WASHINGTON — Put away the starter's gun for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign. The race is going to start later than expected.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation announced Wednesday that it will postpone what was supposed to be the kickoff debate for the GOP presidential nomination contest, moving it from May 2 to Sept. 14. The reason? There aren't enough candidates ready to debate yet.
There will still be a GOP debate in May. South Carolina, the site of the first 2012 primary in the South, will host a Republican debate on May 5. But with the delay of the Reagan Library debate, the decades-long trend where each successive presidential campaign starts earlier than the last one may finally be ending. Virtually all the potential 2012 GOP candidates are still waiting before launching their campaigns.
"Although there will be a long and impressive list of Republican candidates who eventually take the field, too few have made the commitment thus far for a debate to be worthwhile in early May," John Heubusch, executive director for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, said in a statement Wednesday.
"The Reagan Foundation's first Republican presidential primary debate will move to the fall, allowing enough time for the full slate of candidates to participate."
Indeed, despite GOP loathing of Democratic President Barack Obama, not a single Republican has yet formally launched a campaign to defeat him in 2012. At this stage four years ago, all major candidates in both parties had declared their candidacies.
To be sure, there are plenty of potential GOP candidates, including: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Yet only Pawlenty has taken a concrete step toward running, by forming an exploratory committee. None has announced a candidacy.
Pawlenty set his schedule months ago. He wanted to finish his term as governor, publish his book, spend a few months promoting it, and then decide whether to formally start his expected campaign. "His timeline is not dictated by what others decide or when they decide," spokesman Alex Conant said.
Bachmann, who expects to also form an exploratory committee, said recently that she won't make a final decision until summer. She has said that an Iowa straw poll in August, a major test of GOP campaigns every four years, will be a critical deadline for getting in.
One key reason for this year's late start is money, both how they raise it and how they spend it.
"The internet makes a big difference," said an adviser to one potential candidate, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. "People can raise money a lot faster" if they haven't declared their candidacy, which then kicks in federal campaign-finance regulations.
Once they raise it, they also want to avoid spending it too soon, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did in 2008. He spent heavily early and eventually won the nomination, but was strapped for cash heading into the general election against Obama.
This time, Obama is expected to raise perhaps $1 billion. And without a primary opponent, he'd have all of it to use against the eventual Republican nominee.
"It's such an expensive undertaking that candidates are more reticent to get in," said Karen Floyd, chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "Once that happens, they start spending money. This is going to be quite a task, and I think everyone is holding on as long as they can . . . This is about stretching the dollar."
While many candidates are holding back from formal declarations, Floyd said many have signaled that they will attend the South Carolina debate in May.
The late start of the 2012 campaign is in contrast to a long trend of candidates jumping in ever earlier:
- Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts announced his bid for the Democratic nomination on Jan. 2, 1960, 10 months before the 1960 election.
- Former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California launched his candidacy for the Republican nomination on Nov. 13, 1979, a year before the 1980 election.
- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas formally announced his quest for the Democratic nomination on Oct. 3, 1991 — 13 months before the general election.
- Gov. George W. Bush of Texas formally declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination on June 12, 1999 — 17 months before the general election.
- Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination on Feb. 10, 2007 — 21 months before the 2008 general election.
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