* Meeting is chance to generate some buzz
* Rule No. 1: Do no harm
* Many Republicans running underground campaigns
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 10 Republicans have no clue who
they will nominate to face President Barack Obama in 2012, but
conservative aspirants to the nation's highest office are
hoping to put their names in play this week.
Several Republicans pondering a run in 2012 are to speak
this week to a large gathering of conservatives in Washington,
a chance to test their messages and generate some buzz.
A year ahead of the first state voting contests to decide
who will face Obama in November 2012, no prominent Republican
has formally announced a candidacy and no potential candidate
has emerged as a favorite.
But plenty of politicians who can envision themselves in
the Oval Office are running underground campaigns, visiting
early voting states, talking to fund-raisers, organizing
staffs. The first announcements are expected by March.
The Conservative Political Action Conference is to hear
from a number of potential candidates on Thursday, Friday and
Saturday as conservatives who have been celebrating the 100th
anniversary of the birth of conservative giant Ronald Reagan
search for someone who can wave his banner.
"It's one of the first times that they get to showcase
their actual credentials among key constituencies and generate
publicity for themselves early on in the cycle," said
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
Among the speakers are two former governors, Mitt Romney of
Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota; former House of
Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and sitting governors
Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana.
Gingrich and two other possibles, Representative Michelle
Bachmann and former Senator Rick Santorum speak on Thursday.
Romney, Pawlenty, South Dakota Senator John Thune, Texas
Governor Rick Perry and Daniels speak on Friday and Barbour
speaks on Saturday. Attendees will decide their favorites in a
Saturday straw poll.
Absent from the proceedings are two Republicans who poll
well among conservatives, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin
and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and who are
weighing whether to jump into the race.
NO HEIR APPARENT
Republicans have no obvious heir apparent in 2012 as they
usually do, leaving party loyalists to ponder a crowded field
that includes Romney, who fought hard but lost to eventual
Republican nominee John McCain in 2008.
"It's totally wide open," said Republican pollster Whit
Ayres, though he said he now sees Romney as the front runner.
The party is on a high after wrestling control of the House
from the Democrats in November's midterm elections and squaring
up to Obama on spending cuts.
A key objective for the potential candidates is to do no
harm. "What you want more than anything else, you want to come
out of there without anything negative generated from it," said
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
And by delaying their formal announcements, the candidates
save money and avoid peaking too soon.
"They can reach more people for free three times a day on
Twitter than they can by buying a 30-second ad on television
every night," said Republican strategist Rich Galen.
Part of the calculation a politician considers in whether
to launch a run is to what extent their opponent can be beaten.
All agree Obama will be hard to beat, but that it can be done
-- depending on how the U.S. economy performs.
Obama appears to be enjoying an improved standing with
Americans by taking some centrist moves after his Democrats
were routed in congressional elections last November. A
Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday put his job approval rating at
51 percent after spending most of 2010 in the 40s.
A crowded Republican field may play to Obama's advantage.
"We're a closely divided country and we'll have another
close election in 2012, but right now it's to the president's
advantage to have such a large Republican field that will be
battling among themselves," said Peverill Squire, political
science professor at the University of Missouri.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)