Republican governors say it's too soon to worry about the absence of a clear favorite for the GOP presidential nomination. The muddled picture could even be a blessing, some said in interviews during the weekend meeting of the National Governors Association.
The candidates' scramble to break from the pack and speculation about possible new entries such as former Sen. Fred Thompson are keeping the race in the headlines.
"I don't subscribe to the notion that we have to have an identified front-runner candidate early on," said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "The longer you stay inclusive in the process, the more idea generation you get, the more testing, sifting that takes place among the candidates, I think that's healthy for democracy."
Political junkies aside, most voters haven't begun to focus on the race despite the accelerated primary schedule, said Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.
"A lot of us are sitting back and waiting to see if there will be new players in there," Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said. "That's probably why that box that says 'none of the above' is so popular right now."
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted July 9-11 found nearly a quarter of Republicans undecided — a bigger share than is supporting any candidate, announced or otherwise.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had about 21 percent support and was running virtually even with Thompson, who hasn't entered the race but had about 19 percent.
Several governors said they weren't siding with anyone for now.
Endorsements from governors, although craved by candidates, "are much less important than generally thought" to the outcome of a state primary, said Duke University political scientist David Rohde, who studies presidential campaigning.
"It helps early on in giving candidates credibility and helping raise money but we're mostly past that now," Rohde said.
Yet the unsettled picture can put governors in a tough spot, he added. An early commitment can pay handsome dividends such as a cabinet appointment if the governor backs the eventual winner. But picking a candidate who flops can be embarrassing.
Pawlenty insisted he had no regrets about jumping in early behind McCain, whose fortunes have waned amid staff turmoil and mediocre showings in polls and fundraising.
"Obviously his campaign has not gone as well as we'd hoped," Pawlenty said. "But he's a fighter and he's going to stay in."
The eventual nominee will need strong support within the GOP's conservative base in the Sun Belt, where none of the candidates have generated strong enthusiasm.
In South Carolina, the Bush administration's performance on government spending, immigration and other issues has disillusioned many conservatives and left them reluctant to make early commitments for 2008, Gov. Mark Sanford said.
"Jesus himself could come back and there'd be some questions about the candidacy based on the psychology of the party right now," Sanford said.