Out of spotlight, Mitt Romney and other GOP hopefuls prepping for 2012

By Philip Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 8 2011 11:15 a.m. MST

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty walks off stage after speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, Monday, March 7, 2011, at the Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich is the Republican taking some of the most public first steps for a presidential bid, but he's hardly the only one in motion.

Far from the media spotlight, White House hopefuls are furiously hiring staff, testing messages for the powerful conservative base of the GOP and mapping out a rough political calendar, all part of a hard-charging effort that precedes the official kickoff.

Gingrich drew the national press to Atlanta last week for his announcement of a website to explore a bid, the most high-profile move so far.

Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour are quietly preparing for possible candidacies with visits to would-be donors, calls to potential supporters and interviews with future hires.

"Things have picked up dramatically in the last couple weeks," said Matthew Strawn, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.

Putting together the early nuts-and-bolts of a campaign is a delicate balance between persuading staff and donors that the candidate is serious while telling the public that a bid is being weighed.

"I haven't made a decision yet as to what we're going to do," Romney often demurs even as his advisers are reviewing resumes.

Campaigns are expensive and the sooner a candidate working with a small group of advisers formally declares, the faster the organization grows and the bills flood in. Being a formally declared candidate also brings an intense level of scrutiny and pressure.

"The day you announce and start a campaign, you create the demand for an infrastructure. Your clock starts, but your burn rate starts on your money immediately," Mike Huckabee, a 2008 candidate and possible 2012 candidate, said in an interview. "However many staffers, and however many trips you take, and the phone lines and the computer lines and the office equipment and everything it takes to gin up a campaign — I'm not speaking from the idealistic, I'm speaking of the harsh realities of what it costs."

Intentions to run came early and often in the 2008 campaign, an open contest to replace two-term President George W. Bush.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona signaled his interest within days of the November 2006 elections — and was almost out of money by the summer of 2007. On the Democratic side, the top-tier candidates — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — were going full speed by March 2007.

This election cycle, with Obama poised to seek re-election, potential candidates are holding off on the official announcement while doing the behind-the-scenes work.

A runner-up in 2008, Romney had a jump start on the other possible candidates. He brought in Matt Rhoades, his former communications chief, to run his political action committee and build a team that includes Republican National Committee veteran Rich Beeson as political director and Neil Newhouse as pollster.

Romney announced last week that Andrea Saul, a veteran of McCain's presidential campaign and most recently a spokeswoman for Carly Fiorina's failed Senate bid in California, will serve as a communications adviser. And former spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom will remain in the fold.

Pawlenty is preparing for an announcement tour in the next six weeks. Many of his advisers from his political action committee are expected to be part of his White House bid, including: Phil Musser, a former adviser to Romney and former head of the Republican Governors Association; former Bush campaign officials Terry Nelson and Sara Taylor; and Alex Conant, a former RNC press secretary.

Romney and Pawlenty both are expected to take their own official steps in early spring, likely after April 1.

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