Where's the Field? 2012 Republicans Slow to Take the Plunge

By this time in 2007, more than a dozen people had announced a presidential bid. Fast forward four years, and there are more wars than presidential candidates.

The potential Republican field is vast and full of characters, but most candidates in the holding pen seem to be waiting for somebody else to open the latch.

The latest sign that the field is not shaping up as neatly as prognosticators had hoped came Wednesday when The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation announced the primary debate it had scheduled for May would be moved to September for lack of participants. The debate was to be co-hosted by NBC News and Politico.

Foundation Director John Heubusch released a brief statement saying the debate would not be "worthwhile" at this point, and the hosts would wait until there's a "full slate of candidates to participate."

If a debate were held today, it would probably feature Fred Karger, a gay-rights activist and GOP consultant who threw his hat in the ring last week, as well as perhaps mogul Donald Trump, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and a couple others still in the exploratory phase. The Rent Is 2 Damn High Party might also make an appearance.

Democratic consultant Joe Trippi said the delay of game is just indicative of how tough the fight is going to be, not just against an incumbent in the general election but against a swarm of fellow Republicans in the primary itself. He said the GOP whales don't want to jump in too early because then they become a target for the rest of the field.

"If Newt Gingrich were to take the lead, he'd just be somebody for the entire rest of the field to go pound on," he said. "You're going to have 12 people come after you if you take the lead."

But eventually, somebody's going to walk out on the diving platform. The potentials have been going through the motions with visits to Iowa and other key states, and the stars could be aligning for a whole mess of announcements at once.

Gingrich, the former House speaker, told "Fox News Sunday" that he expects to be running within a month. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his presidential exploratory committee two Mondays ago, and has been talking tougher about the economy and the president's foreign policy on Libya.

President Obama also is expected to make his announcement, which won't be a shocker, in the coming weeks.

Compared to past elections, the timeline isn't that unusual. So far, the field isn't as slow to form as it was in the 1992 election, when the eventual Democratic nominee Bill Clinton waited until October 1991 to take a crack at unseating former President George H.W. Bush. By contrast, candidates were particularly eager in 2007 to run for the open seat being left by George W. Bush, and filed early.

Though Obama is severely unpopular on the right, Republican candidates recognize the power of his fundraising and get-out-the-vote operation.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said candidates are saving money by waiting to run.

"They need to conserve their resources," he said.

In the meantime, the space is being filled by Republicans flirting most publicly with the idea of running -- not just figures like Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Trump, who has attracted attention in the last few days for harping on conspiracy theories about Obama's birth records.

Sabato said the ability of people like Trump to dominate in the absence of a robust field won't do much to change the dynamic of the eventual race.

"Most of these minor candidates will be meteors streaking across the sky. They'll burn up quickly," he said.

But Trippi wasn't so sure. First, he noted some major candidates could end up holding off for 2016, and its presumably better odds.

"Clinton won the nomination because no one ran," he said.

Second, Trippi said the noise being made in the absence of other candidates could make it tougher for more straight-laced candidates like Romney to run away with it. Sure, the Romneys of the race could end up looking like the adults in the room by waiting another couple months to restore order. Or, as Trippi warned, they could miss their chance to make a big entrance.

"All of the sudden it turns into a Trump-(former Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckabee race, and you're sitting there going, 'What happened?'" he said.