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2012 already? GOP wannabes jockeying early

At least a half-dozen Republicans are in the early stages of campaigning for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama in his expected re-election race.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sarah Palin is embarking on a book tour. Tim Pawlenty is building a national political operation. Mitt Romney is weighing in on the recession.

They're all jockeying for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination — even if they won't say so.

Make no mistake: At least a half-dozen Republicans are in the early stages of campaigning for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama in his expected re-election race.

Ultimately, some may decide against running. But, at this point, they're taking steps to position themselves for the GOP nomination fight — and that means courting conservatives critical in primaries, proving they can take on a popular incumbent president and painting a vision for a wayward GOP.

And, of course, gauging their relative strength, visiting early primary states and refusing to rule out official bids.

"It's way too soon" to talk 2012, former New York Gov. George Pataki demurred last week, sounding like a stream of other Republicans trekking through Iowa, while he spoke at a GOP fundraiser for the 2010 midterm election season.

This early, White House aspirants have the advantage of operating a bit outside the media glare. But Washington insiders do notice unforced errors. And while missteps may not hurt them with the public, flubs can hamper them in the long-term hunt for staff, fundraisers and endorsements by raising questions of readiness.

Pawlenty, for instance, caused a stir among insiders recently with a series of bobbles. In one case, the Minnesota governor seemed to suggest that moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who sided with Democrats on Obama's health care reform in a Senate Finance Committee vote, shouldn't be part of the GOP. Pawlenty later made clear that she should.

For now, the field is wide open with 2008 GOP nominee John McCain on the sidelines after his loss to Obama. Republicans are struggling to figure out precisely what they want in their next leader and how to reshape a party facing big challenges following painful national election setbacks in 2006 and 2008.

Consider that Democrats won the White House and expanded their majorities in Congress in 2008 in a friendly political environment. It had turned so sour just one year later that Republicans booted Democrats from power in Virginia and New Jersey.

"The results made clear the American people don't like where the Democrats are trying to take our country," declared Haley Barbour, the Republican Governors Association chairman who will preside over a gathering of GOP governors in Texas next week.

Coming the same week as Palin's book tour, the gathering is certain to feed 2012 buzz — for Barbour and Pawlenty, as well as other possible candidates — if not this time than maybe next — like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Among others said to be flirting with a run are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran in 2008. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has fueled speculation with a visit to Iowa, where he said: "I want a role in where this party is going, where this country is going." Republicans like South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence also are trying to raise their national profiles.

A year before 2012 campaigning begins in earnest, here's a look at the moves some are making:

  • Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who resigned as governor of Alaska, is starting a national media tour to promote her book, "Going Rogue." Eager to show her conservative credentials, she recently endorsed grassroots-backed conservative Doug Hoffman over the GOP-supported candidate in an upstate New York congressional race. Hoffman lost but an undeterred Palin told conservative activists, "The cause goes on."
  • Pawlenty, who was on McCain's vice presidential short list, decided not to run for a third term as governor. He's been methodically building an expansive political operation with Washington-based campaign veterans while working to raise his national profile and taking on Obama often. Pawlenty is a conservative, but he's tacked even further right recently, including backing Hoffman.
  • Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who lost to McCain, has kept a lower profile than others. He's carefully chosen when to insert himself into national politics. The former businessman has reappeared at key times to challenge Obama, primarily on economic policy. He's experienced the rigors of a national campaign, but previous charges of flip-flopping could haunt him.
  • Barbour, Mississippi's governor and a former national GOP chairman, ascended to the RGA chairmanship this summer around the time he visited Iowa and New Hampshire. He was credited with helping Republicans win in Virginia and New Jersey, and helping recruit a strong field of 2010 gubernatorial candidates. The question: Does a party with diversity issues want a white Southerner who is a former lobbyist as the party's face?
  • Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia known for leading the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, has been traveling the country talking up Republican rebirth. He tested a stump-sounding speech in Kansas earlier this month, and has emerged as a critic of Obama's health care and economic policy. A leader among conservatives, Gingrich is a perennial flirt with the presidency. But he also carries baggage from his years as a lawmaker.
  • Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, has spent the past year raising his national profile with a Fox News talk show — "Huckabee" — and radio commentaries called the "Huckabee Report." He's in the midst of a tour for his new book, "A Simple Christmas." A longtime favorite of evangelicals who lifted him to victory in Iowa, this Southern Baptist preacher will be challenged to broaden the scope of his support to the rest of the GOP.