The slowly developing race for the Republican presidential nomination received a jolt from two Minnesota Republicans this week, potentially accelerating the 2012 clock for the field's sleeping giants.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty became the first top-tier candidate out of the gate when he announced his exploratory committee Monday but it was Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (R-Minn.) who stole the spotlight this week with speculation she’ll make a White House bid.
Operatives say those moves should light a fire under former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin if either are truly serious about a 2012 run.
"If those two don't start [campaigning] in Iowa pretty soon – I would say within the next 35 to 40 days – a lot of people are going to start looking for a home elsewhere," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and one of the state's top social conservative organizers.
Scheffler said while both Huckabee, the 2008 caucus victor, and Palin would find a natural base of support in the state, "Iowa voters expect to be courted. They expect to be talked to ... There isn't a whole lot of that going on right now."
"Every day that goes by, fewer and fewer Iowans believe that Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin are actually going to run," said Chuck Laudner, former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party and former top aide to Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Laudner said that message has been communicated to both the Huckabee and Palin camps from activists in the state, but that it hasn't fundamentally changed their posture toward the 2012 caucuses.
"They're getting the message and then nothing comes back," he said. "That tells a lot of people that they aren't running."
Pawlenty, meanwhile, has visited the state more than a dozen times and has staffers on the ground. Eric Woolson, who managed Huckabee's Iowa effort in 2008, has signed on with Pawlenty.
Bachmann is also moving more decisively towards a presidential bid: The Tea Party favorite will officially form an exploratory committee by early June if she opts for a run.
She told Fox News Thursday night that “we've moved a step closer, at this point,” toward a run.
Given Bachmann's proven fundraising prowess and appeal to grassroots conservatives, her candidacy poses a real political danger to both Huckabee and Palin in Iowa. If either of the former governors gets in the 2012 race, Iowa would be a must-win and they would find themselves battling Bachmann for the same pool of socially conservative supporters.
The longer they wait, the tougher it could become to put together the organization they'd need to win the state as top campaign talent gets snatched up and potential supporters begin to gravitate elsewhere.
"You have to think this would hasten the decision making for both Palin and Huckabee," said Iowa-based GOP strategist Bob Haus. "[Bachmann's] going to come right at the heart of both of them."
Haus, who worked former Sen. Fred Thompson's (R-Tenn.) 2008 Iowa caucus campaign, said the more potential candidates like Huckabee and Palin opt to stay out of the Iowa mix, "the more opportunity voters have to go listen to Michele Bachmann or Haley Barbour or Pawlenty."
Bachmann courted the state's home-schooling crowd earlier this week – a key base of Huckabee support in 2008 – and she's barnstorming the state throughout the weekend.
Huckabee and his advisers have been trying to make the case that there's no rush for him to get into the 2012 race and that he'd have a ready-made organization in Iowa if and when he decides to make the move.
Huckabee's 2008 campaign chairman, former gubernatorial hopeful Bob Vander Plaats, is now heading an influential Evangelical conservative group in the state and is poised to play a major role in the caucuses. The core of that group, say Huckabee backers, can essentially be morphed into a Huckabee organization overnight if he jumps in.
"The idea that someone would crank up a campaign as early as possible, having been through it, doesn't make sense," Huckabee told reporters in Washington, D.C last month. "I'm in a very different position than I was in four years ago."
Palin proponents make a similar argument. Her conservative star power is unmatched, supporters say, and she'd have the ability to raise money and build an organization in the state rapidly if she decides to run.
It's an argument Laudner rejects, saying that it isn't going over well with potential caucus-goers, who "want some time to listen to candidates and really think about this choice."
"We're electing the next president," he said. "We're not shopping for a used car."