By one measure, the 2012 presidential campaign is off to a slow start.
No major candidate has officially jumped in, unlike four yearsago, when nine White House hopefuls had declared their bids by theend of January 2007. Mindful that the first nominating contests inIowa and New Hampshire might be pushed back a month, and wary of ananti-incumbent mood among voters that could make life difficult for afront-runner, potential Republican candidates are staying on thesidelines for now.
But by another measure -- money -- the campaign is in high gear.
President Obama's potential challengers are busy cultivatingdonors, recruiting staff and testing campaign messages -- conductingproxy campaigns that illuminate the approach they would take as WhiteHouse hopefuls.
Some are building sizeable war chests through so-called leadershippolitical action committees, which can collect as much as $5,000 percontributor for use in political activities not directly related toan official presidential candidacy. Others are using private groupsto raise money and promote causes that may figure in their futurecampaigns.
Because the top likely contenders are not federal officeholders,they can raise money through state PACs, including those that havefew or no limits on corporate and individual contributions.
By waiting to register with the Federal Election Commission aspresidential candidates, they can raise money in large-dollar amountsand also keep lucrative television gigs that they would have torelinquish as candidates.
"The way the system is set up, it permits people to go around andspend some time effectively testing the waters," said E. Mark Braden,an election law attorney who served as general counsel to theRepublican National Committee. "On the whole, so long as prospectivecandidates avoid saying, 'I'm running,' or some synonym of that, the[Federal Election Commission] has pretty much avoided gettinginvolved in that gray area."
Obama is expected to raise a record $1 billion for his reelection,a figure that has inspired action and creative early approaches onthe part of his GOP rivals.
Mitt Romney has put together an establishment, blue-chipoperation, locking in top donors and banking more than $9 millionthrough a network of political action committees. Sarah Palin isdriving white-hot media attention and fervent grass-roots supportthrough her Facebook posts and Fox News appearances.
Other candidates have found their own routes. Mississippi Gov.Haley Barbour, for instance, is drawing on the Rolodex of Republicancontacts he developed as a longtime party fundraiser.
The likely candidates are expected to stick to this strategy forseveral more months as the election slowly ramps up. Former MinnesotaGov. Tim Pawlenty has said he will decide around March, but othersmay wait until early summer, which could still give them enough timeto raise money and hire staff before the key Iowa straw poll inAugust.
Also among those mulling bids are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who has $7 million in hisSenate campaign committee that he could roll into a presidential bid.
But among the prospective candidates, Romney clearly has thecurrent advantage. The former Massachusetts governor and billionairefounder of Bain Capital has made the most energetic use of statePACs, a tactic that has helped him raise more than $9.2 million inthe last two years in large- and small-dollar contributions. He'sused those funds to woo supporters in key states and pay staff whomake up the backbone of his campaign team.
In 2010, Romney distributed $1.1 million to state and localcandidates across the country, according to Eric Fehrnstrom, whoserved as Romney's traveling press secretary during the 2008 campaignand now acts as the spokesman for his Free and Strong America PAC.
In addition to Fehrnstrom, Romney has been paying for the servicesof pollster Neil Newhouse and former campaign manager Beth Meyers.Star GOP money men Wayne Berman and Lew Eisenberg, who co-chairedJohn McCain's presidential finance team in 2008, are wooing donorsfor Romney.
But unlike four years ago, when Romney held a one-day fundraisingtelethon in January, the former governor is in no rush to startformally campaigning. He is not expected to declare his candidacyuntil at least late spring.
"Mitt Romney learned a few things from his last campaign, and oneof the lessons was that it got started too early," Fehrnstrom said."He's not in any hurry to make an announcement."
If Romney is taking the most traditional route, Sarah Palin'sapproach has been the most unorthodox.
Since stepping down as Alaska's governor, she has kept herself inthe national spotlight through pungent social media posts andappearances on Fox News, where she is a contributor.
The media coverage that follows her every move often only servesto emphasize Palin's polarizing effect. But what sets off her criticsonly cements the loyalty of her grass-roots supporters. Herleadership committee, SarahPAC, raised more than $5.5 million in thelast two years, an amount second only to Romney's, and 75% of thecontributions came in increments smaller than $200.
While SarahPAC advisors have made some initial outreach tosupporters in Iowa, Palin herself has not been openly courting theparty's most established activists and donors. But she has used herPAC to finance a team of political operatives, spending nearly $1million on political, media and fundraising consultants, according todata from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Taking a page from the Palin model, Pawlenty is seeking to raisehis profile this month with a media-saturated tour to promote his newbook, "Courage to Stand." His charm offensive has included stops on"The Daily Show" and "The View," where he joked about tapping Whoopi Goldberg as his running mate.
Behind the scenes, Pawlenty is trying to cut into Romney'sinstitutional support through a relentless campaign of one-on-onemeetings with key activists. Since January 2009, he has made 79political trips to 39 states to back state and local candidates, hisstaff says.
His PAC contributed nearly $400,000 to 208 candidates around thecountry. In the pivotal nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire,he has set up local PACs that have doled out money to candidates foragriculture commissioner, sheriff and state representative. Along theway he has picked up notable state-level supporters.
Pawlenty faces formidable competition in the fundraising realm ifMississippi Gov. Haley Barbour decides to run. Barbour has raisedalmost $2 million through federal and state PACs, but draws his realstrength from his years of favor-trading with other Republicans --particularly this last year, when he raised and spent record sums aschairman of the Republican Governors Assn.
Unlike his Democratic counterpart, Barbour chose to spend moneynot just to benefit governors, but down-ballot races as well,amassing IOUs that could come in handy.
He is credited with helping Republicans score victories ingovernors races and in 21 state legislative chambers in November.That includes key nominating states such as Michigan, where thegovernors group dropped more than $7 million, much of it spent evenafter the GOP had the gubernatorial race sewn up.
Newt Gingrich has also been canny about leveraging his projects topromote his interests and a possible presidential bid. Along withpolitical action committees and new book tour, the former Housespeaker has built up a network of half a dozen nonprofit andfor-profit organizations. One of them, American Solutions, raisedmore than $24 million in the last election cycle to mobilizesupporters around issues such as job creation and repealing thehealthcare overhaul.
Another Gingrich nonprofit, Renewing American Leadership, has beencalling attention to issues that concern religious conservatives,including the construction of an Islamic center near the World TradeCenter site. His for-profit company, Gingrich Communications,recently launched Americano, a bilingual website aimed at Latinos.
He has also used his profile to raise substantial sums of moneyfor his own political action committee and those of otherconservative Republicans. His staff says he helped bring in $21.5million for fellow Republican candidates and committees during 2010.Much of the money went to candidates and organizations in Iowa andNew Hampshire.
Last week, Gingrich kicked off a tour to promote the paperbackedition of his latest book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama'sSecular-Socialist Machine." His first scheduled trip: the key primarystate of South Carolina.