With Barbour out, GOP field slowly takes shape

Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to bow out of the presidential race thins a Republican cluster of no less than a dozen potential candidates to take on Democratic President Barack Obama.
With the GOP campaign’s first debate scheduled for next week, the muddy Republican field will become clearer very soon as more potential contenders announce whether they’ll run or sit out.
The next, facing a self-imposed deadline of this weekend, is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Barbour friend and a fiscal conservative who has shined a spotlight on rising budget deficits and national debt.
“All eyes will be on Daniels. … It’s a clear path for him if he wants to run,” said Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican who dined with Barbour last month.
As the GOP race comes into sharper focus, Obama is working to both prevent an erosion of his support while under Republican attack and to raise enough money to overwhelm his eventual foe.
He’s been packing his schedule with fundraisers and visits to battleground states as he gears up for what he says will be a tough campaign.
This week alone, he will raise money in New York and return to his hometown of Chicago – also the site of his campaign headquarters – to tape an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
He then will head to Florida, a pivotal swing state, to deliver a commencement address at Miami Dade College and attend the launch of Endeavour, NASA’s next-to-last space shuttle flight.
Potentially vulnerable, Obama has middling poll ratings and is seeking a second term in a country reeling over high unemployment, rising gas prices and the remnants of recession.
Yet, the GOP faces plenty of its own troubles.
Its field lacks a front-runner. Most of the candidates are largely unknown to Republicans. The most recent Associated Press-GfK poll indicated that only half of all Republicans were satisfied with their choices and a third were dissatisfied.
Unlike four years ago, GOP presidential hopefuls have been hesitant to rush into the race. Many have been mindful of the long slog and huge costs of a campaign.
Several also have been waiting to see what the first half of the year would bring, when the focus would be on the new House GOP majority and its tangles with the Democratic administration.
But now, the clock is ticking, and candidates are under pressure to commit to participating in multi-candidate events.
Neither a forum in New Hampshire on Friday nor a debate in Greenville, S.C., next week – the first of the campaign – is expected to draw a full slate of candidates. No such slate exists yet.
So far, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost the nomination in 2008, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was on John McCain’s vice presidential short list, have set up presidential exploratory committees allowing them raise money for full-fledged campaigns.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to make his campaign official as early as next week.
A cluster of lesser-knowns also have inched toward the race, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Another likely candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, is to return to the United States early next week. His work for the Obama administration as the U.S. ambassador to China ends Sunday, and he will make his first appearance in an early primary state on May 7 in South Carolina, where he will deliver a commencement address.
He’s been barred from engaging in politics as an ambassador, but advisers have spent the past few months building a shadow campaign operation so that he will be ready to run if he chooses.
Two others weighing bids and drawing considerable attention, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and New York real estate mogul Donald Trump, have said they would decide before summer whether to run.
It may be some time before two of the biggest question marks of the 2012 GOP nomination fight are answered: Will Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee get in the race?
Both are leaving the door wide open to candidacies, but neither seems in a rush to make any plans public. In recent months, they haven’t done much beyond give a handful of speeches and appear on Fox News, where they both have contracts.
Liz Sidoti reported from Washington; Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, Philip Elliott in Indianapolis and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.

The Associated Press