WASHINGTON — To run, or not to run, for president. That's the question facing a horde of Republicans who are weighing whether to seek their party's 2012 presidential nomination and the chance to take on President Barack Obama in the general election.
What appeared to be a slam-dunk opportunity last year — when Obama's poll numbers stank — isn't quite so clear anymore. The political terrain is shifting. Obama is rising, albeit slightly. There's an economic recovery under way, though slow and fragile. No one knows what will happen in Egypt.
Some Republicans are plainly angling to run, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. None has formally launched a campaign yet.
One has taken himself out of the running. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., recently decided not to run, despite his solid standing among conservatives and a draft-Pence movement that signaled an independently financed ad campaign that might help him in the primaries.
Most, though, are biding their time, neither in nor out. That group includes Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.
The waiting game is a sharp contrast to this stage four years ago, when there was no incumbent president to face and candidates already were lining up. By this point, for example, Hillary Clinton had already formally declared her candidacy, on Jan. 20, 2007. Obama announced his candidacy on Feb. 10. Romney followed on Feb. 13, and John McCain jumped in on March 1.
Why are the hopefuls holding back this time?
"They're starting to look at the cold, hard reality of running against an incumbent president," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "It's nice in the abstract, particularly if you've been surrounded by adoring partisans who say Obama is the Antichrist. But actually doing it becomes a hardheaded rational calculation."
Santorum told supporters Friday that he was close to a formal declaration. "Soon, I must make a decision," he said in an e-mail.
Daniels also says he's close to a decision. "I think I have got to make up my mind fairly soon," he told the Northwest Indiana Times last week. "There are a lot of people waiting and I owe them an answer."
But most signal that they'll wait to decide, perhaps until spring.
The first time that candidates will face one another is May 2, in a debate at the Reagan library in California.
Before then, they must decide whether they can appeal to the party's conservative base — several will test that at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this Thursday through Saturday — and also appeal to independents, who will decide the general election.
They also must decide whether they can raise enough money to compete against one another and then Obama, who could raise a staggering $1 billion or more this cycle. In 2008, he blew off the spending limits that come with public financing and raised a record $745 million, vastly outspending Republican nominee McCain's $368 million.
"The person who is going to be the nominee will face the Obama fundraising machine," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
"They saw what Obama did to McCain in 2008, and that makes these candidates even more averse to risk," Scala said. "If you're John Thune, and you're 50 or 51, and saying in most cases the incumbent is going to win, why not wait until it's an open field in 2016?"
Indeed, many are young and could easily wait until 2016.
Thune is 50. Huntsman, who just resigned as Obama's ambassador to China, also is 50. Palin will turn 47 on Friday. Pence is 51.
Some have other outlets. Palin is making millions from her contract with Fox News, speaking fees and book sales. What's more, polls suggest that she's the weakest of the major candidates in a head-to-head matchup with Obama. Huckabee also has a Fox paycheck. Thune is moving up in the Senate.
Romney, who turns 64 on March 12, might find 2012 his best shot. He still has a network of contributors and supporters from his 2008 bid for the nomination.
A key question that potential candidates face is whether the 2012 election will be akin to 1992 or 1996.
In the 1992 cycle, President George H.W. Bush looked strong early, driving many big-name Democrats to sit it out, thinking they could wait until the seat would be open in 1996. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, perhaps his party's biggest marquee name at the time, anguished over his options until the last possible moment, then decided not to run.
Then Bush's popularity faded as the economy sputtered and little-known Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton captured the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Cuomo never got another chance.
In 1996, the opposite happened. Clinton entered the campaign looking weak. Like Obama, he'd lost the House of Representatives in his first midterm election and his poll numbers were anemic. But he gained strength through late 1995 and 1996, and eventually cruised to easy re-election.
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