Republican presidential contest suddenly heats up

By Philip Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 28 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — The still unsettled race for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012 is getting more interesting.

After months of resisting calls to join the contest, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Friday he would consider it. That could reshape the GOP field, adding a sitting governor who has never lost an election.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also sent a jolt through the party with the announcement of a campaign-style bus tour along the East Coast, the latest possible contender to stand up since Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced last weekend that he would not run.

And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is heading to New Hampshire next week, further stirring speculation that he will jump into the still-gelling field.

Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, would bring conservative bona fides, a proven fundraising record and a fresh voice. Even as Perry's closest advisers say he has no intention of getting in the race, he has methodically raised his profile, fanning interest.

"I'm going to think about it," Perry said Friday. "I think about a lot of things."

That was enough to set off speculation he would jump into a campaign that lacks a clear front-runner. Social conservatives are still shopping for a candidate. Tea party activists want one of their own. Establishment Republicans remain divided on a choice.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the closest to a favorite at this point. Like Giuliani, he ran for the nomination in 2008, losing out to Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Romney will formally kick off his campaign in the early primary state of New Hampshire next Thursday, the same day that Giuliani is now scheduled to headline a fundraiser for the state Republican Party and have lunch with several GOP activists.

Evangelicals who dominate the Iowa and South Carolina nominating contests are unlikely to back Romney or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; some call the two men's shared Mormon faith a disqualifier.

Twice-divorced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, too, has problems, although Gingrich is quick to note he has been with his third wife for more than a decade.

Last month, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, fresh off a turn as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he wouldn't make a White House bid; that unlocked many of the donors for Perry.

It also opened the door for a sought-after Southern candidate.

While Gingrich is running his campaign from Georgia, he has lived near Washington for decades and is hardly the regional candidate Perry could be.

Mark McKinnon, a veteran political consultant who advised President George W. Bush's campaigns, said of Perry, "The only real question is: Why wouldn't he run?"

Still, Perry has for months insisted he had no interest in a White House bid.

"I don't want to be the president of the United States," he said flatly in November.

With those refusals, he took the reins of the Republican Governors Association for a second term as chairman earlier this year, a signal he was serious about sitting 2012 out; he told fellow Republicans he wouldn't split his time between the RGA and a presidential campaign.

Since then, Perry's refusal seems to have softened, albeit ever so slightly. Asked Tuesday whether he would rule out a run, Perry left the door open.

"I've got my focus on where it is supposed to be and that is the legislative session," he told reporters. "Like I've said multiple times, I'm not going to get distracted from my work at hand, I'm not going to get distracted by that."

The Texas legislative session ends Monday.

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