WASHINGTON — Get ready for the big tease. Republicans positioning for a possible presidential run are, to varying degrees, courting donors, testing messages and plotting strategies. They're visiting early primary states, wooing key activists and, all the while, stirring interest as they gauge whether to launch full-fledged campaigns.
"We can see 2012 from our house," Sarah Palin quipped recently, setting off another round of will-she-or-won't-she speculation.
But even though Nov. 3 is the unofficial start of the 2012 campaign, don't expect a surge of Republicans to declare their intentions anytime soon.
From Mitt Romney to Tim Pawlenty, few if any GOP aspirants plan to officially get into the race – or formally bow out of it – before year's end. And many, like Newt Gingrich and Haley Barbour, are expected to wait even longer – spring or beyond – to announce whether they will launch candidacies for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama in his likely re-election race.
It's a sharp contrast to the last presidential race, when Republicans and Democrats alike jumped in just days after the 2006 midterm elections, a flurry of activity kicking off a frenetic two-year sprint that ended with Obama's election.
Not this year.
There's a general consensus in Washington – and among Republicans close to the potential candidates – that the last White House race started too soon and cost too much.
By delaying disclosure of their plans, prospective candidates will have more time to build campaign organizations without the scrutiny that comes with being a declared entrant. They also put off the enormous expense that comes with launching a presidential operation more than a year before the GOP presidential nomination contests start with the Iowa caucuses in February 2012.
Uncertainty is a huge factor, too, as Republicans make up their minds about whether the climate is right.
No one knows whether the tea party that wreaked havoc on GOP primaries will be a force beyond the Nov. 2 elections. Or whether Obama's popularity will stay mired under 50 percent. Or whether unemployment will still hover near 10 percent. Or, perhaps most importantly, how Republican leaders in Washington position in their first months in office should they win control of the House or, less likely, of the Senate.
For those reasons and more, Republicans considering running are, in the words of Barbour, "keeping their powder dry."
They're carefully watching the president, as well as one another, as they try to map out plans in an unpredictable political climate. And, they're keeping an eye out for any signs that independents like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will make a move.
For Romney, there's little reason to get into the mix now – much less first. The former Massachusetts governor lost the nomination in 2008 to John McCain and is well-known in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other early primary states. Plus, he's got deep pockets should he decide to tap his personal fortune. And he's ahead of the pack in organization, with the remnants of his first White House campaign.
Barbour, Mississippi's governor and the chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, plans to spend the rest of the year reveling in expected gubernatorial victories on Nov. 2. He'll hold court at an RGA meeting next month in San Diego. As chairman, he's solidified his stature as a national party leader and proven that he's capable of raising mounds of money. He's been huddling with advisers as he considers a White House run.
Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, also is in no rush. He's waiting until at least March to disclose his intentions. He already has a ready-made campaign organization, fundraising base and grass-roots following through his American Solutions policy network, and he essentially has been running from that platform all year.
The later the start of the 2012 campaign, the better for celebrity politicians like Palin, the ex-governor of Alaska and 2008 vice presidential nominee, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who have lucrative media and speaking contracts. They'd probably have to cut those ties should they enter the race. Demand for their time could well dry up if they say they're not running. Plus, as long as they keep people guessing, they're sure to get plenty of attention.
Aspirants who are not nearly as well-known – like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or Indiana Rep. Mike Pence – could benefit from getting in sooner rather than later because of the free media attention.
While Pawlenty falls into that category, the Minnesota governor suggested he'd announce whether he would run around March. Republican insiders consider it inevitable that he'll get in after more than a year of planning. He leaves his post in January after two terms and will promote his new book, "Courage to Stand," a tour that could serve to boost his profile nationally.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels have indicated to associates that they're in no hurry either.
Thune is part of the GOP's leadership team, and has been talking in private about a possible bid. And Daniels has hosted a series of closed-door dinners with top GOP fundraising, business and policy leaders as he gauges his chances.
Nearly all have sent money from their political action committees to Republican candidates, campaigned with them, and endorsed them.
In the final days, Gingrich is holding a series of rallies in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and South Carolina. Barbour is hitting 13 states in five days, including Iowa and New Hampshire. Pawlenty, the No. 2 at RGA, will join him for part of the trip.
Palin, whose endorsement has been the most coveted of this election year, has been appearing at get-out-the-vote rallies with GOP Chairman Michael Steele. Romney and Santorum were campaigning on behalf of Iowa's statewide candidates. Thune was sticking close to home, on a bus tour with South Dakota's GOP nominee for the House, Kristi Noem.