Reporting from Washington — Republicans believe they're in the ideal political climate to defeat President Obama's bid for reelection. Now, if only they had the ideal candidate.
Though there is still more than a year to go before the Iowa caucuses in February 2012, no one has emerged who appears best-suited to the task of uniting the GOP's establishment and "tea party" camps, while also appealing to the independent voters crucial to a general election victory.
The top two unofficial contenders, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, carry enough baggage that others are likely to see an opening to jump into the race.
Palin is the dominant GOP figure in the political conversation today and a favorite of the tea party movement. But she also faces stinging poll numbers that suggest a large majority of Americans have little faith in her ability to handle the job. Romney can point to success as a businessman and as governor, two resume assets that could bolster an anti- Washington-themed campaign. But his support of a healthcare overhaul in Massachusetts similar to the plan passed this year by Congress is likely to trouble Republican primary voters.
"There are a lot of questions raised by the top two contenders," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington. "Romney has Romneycare. Palin's problem is Palin. That means it's a wide-open field."
That field could grow crowded before long. Along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who, like Romney, ran in 2008; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is said to be considering a run; as are Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. Governors such as Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty as well as perhaps Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Mississippi's Haley Barbour may also enter the fray.
Dark-horse speculation has centered on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen.-elect Marco Rubio of Florida.
Even the name of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has been floated.
Most, if not all, would have some serious work to do. Polls have shown Romney, Palin and Huckabee with a clear early edge among Republican voters.
Feehery says Obama's meteoric ascent from freshman U.S. senator to president in the space of four years may convince long-shot GOP candidates that they have a chance. "Obama's rise has kind of changed all the rules," Feehery said. "If a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, who is African American, who had very limited experience, can get elected, the thinking goes, anybody could be."
Chris Wilson, a Republican campaign consultant in Washington, said the field has been slow to materialize because of the anti-establishment wave that struck the party in 2010. Anyone identified as a front-runner, he said, immediately becomes a target of party activists. "It's a torch-and-pitchfork mentality — and I say that with endearment," he said.
Still, in the next several months, potential candidates will be honing their messages, marking their territory and watching their rivals. If Palin indeed decides to run, that could knock conservatives such as Huckabee and Thune, who appeal to a similar segment of the GOP, out of the race before they get in. Because the start of primary season has been pushed back one month from its January launch in 2008, candidates have more time to decide.
While making up her mind, Palin can reach voters without having to build a large and costly campaign apparatus, through her use of social media, her work as a commentator for Fox News Channel, her Alaska-based reality TV show and her current book tour, which was scheduled to bring her to Iowa on Saturday.
Huckabee, too, hosts his own show on Fox News, and Gingrich is under contract as a pundit for the cable channel, giving both the kind of national platform that potential candidates haven't enjoyed in the past.
Doug Gross, a GOP strategist and former Iowa gubernatorial candidate, said the advent of multiple messaging channels means that candidates now have to do less on-the-ground work in the early primary states. He estimated that 70% of Iowa caucus-goers watch Fox News regularly.
"It used to be that you got famous in Iowa, and then you got famous nationwide," Gross said. "Now you get famous on Fox, and you get famous in Iowa. Before, you had to go to every living room. Now there's a lot of shoe-leather stuff you don't need to do."
Gross is one of those who remain unaffiliated with any potential candidate. Four years ago, he worked for Romney, but today he feels as unsettled as the field. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said.
As uncertain as things stand, here's a look at some of the leading, albeit unannounced, contenders:
Background: Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008 and former Alaska governor who resigned before the end of her first term.