Though there is still more than a year to go before the Iowa caucuses in February 2012, no one has emerged who appears best-suited to the task of uniting the GOP's establishment and "tea party" camps, while also appealing to the independent voters crucial to a general election victory.
Palin is the dominant GOP figure in the political conversation today and a favorite of the tea party movement. But she also faces stinging poll numbers that suggest a large majority of Americans have little faith in her ability to handle the job. Romney can point to success as a businessman and as governor, two resume assets that could bolster an anti- Washington-themed campaign. But his support of a healthcare overhaul in Massachusetts similar to the plan passed this year by Congress is likely to trouble Republican primary voters.
"There are a lot of questions raised by the top two contenders," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington. "Romney has Romneycare. Palin's problem is Palin. That means it's a wide-open field."
That field could grow crowded before long. Along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who, like Romney, ran in 2008; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is said to be considering a run; as are Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. Governors such as Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty as well as perhaps Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Mississippi's Haley Barbour may also enter the fray.
Dark-horse speculation has centered on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen.-elect Marco Rubio of Florida.
Even the name of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has been floated.
Most, if not all, would have some serious work to do. Polls have shown Romney, Palin and Huckabee with a clear early edge among Republican voters.
Feehery says Obama's meteoric ascent from freshman U.S. senator to president in the space of four years may convince long-shot GOP candidates that they have a chance. "Obama's rise has kind of changed all the rules," Feehery said. "If a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, who is African American, who had very limited experience, can get elected, the thinking goes, anybody could be."
Chris Wilson, a Republican campaign consultant in Washington, said the field has been slow to materialize because of the anti-establishment wave that struck the party in 2010. Anyone identified as a front-runner, he said, immediately becomes a target of party activists. "It's a torch-and-pitchfork mentality — and I say that with endearment," he said.
Still, in the next several months, potential candidates will be honing their messages, marking their territory and watching their rivals. If Palin indeed decides to run, that could knock conservatives such as Huckabee and Thune, who appeal to a similar segment of the GOP, out of the race before they get in. Because the start of primary season has been pushed back one month from its January launch in 2008, candidates have more time to decide.
While making up her mind, Palin can reach voters without having to build a large and costly campaign apparatus, through her use of social media, her work as a commentator for Fox News Channel, her Alaska-based reality TV show and her current book tour, which was scheduled to bring her to Iowa on Saturday.
Huckabee, too, hosts his own show on Fox News, and Gingrich is under contract as a pundit for the cable channel, giving both the kind of national platform that potential candidates haven't enjoyed in the past.
Doug Gross, a GOP strategist and former Iowa gubernatorial candidate, said the advent of multiple messaging channels means that candidates now have to do less on-the-ground work in the early primary states. He estimated that 70% of Iowa caucus-goers watch Fox News regularly.
"It used to be that you got famous in Iowa, and then you got famous nationwide," Gross said. "Now you get famous on Fox, and you get famous in Iowa. Before, you had to go to every living room. Now there's a lot of shoe-leather stuff you don't need to do."
Gross is one of those who remain unaffiliated with any potential candidate. Four years ago, he worked for Romney, but today he feels as unsettled as the field. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said.
As uncertain as things stand, here's a look at some of the leading, albeit unannounced, contenders:
Background: Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008 and former Alaska governor who resigned before the end of her first term.
Credits: The GOP rock star: unmatched name recognition; an extremely loyal base of supporters; a prodigious fundraiser. Simply put, she's a brand.
Debits: Hasn't proved she can appeal to moderates and independents; polls show that a majority of Americans hold a negative view of her and doubt her qualifications; her reality TV show could make it harder for her to be taken seriously; her leaving office before her term had expired may be viewed as a liability.
Bottom line: No potential candidate's decision could do more to affect the rest of the field; probably will drive the media coverage of the race until she decides.
Background: One-term Massachusetts governor; successful venture capitalist; former head of U.S. Olympic organizing committee; member of the Mormon church.
Credits: Stature; has credibility on economic issues; viewed as a stronger general election candidate than a primary candidate; has worked hard to build a national campaign organization.
Debits: Is distrusted by large swaths of conservatives, who view him as insincere in his political views and/or disapprove of his healthcare overhaul in Massachusetts.
Bottom line: Historically, the GOP has nominated a party stalwart who has waited his turn, but can Romney chart a path to victory through the primaries?
Background: Arkansas governor for 10 years; Baptist minister; host of cable news talk show; bestselling author.
Credits: A strong retail politician with a genuine folksiness; holds great appeal among social conservatives
Debits: Antitax groups are wary of his gubernatorial record; could be dogged by questions over his commutation of the sentence of an Arkansas inmate who, once paroled, is alleged to have shot four police officers near Seattle in 2009 before he was killed himself days later in a confrontation with police.
Bottom line: Could benefit the most if Palin decides not to run, but his ability to mount a consistent national campaign remains a question.
Background: A 20-year congressman from Georgia; served as House speaker from 1995 to 1999; author and commentator.
Credits: Well-known as a conservative firebrand and policy expert; embraced the "tea party" movement.
Debits: Some social conservatives argue that a thrice-married politician flunks the family-values test; viewed negatively by moderates.
Bottom line: May have trouble appealing to a wider electorate.
Background: Two-term governor of Minnesota.
Credits: A fiscal conservative who balanced state budget; may hold appeal as a Midwesterner.
Debits: Seems as if he's been a possible candidate for years, yet can't seem to raise his national profile; another Midwesterner, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, has a better buzz among insiders as an anti-spending candidate.
Bottom line: "T-Paw," as he is known, needs to make a splash early somehow or risks falling off the radar.
Background: Two-term Indiana governor; former budget chief under President George W. Bush.
Credits: Highly popular in Indiana for balancing budget and for property tax reform; a wonk whom GOP insiders tout for his credibility on spending; Midwestern appeal.
Debits: A perceived lack of magnetism — and he's literally short in stature (5-foot-7); not focused on social issues.
Bottom line: If federal spending remains a prime issue, Daniels can benefit if he can distinguish himself from Romney and Pawlenty.
Background: U.S. senator from South Dakota, entering second term; three-term congressman.
Credits: Affable, talented, with small-town appeal; a devout Christian who is strong with social conservatives and a favorite among tea partyers. Democrats didn't even field a candidate against him this year.
Debits: Voted for the bank bailout bill in 2008; anti-Washington mood among electorate could dampen chances; South Dakota isn't exactly an electoral vote bonanza.
Bottom line: Another who stands to benefit if Palin stays on the sidelines.
Background: Two-term Mississippi governor; former head of Republican National Committee; former D.C. lobbyist.
Credits: A chairman of the Republican Governors Assn., he turned the organization into a fundraising powerhouse, raising his profile even higher in the party; public stature grew after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the gulf oil spill in 2010.
Debits: A Southerner with a capital S, he may hold only regional appeal; lobbying work, particularly on behalf of tobacco industry, could hurt him.
Bottom line: An avuncular old-schooler and savvy strategist, he skillfully transformed himself from a Washington insider into a Southern outsider; could offer biggest contrast to Obama.
Background: Entering his sixth term as congressman from Indiana.
Credits: Another devout Christian, he won a recent straw poll among social conservatives.
Debits: The last time someone vaulted straight from the House to the presidency, Americans traveled by horse and buggy (James Garfield).
Bottom line: His resignation from House leadership prompted speculation he would run for president, but he may be eyeing a race for Indiana governor instead; won't get in if Daniels declares.