* Meeting is chance to generate some buzz
* Rule No. 1: Do no harm
* Many Republicans running underground campaigns
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 10 (Reuters) - 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.
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)