Reporting from Des Moines — It's cold, brown and stubbly across rural Iowa, a wintry scene that provides an apt metaphor for the slow-starting 2012 presidential campaign.
The Iowa caucuses, a cozy and quirky ritual that marks the first leg of the race to the White House, have been pushed back to Feb. 6, 2012, which is a relief to any outsider with the sounds of New Year's in Ankeny still ringing in their ears. (In 2008, the caucuses were held Jan. 3, the earliest in history.)
But it's more than scheduling that has fallowed the presidential field.
For all the liberal griping, President Obama seems unlikely to face a serious Democratic challenge. There is certainly no sign of one in Iowa; even the most disappointed of the president's supporters — and there are many — expect no threat in the state that launched his candidacy.
That means the action is entirely on the Republican side, and most of the effort this year was directed at winning control of Congress and taking back the Iowa statehouse. Nobody wanted to be seen putting their personal ambitions ahead of the party's interests, though plenty of potential White House hopefuls showed up to campaign for state and local candidates; a twofer of sorts.
In just the last week of the midterm campaign, the political tourists included Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and ex- Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Other 2012 prospects include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who have nosed about Iowa, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who have not.
Iowa Republicans have reason to feel flush. They won back the governor's mansion after 12 years. Social conservatives ousted three state Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. The party gained control of the state House of Representatives and won local offices in Democratic strongholds, such as Dubuque, where the GOP hasn't prevailed in half a century.
Still, few fault the party's would-be presidents for biding their time.
Seeking the White House is expensive, and the more candidates save now, the more they can spend later, when voters are paying closer attention. There is also less scrutiny, as long as someone is merely "exploring" a run for president, to use the popular euphemism.
"The minute you announce, people ask about hiring staff and why you haven't hired more," said Eric Woolson, a veteran Iowa GOP strategist. "If you raise $10 million in a quarter, they want to know why you didn't raise $15 million."
Part of the delay is also a matter of seeing who else runs. Some candidates appeal to similar constituencies — former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, are both popular with social conservatives — and they may find the race less attractive if they have to compete for that support.
At this stage, the Iowa front-runners appear to be Huckabee, who finished first here last time, and Romney, who finished second. But analysts agree the contest is wide open, much like the one in 2008.
For those outside Iowa, the caucuses are a bit of a curiosity. They consist of 2,000 precinct-level meetings staged for just a few hours on a cold winter's night. Only about 120,000 people, in a state of 3 million, are expected to participate. It takes a huge investment of time and organizational effort for any White House hopeful to coax their supporters to show up.
Still, many candidates come because of Iowa's history of boosting underdog or little-known contenders into national competition, starting with Jimmy Carter in 1976 and continuing in 2008 with Huckabee and Obama.
The two candidates most obviously pursuing an Iowa springboard strategy are Pawlenty and Santorum, who have visited Iowa more than half a dozen times each since the 2008 campaign ended. Alone among those eyeing a White House bid, Pawlenty has hired a full-time Iowa staffer. Santorum has said he will soon follow suit.
Romney, who invested heavily in Iowa four years ago, is expected to compete less vigorously should he run again, having already established himself nationally. Huckabee is months away from making a decision on whether to run, as are most others.
Palin is as much a mystery in Iowa as elsewhere. She made two stops on her recent book tour, and those searching for clues to whether she will run suggested the latter venue — Storm Lake in rural northwest Iowa — made more sense politically than commercially.
Palin, however, has done nothing to prepare for a caucus campaign.
"Every successful candidate in Iowa has their small group of people telling them where to go, the people they need to talk to," said Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa GOP who monitors candidate activity — or lack thereof — for his magazine and website, the Iowa Republican. "She has nothing. Nada. People looking to support her wouldn't know the first place to start."
Of course, there is plenty of time before the caucuses and little disadvantage in waiting, so long as most others do the same.
Last week, the Iowa Republican Party announced it would hold its presidential straw poll — a combination fundraiser, political circus and campaign testing ground — Aug. 13, with a Fox News debate held two days before.
No one doubts the 2012 race will have heated up well before then.