The GOP presidential race can be summed up this way: three strong contenders and a hunger for someone else. "There's no question that there's a very open field," said Ken Mehlman, a former Republican National Committee chairman. Unlike in 1980, 1988, 1996 and 2000, "there's not a presumptive front-runner," he added.
The nomination fight has become even more fluid since the year began, which is unusual for a party that typically has a clear heir apparent.
For now, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has the lead in national popularity polls. Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has the most money. Arizona Sen. John McCain may have the superior national political operation.
Fourth candidate possibilities
None has a clear advantage in all three areas - polling, fundraising and organization - that are traditional measures in determining which candidate is in the best position to become the nominee. Perhaps more telling, Republicans say, is that none has articulated a message or offered an agenda that a majority of the party supports.
"What's missing so far is a clear down-the-line conservative champion, an establishment candidate," said Greg Mueller, a GOP consultant.
Nine months before the leadoff Iowa caucuses, the fragmented field and disenchantment with the top candidates may present an opportunity for a fourth formidable contender to emerge.
That could be an underdog such as Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas or two former governors - Mike Huckabee of Arkansas or Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.
Other prominent Republicans are flirting with a run, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and could shake up the field. The latest to express interest is Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator who, friends say, is seriously considering a bid. He is running third in a few national polls without doing anything more than acknowledging he was thinking about running.
'I'm really glad I don't have to pick today'
Such buzz is evidence of the degree to which GOP voters are seeking alternatives to Giuliani, Romney and McCain. Conservatives who dominate the Republican primary see all as flawed.
In Iowa, Susan and Roger Rowland of West Des Moines are attending campaign events to find someone to embrace. Last week, they saw Giuliani one night and Romney the next. But they were not impressed enough by either to commit. They have not seen McCain and are open to learning more about others, too.
"There are a lot of candidates out there, but I don't really know what I'm looking for," Susan Rowland said, sighing. Her husband said, "If I had to pick today, I'd probably pick Romney, but I'm really glad I don't have to pick today."
The Rowlands are not alone in their uncertainty.
"Significant numbers are really undecided," said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political scientist. Short of someone else catching fire or entering the race, he said, "in a year where Republican caucus-goers are focused on electability, they may ultimately hold their nose and pick one of the three."
It is Giuliani, McCain and Romney among the nearly dozen Republican presidential hopefuls who appear best positioned to capture the nomination.
Projecting invincibility, McCain spent more than a year meshing loyalists from his failed 2000 bid with some of President Bush's top political operatives to build what he hoped would be an unrivaled organization. Despite its depth, McCain gradually has faltered.
Last week, he announced raising a disappointing $12.5 million in the year's first three months. During a visit to Baghdad, he made upbeat comments about security only to have Iraqis mock his characterization. Before the trip, McCain drew criticism for saying some parts of the capital were safe enough to walk in freely and that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, drove around in an unarmored humvee. He told CBS' "60 Minutes," in an interview to be broadcast Sunday, that he misspoke when he made that remark.
To get back on track, McCain ordered an overhaul of his fundraising operation and better controls on spending. He scheduled policy speeches, including the first this Wednesday in which he will defend his support for Bush's policy in Iraq. Other speeches and an official announcement tour are set for this month as he seeks to regain momentum.
Once he made clear he was serious about running, Giuliani jumped to a double-digit edge in national polls. His built-from-scratch political operation is not yet on par with the others. Still, Giuliani ended the January-through-March fundraising period with a respectable $15 million raised.
He continues to lead in national surveys but his advantage has softened as he has come under increased scrutiny. He has faced questions about his business dealings and about his ties to Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner against whom prosecutors reportedly are pursuing multiple charges.
Giuliani also has had to answer for his abortion-rights stance and clarify statements suggesting his wife would play a significant role if he were president.
Romney set out to prove he was a threat by ensuring he had a stellar fundraising start. He succeeded, collecting a surprising $21 million in the year's first three months.
Yet he remains significantly low in national polls. He continues to be dogged by his reversals on abortion and gay rights, and his equivocations on other issues. He resumed television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire to define himself. His campaign is eager to start debates, where aides believe he will shine.
Given the shifts in the field, Republican consultant Alex Vogel said, "You have to wonder whether gravity takes hold again and conventional wisdom will apply or whether this really does indicate a new paradigm in the Republican primary."