GOP 2012 contenders slow out of the gate

A resurgence in President Obama’s popularity could force Republican presidential hopefuls to move up their 2012 announcement dates.

Already, most of the GOP contenders are lagging behind the 2008 cycle, for which all of the candidates had announced their intention to run by the end of January 2007.

Now the question is: How long is too long to wait, particularly as Obama’s approval ratings have risen in recent polls?

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"It is surprising that the potential GOP field seems to be holding back," said Mark McKinnon, a veteran Republican consultant who advised President George W. Bush. "The clock is in play and every day that goes by is a potential day wasted that could have been used to organize or raise money."

Only one Republican, former Senate candidate and Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, has formally declared an intention to run for president. While other candidates are expected to jump into the race, they're aiming for a much later announcement date.

For example, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, arguably the front-runner among the 2012 Republican contenders, has indicated he'll wait until springtime to declare, especially after a prolonged and arduous 2010 election.

His schedule tracks somewhat with that of Obama, who is in the process of shifting staff to his reelection operation, with a formal declaration also coming sometime this spring.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has said he'll announce by the end of January whether he's running for president, though he might run for governor of Indiana instead. But other candidates seem to be looking at a schedule of weeks — not days — in making up their minds.

"As far as running for president, I've said I'm not going to make any decision about that until the spring," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has said.

Already, the GOP candidates' timelines are later than in preceding presidential cycles. 

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party's eventual nominee in 2008, formed his exploratory committee on Nov. 16, 2006 — just nine days after the midterm elections that year. And two candidates in that cycle eyeing another run this time, Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, declared on Jan. 3, 2007, and Jan. 29, 2007, respectively.

"The conventional reason in recent presidential primaries has been that they are getting back in as soon as possible," said Rutgers University Professor Ross Baker. "Particularly for the lesser-known candidates, getting started very early is very important, because your visibility increases incrementally as time goes on."

Many of the GOP personalities mulling a presidential bid have maintained a media presence. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin drew headlines for accusing critics of "blood libel" by trying to assign some responsibility to her in last weekend’s shootings in Tucson, Ariz., and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty embarked on a media tour this past week to promote his new book.

Huckabee maintains an active media profile on Fox News, and Romney has been on a tour of Afghanistan, Jordan and Israel to build his foreign-policy credentials. Several Republican governors considering a run drew attention for their "State of the State" addresses this week.

And Huckabee, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Palin all have contracts with Fox News to serve as regular contributors. Each would have to give up that contract, though, once he or she declares a bid for the White House.

But in the meantime, Obama has shown signs of political recovery since the November elections that handed Republicans control of the House and additional seats in the Senate.

Fifty-three percent said they approve of Obama in an Associated Press-GfK poll released this past week — the first time the president has enjoyed such numbers since last March.

Seventy-seven percent also said the recently concluded lame-duck Congress, which passed Obama's tax-cut compromise, the New START Treaty and a repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," was a positive thing, according to an ABC/Yahoo! News poll released on Friday.

While the Republican candidates haven't entirely ceded the stage to Obama, they're also constrained by not having formally declared the formation of their exploratory committees.

Those committees allow candidates to begin raising money and building familiarity with voters. The early start could be particularly helpful to candidates with low name-identification among Republican primary voters, like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sen. John Thune (S.D.) and others.

"It's a long process. It means a lot of personal appearances, it means a lot of efforts to be covered by the media," said Baker. "As a result, the people who lose the most by waiting long to make their bid are the lesser-known ones."

In the downtime, front-running Republicans only stand to benefit, said McKinnon.

"The late start benefits front-runners like Romney," he said. "He's already plowed a lot of ground, so the later the starting guy, the better for the lead dogs."

If the Republican candidates are dedicated to a later kickoff to their campaign, they might take some comfort in recent history: George W. Bush managed to win the 2000 nomination despite not forming his exploratory committee until March of 1999.