WASHINGTON — With just 11 months before the first true test of 2012 White House mettle, Republicans seeking to challenge President Barack Obama are sending a unified message: it’s anybody’s race.
So blank is the slate — officially, at least — that of the dozen or so Republicans seen as serious contenders, not one has declared his or her candidacy.
By mid-March four years ago, all major candidates from both parties had jumped into the fray.
“It is much, much later” this election cycle, said Richard Schwarm, former Republican Party chairman in Iowa, the state which traditionally launches the race with its caucuses next February.
“No one exactly seems to have the answers… The field is absolutely wide open,” he told AFP.
Some in the Grand Old Party see this week’s forum of five presidential hopefuls before Christian conservatives at an Iowa church as the unofficial kick-off to the Republican nomination battle.
It marked the first time this year that influential social conservatives could get face time with would-be candidates. But notably, most White House bidders have delayed the traditional intense crisscrossing of the state.
A few big names like former house speaker Newt Gingrich were in attendance Monday at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Spring Kickoff near Des Moines, Iowa.
For the last four decades the US state has been the crucial opening battleground in the long and extremely costly US presidential race.
But the three widely seen as front-runners — 2008 candidates Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, and media star Sarah Palin — were no-shows, leading one well-placed observer to dismiss the event as “a gathering of the littles”.
The campaign four years ago got into full swing early.
With George W. Bush wrapping up the maximum two terms and his vice president not entering the race, candidates from both parties jockeyed to get ahead in the dash to succeed one of the most controversial US leaders in decades.
This year is different, political analysts say.
The economy remains sluggish, and that would weigh on anyone mulling an early candidacy, which would require a bigger war chest to sustain a longer campaign.
And with Republicans still savoring last November’s anti-incumbent mid-term victory that swept them back to power in the House of Representatives, potential candidates may be mindful of an old maxim: tall grass gets cut.
“When you jump in too early, you become an early target,” said Campaign Media Analysis Group president Evan Tracey, who has tracked campaigns for the past 14 years.
“If you’re the front-runner, all the knives and the bull’s-eyes — and I know we’re not supposed to use that language any more — come out and are trained on you,” he said.
But enter the race too late, and your campaign can fizzle.
“This is an art, not a science,” Tracey said.
While potential candidates are clearly working on campaigns behind the scenes, “there isn’t a rush to put an exploratory committee out there like there was four years ago,” Tracey added.
Gingrich’s team last week suggested he could soon decide on forming such a committee, but then he backtracked, telling Fox News on Friday he was “a number of weeks, maybe six or seven,” away from an official announcement.
Some experts say high-profile candidates may bide their time, opting to harness the considerable and growing influence of newer technologies like Twitter and Facebook to connect with voters before committing to the race.
“This year may be the year that a candidate tries to thread the needle — basically hold off until mid-summer or Labor Day (in September), and put together a campaign that could win the nomination because of the fragmentation of the field,” said Dante Scala, who chairs the political science department at the University of New Hampshire.
Some say the Republican field has yet to gel because of one person, Sarah Palin, who was John McCain’s running mate in his failed 2008 White House bid and has emerged as a powerful force in US conservative politics.
“No one knows if she’s going to run at all,” Schwarm said, adding that Palin could be eager to avoid the front-runner label.
But she also could be framing a new model — one that compresses, instead of telescopes, the campaign season.
“If Palin swoops in late and does her social networking and wins, people will then say you didn’t have to spend a year and a half in Iowa,” Schwarm said.