Potential Republican candidates raise their profiles during invisible primary

Candidates are using the midterm elections to build their presidential campaigns under the guise of helping the Republican Party.

It may be known as the invisible primary, but the months leading up to the midterm elections are a time for possible Republican presidential candidates to increase their national presence.

The first presidential votes won’t be cast for 40 months, but candidates are using the time to build organization and support around the country under the guise of helping the Republican Party in the 2009 and 2010 elections.

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This year, potential presidential candidates have made stops in Virginia and New Jersey, where the GOP is optimistic about its chances to take back two Democratic-held governorships.

And they will spend the next year raising money for Republican congressional candidates — earning favors that can be cashed in if they decide to mount a White House bid, along with the side benefit of being able to introduce themselves to voters and donors.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is the latest to make a major splash, establishing a political action committee that will kick off with a low-dollar fundraiser in Washington, followed by a major event the day after Election Day in Minneapolis.

Pawlenty also announced a stable of powerhouse advisers, including some of the leading Republican Internet strategists. Along with experienced political and fundraising operatives, the staff gives the Minnesota governor a national presence he has lacked for the last several years.

And next week, Pawlenty will address the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, followed by a trip to the Western Conservative Political Action Conference in Newport Beach, Calif.

The ramped-up profile and major hires are seen as an effort to catch up with the early leader of the invisible primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R).

Pawlenty and Romney have already engaged in the first skirmish of the season, with Pawlenty equating a Romney-backed healthcare plan in Massachusetts to Democrats’ plans in Congress. Romney has defended his achievement, but Pawlenty has made it clear the issue will be an early contrast between the two if they both make a White House bid.

Romney, who also ran for president in 2008, largely has retained the loyalty of key staffers, many of whom are expected to return to the campaign if he decides to run again. And Romney aides have kept in contact with key figures in early primary states, hoping to be able to quickly scoop up prominent backers if he decides to run.

“Sometimes candidates forget their friends and then seem surprised to find they’re dating other people when they come back,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “Romney hasn’t done that, and I think he is likely to retain most of his activists.”

In March, Romney will release his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. In it, he will lay out his views on reviving the economy, among other policy prescriptions, according to reports.

Another potential 2012 candidate is taking the same tack. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) Going Rogue will be released Nov. 17, and pre-orders have already shot the book up the best-seller lists.

But GOP strategists remain torn about Palin’s future. Though most acknowledge her fan base among social conservatives, many question whether her presence on the national stage benefits their party.

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On Friday, Steve Schmidt, McCain’s senior strategist during the 2008 election, who once advocated for Palin’s selection as the vice presidential nominee, said a Palin candidacy would be “catastrophic” for the GOP, setting off yet another round of intra-party sniping.

And several party insiders remain unconvinced Palin will actually run. She has not built a team that inspires confidence in her chances.

“There is zero — zero — coordinated effort on her behalf, nor have I seen anything in the past 12 months that suggests she has the people around her who can do a competent job of organizing on her behalf,” Cullen said. “Of course, her fundraising ability is significant and she could hire such people in a hurry.”

Similarly, other candidates who could compete may decide to sit out 2012 for personal reasons.

While former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) won a straw poll at the Values Voters Summit last month, sources say he is making good money as host of a show on Fox News, money he would be disinclined to walk away from.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) remains a contender even if he doesn’t take the overt steps Romney and Pawlenty have, simply because of his high profile. But Gingrich said no to a run in 2008 when a grassroots effort to recruit him fell flat.

And a host of other possible candidates have yet to indicate whether they will partake in the invisible primary.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) raised eyebrows this year with consecutive stops in New Hampshire and Iowa, but he has yet to take other steps necessary to run.

Some believe Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) are future national players, but neither has indicated an interest in running in 2012 (Thune is up for reelection in 2010, while Jindal would face voters again in 2011).

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) has said he has run his last race, but he has written several op-eds that have raised his profile, and fiscal conservatives pine for his involvement in the future.

And long shots are emerging on the scene.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) each gave speeches to the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based conservative think tank. In a pre-speech conference call, Santorum, who lost his Senate seat by a wide margin in 2006, acknowledged he was thinking about running for president.