Alex Brandon, File, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. — Republican Gov. Haley Barbour bowed out of presidential contention Monday with a surprise announcement just as the 2012 campaign was getting under way in earnest, 18 months before Election Day. The Mississippi governor said he lacked the necessary "absolute fire in the belly" to run.
Barbour's declaration, unexpected because he had been laying the groundwork for a campaign for months, thins a Republican cluster of no less than a dozen potential candidates to take on Democratic President Barack Obama.
With the GOP campaign's first debate scheduled for next week, the muddy Republican field will become clearer very soon as more potential contenders announce whether they'll run or sit out. The next, facing a self-imposed deadline of this weekend, is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Barbour friend and a fiscal conservative who has shined a spotlight on rising budget deficits and national debt.
"All eyes will be on Daniels. ... It's a clear path for him if he wants to run," said Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican who dined with Barbour last month and left questioning whether the governor had the hunger to get in the race.
It turns out he didn't.
"I will not be a candidate for president next year," the two-term governor said a statement, adding that he wasn't ready for a "10-year commitment to an all-consuming effort."
As the GOP race comes into sharper focus, Obama is working to both prevent an erosion of his support while under Republican attack and to raise enough money to overwhelm his eventual foe. He's been packing his schedule with fundraisers and visits to battleground states as he gears up for what he says will be a tough campaign.
This week alone, he will raise money in New York and return to his hometown of Chicago — also the site of his campaign headquarters — to tape an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." He then will head to Florida, a pivotal swing state, to deliver a commencement address at Miami Dade College and attend the launch of Endeavour, NASA's next-to-last space shuttle flight.
Potentially vulnerable, Obama has middling poll ratings and is seeking a second term in a country reeling over high unemployment, rising gas prices and the remnants of recession.
Yet, the GOP faces plenty of its own troubles.
Its field lacks a front-runner. Most of the candidates are largely unknown to Republicans. The most recent Associated Press-GfK poll indicated that only half of all Republicans were satisfied by their choices and a third were dissatisfied.
Unlike four years ago, GOP presidential hopefuls have been hesitant to rush into the race. Many have been mindful of the long slog and huge costs of a campaign. Several also have been waiting to see what the first half of the year would bring, when the focus would be on the new House GOP majority and its tangles with the Democratic administration.
But now, the clock is ticking, and candidates are under pressure to commit to participating in multi-candidate events.
Neither a forum in New Hampshire on Friday nor a debate in Greenville, S.C., next week — the first of the campaign — is expected to draw a full slate of candidates. No such slate exists yet.
So far, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost the nomination in 2008, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was on John McCain's vice presidential short list, have set up presidential exploratory committees allowing them raise money for full-fledged campaigns. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to make his campaign official as early as next week.
A cluster of lesser-knowns also have inched toward the race, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Many Republicans had expected Barbour would be the next one in, given his recent activity.
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