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're 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're 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.
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And, of course, 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 demurred last week, sounding like a stream of other Republicans trekking through Iowa, while he spoke at a GOP fundraiser for the 2010 midterm election season.
This early, 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, fundraisers and endorsements by raising questions of readiness.
For now, the field is wide open with 2008 GOP nominee John McCain on the sidelines after his loss to Obama. Republicans are struggling to figure out precisely 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 gathering of GOP governors in Texas next week is certain to feed 2012 buzz — for Haley Barbour and Pawlenty, as well as other possible candidates — if not this time then maybe next — like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.