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updated 3/11/2011 10:29:21 AM ET 2011-03-11T15:29:21

A tangle of at least 17 Republican names, some more serious contenders than others, clutters the field in the party's contest to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, but none has joined the race officially in a campaign cycle that is unusually late in settling on a front-runner.

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First Thoughts: Taking off

The absence of a clear leading candidate is surprising given the Republican landslide in last year's congressional elections, a robust throttling of the Democrats not only in Congress but in state governments nationwide. That outcome also signaled a broader dissatisfaction with how the Obama administration was handling its job, especially the economy during its deepest downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

According to Gallup polling records dating back to 1952, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the party standard-bearer, the Republicans never have been without a leading candidate just 15 months before a presidential election.

Some splintering within GOP
The explanation could be that the Republicans are more divided than usual, given that the mainstream of the party faces a splintering off of ultraconservative Tea Party factions and others with extreme populist or libertarian messages.

"The Republicans' 2010 elections success conceals a deep division in the party, and that is only going to be thrown into starker relief as the campaign moves forward," said Matt Bennett of the Third Way, a politically middle-of-the-road think tank.

That would appear to play to Obama's advantage.

His approval rating sits at slightly below 48 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics average of five major polls. His disapproval number is 45.6 percent, a positive spread of 2.6 percentage points and one that is likely to grow if the economy continues to improve.

The latest unemployment figures show the jobless rate dipping below 9 percent to the lowest level since April 2009 when the president had been in office only three months. But fast-rising fuel and food costs could knock the recovery off course.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

Waiting for clarity in crowded race
Republicans appear to be holding back from announcing a campaign, waiting for a better sense of where the economy is headed and what message will most appeal to the party's fractured membership. They also are looking at the mood of independent voters who typically determine the outcome in presidential contests.

Perhaps most important is money. Sources of campaign cash are laying back just like the candidates, waiting for clarity in the crowded race.

Only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and New York real estate baron Donald Trump, an extreme long-shot, can count on their own finances.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, have good money machines among backers that they can turn on once they have announced. Gingrich is near to that point. Barbour says he is still thinking but is expected to make a run.

Among that group, probably only Romney will appeal to centrist Republicans and independents. He ran in 2008 but withdrew as Sen. John McCain gained strength toward his eventual nomination.

Romney, a Mormon, is burdened by evangelical Christians' unease with his religion and with having been Massachusetts governor when the state adopted a health care plan very similar to that which Obama moved through Congress last year. Many Republicans have made reversing the national law a no. 1 priority, and Romney will suffer for his association with a state health care formula that his party now calls a socialist takeover of nation's health care system.

Barbour carries baggage over his insensitive comments about America's racial history and the impression that he is a good old boy from the south. Gingrich is three times married, which hurts him with evangelical Republicans, and is known for strident rhetoric, which could turn off moderates.

Story: Analysis: Gingrich still hasn't learned to edit himself

Both Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, also expected to announce a run shortly, recently were dismissed as commentators by Fox News, the cable television outlet that promotes conservative causes. That was a nod to avoiding charges that the network would be giving candidates free advertising.

McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, has vast name recognition and a fiercely loyal but not extensive base of support. While she has left the door open for a run, party elders are moving to block her candidacy.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran to the finish in 2008, also is traveling the country promoting a book and acting like a candidate, although not committing. Palin and Huckabee still work as Fox commentators. Huckabee plays well with evangelicals. He is an ordained Southern Baptist minister but is unlikely to draw independent-voter backing.

Another Mormon, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is leaving his job as Obama's ambassador to China, is seen as an attractive candidate, although he has not committed to a run for the highest office. He is burdened both by his Mormonism and his ambassadorial association with Obama's government.

Of those widely expected to join the race, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty probably is the least objectionable to the greatest number of Republican primary election voters, which could take him quickly to the top of the group. He will face financing hurdles, however, and has had trouble organizing the top tier of a campaign apparatus.

Outliers and possible big surprises
Other outliers, beyond Trump, are the ultraconservative Tea Party spokeswoman Michele Bachman, a Minnesota member of the U.S. House of Representatives; Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who ran as a third-party candidate in 2008; former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who also ran in 2008; and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, a former Democrat and member of the House.

Also in this group is Herman Cain, a former co-owner of the Godfather's pizza restaurant chain.

Story: Trump says he's serious about possible '12 bid

Any big surprises could involve New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who vows not to run but is seen by many Republicans as their best and toughest messenger, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, acclaimed for keeping the state on a level financial course through a period that has seen most other states fall deeply into debt. Daniels, like Christie, has said he has no plans to run.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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