(Reuters) - The new year brings the start of a scramble among Republicans to decide which of them will try to unseat President Barack Obama from the White House.
Never mind that the U.S. presidential election is not until November 2012. Early 2011 is the time when potential Republican challengers are out raising campaign money, testing speeches and themes before small audiences and trying to get some early “buzz” from pundits.
Here is a list of Republican contenders, many of whom have built robust fundraising operations and paid repeated visits to the early battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
A leading candidate in the 2008 presidential race, the former Massachusetts governor has carefully positioned himself for a return to campaigning for the White House with repeated visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as a book tour.
Known for his good looks, charm and success in the world of finance, Romney’s Free and Strong America political action committee has raised millions of dollars.
But he continues to face claims of flip-flopping, a charge that detracted from his 2008 presidential bid. And with Republicans vowing to repeal Obama’s healthcare reform law, Romney’s support for a similar Massachusetts law when he was governor could be problematic.
The outgoing Minnesota governor first emerged as a potential contender in White House election politics in 2008, amid speculation he could become Republican John McCain’s running mate.
Though the mantle went to Sarah Palin, Pawlenty is now viewed as a leading Republican presidential hopeful. His repeated visits to Iowa and New Hampshire have helped him build up a presence in those states. As a popular Republican governor in a state that has seen big political swings over the years, Pawlenty eliminated a $4.3 billion budget deficit without raising taxes and has been a staunch voice against abortion and stem cell research. Critics say he lacks charisma.
If there is one thing Sarah Palin has, it’s buzz. The former Alaska governor has used lucrative television, book and speaker deals to emerge as one of her party’s biggest stars since being the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.
She is a leading voice in the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement and enhanced her influence this year by campaigning for Republican congressional candidates across the country.
Those activities and her success at fundraising are driving speculation of a possible White House run by Palin in 2012. But some Republican heavyweights may want Palin out of the spotlight for fear she could become a liability to the party.
While she energizes the right wing base of the Republican Party, some think she won’t appeal to crucial independent voters and lacks the experience to be president.
Distinguishing himself as a conservative who is “not angry,” the former Arkansas governor used a mixture of anti-abortion, anti-gay politics and regular-guy charm to win the 2008 Republican Iowa caucus against candidates with bigger names.
A Baptist minister with strong ties to the Christian Right, Huckabee continues to poll strongly in Iowa and has been seen as a potential presidential front-runner in 2012.
But he is also dogged by controversy for granting clemency to Arkansas criminals, including a felon who later allegedly killed four Washington state policemen and died in a gun battle with a Seattle officer.
The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was the main architect of the 1994 Republican midterm election victory and author of the “Contract with America” political manifesto. But the Georgia Republican ended his 20-year congressional career after his leadership was marred by big losses in the 1998 midterm elections.
Gingrich remains a leading conservative figure, political pundit and accomplished fund-raiser whose political advocacy group has outstripped his Republican rivals by collecting more than $20 million during the 2010 election cycle.
The Louisiana governor entered White House politics in 2008 when he was named as a possible running mate for McCain. Palin got the nod but the son of Indian parents won the coveted task of delivering the party response to Obama’s first address to Congress in February 2009. The speech was widely seen as falling flat.
Jindal, Louisiana’s first non-white governor since the Civil War era, skipped the chance to address the 2008 Republican presidential convention to oversee Louisiana’s successful response to Hurricane Gustav.
The New Jersey governor provides the Republican Party with a new bright spot for 2012. He drew national attention as a corruption-busting U.S. attorney who won convictions or guilty pleas against scores of public officials.
He has since proved a popular governor in a traditionally Democratic state, despite ardent stands against abortion and gay marriage, making him a potential magnet for independent voters in industrial swing states.
Others seen as testing the presidential waters include freshman Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, South Dakota Senator John Thune, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Representative Ron Paul of Texas -- a former candidate for the Republican nomination.
Reporting by David Morgan, Ed Stoddard, Richard Cowan and Peter Henderson; Editing by Jackie Frank