It is hard to believe but the first test for Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination is less than one year away. The Iowa presidential caucuses will be held next February and while it has been relatively quiet on the presidential campaign front of late, that is about to change.
Expect a very crowded and wide open field of Republican presidential candidates in 2012, says Fordham University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos. "There is no established frontrunner or heir apparent to the party, and part of that I think is because the Republican Party has been engaged for some time now in what I would characterize as soul-searching in terms of the direction of the party moving forward," he said.
Several potential Republican candidates have already visited early primary states that are crucial in the presidential nominating process including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
At the moment there is no shortage of potential Republican candidates. But even the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, acknowledged on NBC’s Meet the Press that at this early stage of the race, there is no Republican who seems to have a clear advantage. "I have never seen a more wide open race for the Republican nomination. But we all know that nature abhors a vacuum," he said.
Among those ready to rush into that vacuum is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, one of several potential candidates who recently spoke to a meeting of conservative activists in Washington and criticized President Barack Obama's foreign policy approach. "I will not and I will never apologize for America!," he said.
Romney finished behind Senator John McCain in the 2008 Republican primaries and seems eager to mount a second bid for the White House next year.
But Romney may have plenty of company. Among those expected to announce their intentions within the next few months are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, South Dakota Senator John Thune and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
A big question concerns former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008. Palin is very popular among conservative Republicans, but much less so among Democrats and independent voters and that worries some strategists who want a candidate with the broadest appeal.
Others who may make a run include current state Governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former governors Jon Huntsman of Utah and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Political expert Rhodes Cook says it will take time for the Republican presidential field to emerge and take shape. "You had these people who were positioned as frontrunners at the beginning of the Republican race and who kind of defined the Republican race. This time you don’t have that. It is much more, as I say, of a muddle and it might be a little more chaotic in sorting itself out," he said.
One who could be in the mix is New York real estate mogul Donald Trump. "If I run and if I win, this country will be respected again!," he said.
Trump was a surprise hit at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington and says he will decide whether to run by June.
Another Republican popular with conservatives and Tea Party activists is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But Christie has disappointed supporters by taking himself out of the running for next year. "I’m not stupid. I see the opportunity. I see it. That is not the reason to run. And I think all too often that it why people do run. You have to believe in your heart and in your soul and in your mind that you are ready, and I don’t believe that about myself right now," he said.
President Obama seemed vulnerable in polls through much of last year, and that contributed to Republican gains in Congress in last November’s election.
But since then the president’s approval rating has gone up and experts like Costas Panagopoulos of Fordham see Mr. Obama as a more formidable candidate for re-election next year. "What is also interesting to me is that there have been some recent surveys pitting Obama against a number of Republican candidates, and Obama does quite well more or less across the board in polls. Most polls suggest Obama has an advantage over any of the main Republican contenders at this point," he said.
For most Americans, it is far too early to be paying close attention to next year’s presidential election. But that won’t stop any number of Republicans from formally taking steps toward a White House bid within the next several weeks.