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Published: Sunday, 11/15/2009

Republicans already on presidential trail

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON - Sarah Palin is embarking on a book tour. Tim Pawlenty is building a national political operation. Mitt Romney is weighing in on the recession.

They are all jockeying for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination - even if they won't say so.

Make no mistake: At least a half-dozen Republicans are in the early stages of campaigning for the chance to challenge President Obama in his expected re-election race.

Ultimately, some may decide against running. But, at this point, they are taking steps to position themselves for the GOP nomination fight - and that means courting conservatives critical in primaries, proving they can take on a popular incumbent President, and painting a vision for a wayward GOP.

And, of course, they are gauging their relative strength, visiting early primary states, and refusing to rule out official bids.

"It's way too soon" to talk 2012, former New York Gov. George Pataki said last week. He sounded like a stream of other Republicans trekking through Iowa, while he spoke at a GOP fund-raiser for the 2010 midterm election season.

At this early stage, White House aspirants have the advantage of operating a bit outside the media glare. But Washington insiders do notice unforced errors. And while missteps may not hurt them with the public, flubs can hamper them in the long-term hunt for staff, fund-raisers, and endorsements by raising questions about readiness.

For now, the field is wide open with the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, on the sidelines after his loss to Mr. Obama. Republicans are struggling to figure out what they want in their next leader and how to reshape a party facing big challenges following painful national election setbacks in 2006 and 2008.

A year before 2012 campaigning begins in earnest, here is a look at the moves some are making:

•Ms. Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who resigned as governor of Alaska, is starting a national media tour to promote her book, Going Rogue. Eager to show her conservative credentials, she recently endorsed a grass-roots-backed conservative, Doug Hoffman, over the GOP-supported candidate in an upstate New York congressional race. Mr. Hoffman lost. Undeterred, Ms. Palin told conservative activists, "The cause goes on."

•Mr. Pawlenty, who was on Mr. McCain's vice presidential short list, decided not to run for a third term as Minnesota governor. He has been methodically building an expansive political operation with Washington campaign veterans while working to raise his national profile and taking on Mr. Obama often. Mr. Pawlenty is a conservative, but he has tacked further right recently, backing Mr. Hoffman.

•Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who lost to Mr. McCain, has kept a lower profile than others. He has carefully chosen when to insert himself into national politics. The former businessman has reappeared at key times to challenge Mr. Obama, primarily on economic policy. He has experienced the rigors of a national campaign, but previous charges of flip-flopping could haunt him.

•Haley Barbour, Mississippi's governor and a former national GOP chairman, ascended to the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association this summer around the time he visited Iowa and New Hampshire. He was credited with helping Republicans win in Virginia and New Jersey and helping recruit a strong field of 2010 gubernatorial candidates. The question: Does a party with diversity issues want a white southerner who is a former lobbyist as the party's face?

•Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia known for leading the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, has been traveling the country talking up Republican rebirth. He tested a stump-sounding speech in Kansas this month, and has emerged as a critic of Mr. Obama's health care and economic policies. A leader among conservatives, Mr. Gingrich is a perennial flirt with the presidency. But he carries baggage from his years as a lawmaker.

•Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, has spent the past year raising his national profile with a Fox News talk show - Huckabee - and radio commentaries called The Huckabee Report. He is doing a tour for his new book, A Simple Christmas. A Southern Baptist preacher and favorite of evangelicals who lifted him to victory in Iowa, he will be challenged to broaden his support to the rest of the GOP.



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