run for president.

    MR. BROKAW: Right.

    MR. GREGORY: So what are Republicans going to do?

    MR. BROKAW: Well, I -- you know, who knows at this point, David . You've heard me say this a thousand times over, the UFO theory always holds, the unforeseen will occur. We don't know who they are at this point. It was just 15 months ago that the tea party was just a faint line on the political horizon in this country, and then suddenly it was this very powerful force. There are obviously a lot of Republicans in the Senate and in the statehouses around the country who see themselves in the Oval Office . I mean, Tim Pawlenty is running hard in Minnesota , Sarah Palin , obviously, is more than flirting with the idea. Now, Haley Barbour probably has banged himself up again a little bit in the last week or so with his comments about the white citizens council , to say nothing of people in the United States Senate , and Mitt Romney , the former governor of Massachusetts . So there's a lot of moving around going on out there.

    MR. GREGORY: Well, what kind of candidate, Peggy Noonan , do you need to run as the Republican Party , to take on Obama ? What's the theory of the case at this stage?

    MS. NOONAN: Hm . A big thing is how the tectonic plates keep moving in American politics . Harrison Salisbury once said -- a lifetime in journalism, he was asked, "What did you learn?" He said, "Expect the unexpected." If we've learned anything from the past decade, it's that anybody can arise from anywhere and become a leader.

    MR. WOODWARD: Mm-hmm.

    MS. NOONAN: Gosh, what do the, the Republicans need to beat Obama ? A credible alternative, a serious man or woman, someone with experience and some weight and heft who can get through Iowa and South Carolina .

    MR. WOODWARD: And so, not Sarah Palin , you're saying, is that right?

    MS. NOONAN: Thank you, Bob , so much...

    MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, yeah.

    MS. NOONAN: ...for clarifying that.

    MR. WOODWARD: Yes.

    MS. NOONAN: I got to tell you, I'm one of those who thinks Palin will not run, and I happen to think if she runs, it will not work. Her people love her, support her, watch her on TV , read her books, love to cheer her. They especially love to defend her when people like us criticize her. They will not vote...

    MR. GREGORY: But it almost, as a matter of fact, I mean, she...

    MS. NOONAN: I'm telling you, they will vote for her.

    MR. GREGORY: ...she could run without running. She could be a factor without running.

    MS. NOONAN: They won't vote for her for president.

    MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

    MS. NOONAN: What I think she'll do is sit back. She's a realist, she'll know she's not going to -- this isn't going to work. And so she will sacrifice herself and support somebody else...

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MS. NOONAN: ...so there'll be a Palin primary.

    MR. GREGORY: But to the -- all right, against whom, against whom is the president vulnerable, Doris ?

    MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think somebody like a Chris Christie would be vulnerable for him because...

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm. Governor of New Jersey .

    MS. GOODWIN: ...because he's got...

    MR. GREGORY: Who proclaimed on this program he's absolutely not running, no way.

    MS. GOODWIN: Right. So then he won't be vulnerable, and that's it.

    MR. GREGORY: But he won't rule it out four years ahead.

    MS. NOONAN: But that kind of man.

    MS. GOODWIN: No, but that -- that kind of -- that kind of person.

    MR. WOODWARD: But, but he's the ultimate realist being made.

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MS. NOONAN: He is a practical man.

    MS. GOODWIN: The kind of person who speaks straight, who has a fire in his belly, who you believe him, even if you don't agree with him, that kind of person, I think.

    MR. WOODWARD: Who seems not to be a politician.

    MS. NOONAN: Who seems to mean it.

    MR. BROKAW: I think the other thing is that all of this has to be in the context of what are the conditions going to be in nine months from now.

    MS. GOODWIN: Right, exactly. The economy 's doing...

    MR. BROKAW: Are we going to have another terrorist attack? Or if the country remains secure, do suddenly we catch fire in the economy in some fashion? For example, does something happen catastrophically in the Middle East that the president deals with either in utter failure or brilliantly. All those are the unknowns up against which we have to measure what the chances are, you know, and, and we still have a long way to go for that, David .

    MR. GREGORY: Does the president make a fundamental shift, Tom , in this next year, in his leadership style and in his tonal approach to the American people that gives him a lift?

    MR. BROKAW: He better. That's what I think.

    MR. WOODWARD: Well, I remember years ago talking to Obama when he was in the Senate , and we were talking about Illinois , and he went around the state saying, "I have support here, I have support there, and I don't have support here." And I walked away realizing, "Oh, he's a politician. He knows where the votes are, and he's a realist." The question is going to be, can he grow and adapt to whatever those circumstances are, and we don't know.

    MR. BROKAW: You know, the other thing is, here's what I think about, about President Obama . We'll see whether this painful loss in November and then the recovery that we're seeing in the short term, in terms of his political fortunes, convert him, in some fashion, to a new kind of person. I always said that Bill Clinton 's career was helped immeasurably by his defeat when he first ran for re-election as governor of Arkansas . He learned a lot from that. He had to deal with a lot of people in Arkansas that were in the business community , and he also learned that he was vulnerable. By the time he got here, he'd been through that kind of an ordeal. Ronald Reagan had been governor of California for two terms before he got here. He'd been used to running a big state and dealing with Jess Unruh and the Democrats . President Obama has not been through that kind of baptism by fire. And, and I hope now that he's beginning to listen to some of the business leaders who've been rapping on his door for the last year saying, "We were for you. We have some things we think you ought to hear." And whether or not he's going to be receptive to them now about how to change the economy .

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