Reporting from Washington
In the slow-developing Republican presidential field for 2012, a flurry of recent activity from prospective candidates should have shed light on who's in and who's out. It hasn't.
Instead, recent announcements have underscored the legal and semantic haze that cloaks the race so far. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum announced the formation of committees to explore bids — but they filed with different federal agencies with different rules on disclosure. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi made political appearances last week in the first primary state, New Hampshire. But only the former acknowledges he's in the race.
The differences have occasionally vexed even the candidates themselves. Here's a primer on the various states of candidacy for the major GOP contenders:
All-in, whether they admit it or not:
"Exploratory committee" may have an official ring, but it carries no legal significance. Pawlenty and Romney have filed statements of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission and have raised or spent $5,000 on their campaigns, so, from a regulatory standpoint, they are candidates — period. Contributions to their campaigns are limited by federal election law and they must file quarterly reports detailing what their campaigns receive and spend.
"As long as you register as a candidate and you are filing as a candidate, it really doesn't matter much what you call the committee, as far as the law is concerned," said Lawrence Noble, former counsel to the FEC.
Pawlenty, for example, has flung himself into the campaign, announcing staff hires, traveling to key primary states and releasing polished Web videos positioning him as the conservative foil to President Obama.
Sound like a presidential run? Pawlenty acknowledged as much during an appearance last week on CNN, telling interviewer Piers Morgan he was "running for president." But when Morgan asked whether that constituted a "formal announcement," the former governor demurred.
"Well, I've got an exploratory committee up and running and we'll have a final or full announcement in the coming weeks here," Pawlenty said. "It won't be too much longer."
Romney similarly split hairs in his filing with the FEC. While acknowledging he had reached the legal threshold to register as a candidate, he wrote in a letter to the agency that "the creation of my exploratory committee does not constitute a formal announcement of candidacy."
The distinction between an "exploratory" phase and an all-in candidacy may not be a legal one, but it serves a public relations strategy.
"They want to have a formal declaration of candidacy. They want to have a big event that says, 'I'm in,' " said Jan Baran, a Washington-based campaign finance lawyer.
"They don't want to do that now. People aren't really paying attention."
Dipping a toe in the waters
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich puzzled political observers last month when he introduced a website displaying his presidential ambitions — NewtExplore2012.com — but stopped short of filing papers with the FEC.
This alternative route, also taken by Santorum, is called "testing the waters," a stage designated by law in which an individual takes steps to determine whether a candidacy is viable. Gingrich and Santorum established committees with the Internal Revenue Service and are soliciting donations on their websites. The funds raised are subject to federal campaign limits, but they do not have to be disclosed to the FEC if the would-be candidate drops out.
Gingrich and Santorum can test the waters by running a sort of "campaign lite." They can travel and conduct polls, but they cannot describe themselves as candidates or raise more money than is reasonably needed to determine whether they should go forward.
For Gingrich, testing the waters allows the Georgia politician to start building the framework of a presidential bid while untangling business interests that would complicate a formal campaign launch.
No decision yet (wink, wink)
They haven't made any announcements or filed any papers, but other likely candidates are running operations that have the all the trappings of campaigns. Barbour, for example, has traveled extensively to key primary states, including New Hampshire and South Carolina. He's courted some of the party's biggest fundraisers and spent thousands of dollars on an Iowa voter list.
He's even declared his intention to participate in the Florida Republican primary, a point of controversy between the state and the national Republican Party.
"I'm going to run in the Florida primary whenever they have it," Barbour told the state's legislators recently, before adding a legally important caveat: "And I'm going to run in the Florida primary if I run for president."
Barbour, as well as fellow possible candidates Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, has maintained publicly that those activities do not constitute a campaign. They pay for the operations out of their own federal and state political action committees, which are not subject to the same strict donor limits as campaign committees.
"These outside-the-limit contributions present precisely the threat of political corruption that contribution limits are intended to reduce or eliminate," said Paul S. Ryan, an election law analyst with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Federal and many state PACs have not yet submitted financial disclosures this year. Until then, it's impossible to know how much money these noncandidates have raised and spent in their informal campaigns.
As the political calendar progresses, the pressure to make things official will increase. Fox News, organizer of a Republican presidential debate on May 5, announced last week that participants must have announced an exploratory committee or presidential campaign, and must have filed papers with the FEC by April 29.
By that standard, it will be a sparse lineup for the first debate of the 2012 cycle: So far, Romney and Pawlenty would be the only major contenders to make the cut.