COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Big-name Republicans have been slow to enter the 2012 presidential race, giving lesser-known candidates a chance to break through in key early voting states like Iowa.

With the first Republican debate already over and just nine months until Iowa becomes the first state to choose its 2012 GOP nominee, local activists would normally be knee-deep in campaigns that set the tone for the rest of the country.

Instead people like Jeff Jorgensen, from Pottawattamie County in conservative western Iowa, are cooling their heels.

As a Republican caucus-goer and county chairman for the party, Jorgensen is exactly the type of person would-be Republican candidates have to woo in order to secure the nomination.

"It is quiet," he admits. "People are just kind of holding back a little bit, seeing how things develop. Everyone is just chomping at the bit to get started. We want this thing to get off the ground."

So far Republican heavy hitters like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are conspicuous in their absence from the state.

Palin has spent just four days in Iowa since the last election in late 2008, according to a tally by -- Huckabee has spent just five days there and Romney just two.

In a place that values door-to-door canvassing and handshakes, that has opened the path for lesser-known figures like Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain to build some momentum.

"To me it is shaping up like 1992," said Cary Covington, a politics professor at the University of Iowa.

Then, he said, "Democrats thought that George Bush senior was going to walk off with the election because of the approval he had from his handling of the Gulf War."

"A lot of the first-tier would-be candidates like Mario Cuomo stayed out, so a clearly second-tier candidate like Bill Clinton was able to win the nomination."

Clinton, of course, went on to win the presidential election as the economy unexpectedly cratered in the last year of Bush's term.

Lesser-known Republican nominees like Pawlenty and Santorum have heard that message loud and clear. Each has been in Iowa at least 11 times since the last election.

From neighboring Minnesota, many analysts believe Pawlenty might have the edge, but he might also be running out of time to make a dent.

According to Jorgensen the big guns will come, and when they do, they will come quickly.

Much of the delay, he said is tactical, because campaign directors are concerned that Obama and the Democrats could spend as much as one billion dollars seeking reelection.

"It's going to take a lot of money this time around, and what they don't want to do is get in early and then run out of cash before they get to the starting line."

Less socially conservative front-runners like Romney and Newt Gingrich might still avoid the state because Iowan voters care more about abortion and gay marriage than their message of fiscal prudence.

While it is said that the dreams of presidential hopefuls can live or die in Iowa, according to Covington they more often die.

"Iowa does not pick the winner, but it does tell you who the losers are," he said. "If you are down in fourth, fifth or sixth place, you are probably not going to be able to pull yourself out of that.

"The money is going to dry up, the media is going to stop talking to you, and to the extent they do, they are going to ask you why you did so badly and there is no good answer to that."

Conversely for lesser-known candidates, a good showing in Iowa could prove the catalyst that propels them to the White House.

And it has happened before: Then senator Obama won the Democratic caucus there in 2008, beating a much better-known rival.