Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney just completed a weeklong trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East. A handful of prospective GOP presidential candidates voiced their opposition to raising the federal debt limit, staking out the conservative base’s preferred position. More and more names are being floated, appearances in early presidential states are beginning to accelerate and the RSVPs for next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington are piling up.
In other words, a new, more overt phase of the 2012 presidential race is taking hold.
CPAC already boasts a roster that includes Romney, Sen. John Thune, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Pence, Gingrich, Barbour and Santorum all have paid visits to South Carolina this month; Santorum has even hired a staffer in New Hampshire, becoming the first to put a paid operative in the Granite State.
Daniels last week announced he’ll headline another high-profile Beltway event, March’s Gridiron Club dinner. The week before that, the two-term Indiana governor came to Washington to collect an award and schmooze the cognoscenti, getting a fair amount of airtime and column-inches for his trouble. (See: Daniels to address Gridiron Club)
Pawlenty has been seemingly everywhere in the media, giving interviews to promote his newly released memoir and openly acknowledging his eye is on President Obama’s job.
The lesser-known aspirants are also ramping up: Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and a favorite of the conservative grass-roots and tea party activists, filed paperwork for an exploratory committee. (See: Herman Cain mulls 2012 bid)
Some of the action has naturally been muted by the shock and grief prompted by the Jan. 8 massacre in Tucson, Ariz., that critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Nonetheless, the surge in activity is registering with those who pay close attention to the rhythms of presidential campaigns.
“There are a lot of stirrings, and some of them are exciting, because they throw the whole process into even more turmoil,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University whose antennae, like those of many in his state, are finely attuned to candidates’ feints toward the nation’s first primary.