WASHINGTON — Consider the holidays a short breather between political seasons, because in January a new one kicks off with even higher stakes: the race for the White House in 2012.
While that may still seem a long way off — the election will be Nov. 6, 2012 — nearly every political decision in the next 22 months will include some calculation of how it will affect who sits in the White House on Jan. 21, 2013.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod will be leaving soon to gear up President Barack Obama's re-election effort. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe will join the administration to help the president deal with Congress and prepare for the campaign.
Analysts are handicapping whether Obama will use his State of the Union address, likely to take place in late January, to move his administration to the center, something that many political operatives say he must do if he hopes to be re-elected.
"The jury is still out on which way the president is going to go," said Greg Mueller, a Republican political strategist. "Will he continue to draw lines in the sand far to the left of the electorate or is he going to lurch to the middle the way Clinton did to see if he can come back? The State of the Union is the kickoff of his re-election campaign."
"For a Democratic president to win, you have to move to the center," said Richard Martin, a Democratic operative from Missouri. "This country is not ready for a pure progressive."
The Republican contest to determine who will have the opportunity to unseat Obama already is under way. At least 10 names are circulating so far, and more could be added. Some are prominent. No one is a clear front-runner.
"The hardest thing for a group of candidates is to stand out from one another," said Stephen Wayne, an expert on the presidency at Georgetown University. "I think the field is just going to be pretty well packed with a lot of speculation until we have some results."
They'll have their opportunity in the spring, when the first of several Republican presidential debates takes place. No firm date for the debate has been set.
Some of the possible contenders — such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who came up short in the 2008 primaries, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — are probably sure bets to get into the race. Both have been to New Hampshire, the site of the first presidential primary, several times since last January.
Others have made the trek, as well. The state may play an outsized role for its size and exert undue influence over the presidential selection process, but both parties cling to its traditions.
"New Hampshire is a state that values person-to-person contact," said Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican Party. "It's crucial that potential candidates come sooner rather than later."
Other possible Republican hopefuls include Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, who's playing a teasing game of cat and mouse. She's on television with her own show about Alaska, where she's seen killing a moose; on the op ed pages penning a piece about tougher tactics toward Iran; and in Iowa, an early presidential caucus state, speaking at a political dinner.
"She's a wild card," Republican political strategist Kim Alfano Doyle said. "Who the heck knows what she's going to do?"
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is said to be studying his chances. So is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa Republican caucus nearly three years ago. Huckabee, whose battle to slim down is a major part of his public persona, rapped Palin recently for criticizing first lady Michelle Obama's fight against childhood obesity.
Add Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to the "maybe" list, as well as Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi.
The presidential contest also is likely to have a major impact on how the 112th Congress operates once it takes office next week.
With an energized Republican majority in the House of Representatives and an emboldened minority in the Senate, Obama and congressional Democrats are expected to have trouble building on their success in the lame-duck session, where they accomplished several long-standing goals.
Analysts, in fact, expect the president and his Democratic partners to find their interests occasionally diverging, as they did earlier in December, when Obama labeled congressional Democrats "sanctimonious" for objecting to his compromise with Republicans over extending Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.
Analysts say Obama might do that again as he tacks to the center in a tough re-election environment and tries to justify suggestions that he's the new "comeback kid." (Bill Clinton got the moniker after placing second in the 1992 New Hampshire primary while he was in the midst of scandals over the draft and an alleged affair.)
But Obama's path to re-election remains treacherous.
"It's dependent on the health of the economy, not so much on what he can do individually," said Terry Madonna, the director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Pennsylvania.
Obama's disapproval rating, while slightly improved, is still near 50 percent, according to CNN. In Virginia, an important red state that he lured to his column in 2008, his job approval is just 36 percent, according to a Roanoke College poll.
The latest U.S. census report on population shifts didn't do him any favors, either. The states the president carried two years ago suffered a net loss of six votes in the Electoral College, a factor that could be crucial if the race is close.
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