JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - 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 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. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who lost in 2008 and is a favorite of libertarians as well as tea partyers, is planning to take a step toward a second bid on Tuesday.
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.
He had visited several states with early presidential contests, including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He also had lined up a large network of political advisers. And he had tested an economy-focused campaign speech in Chicago last month. The governor had even lost some weight as advisers had suggested, and they had been plotting an "announcement tour" in which he would declare himself a candidate.
But several allies said Barbour, known as one of the smartest political operatives in the GOP, ultimately decided he didn't have what it takes to win.
He could have been a formidable contender had he entered the race. He has a knack for raising money, a resume dating to Ronald Reagan's White House and brand of folksy Southern charisma. His hurdles would have been high, too. He's a former lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman who would have tried to woo a primary electorate underwhelmed by Washington insiders. Among his other vulnerabilities: what critics have called tone deafness about Mississippi's divisive racial history.
Barbour delivered the news Monday in a phone call with some 50 people who were advising him, and then his office sent out a statement.
"A candidate for president today is embracing a 10-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else," Barbour said in the statement. "His (or her) supporters expect and deserve no less than absolute fire in the belly from their candidate. I cannot offer that with certainty, and total certainty is required."
Former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Richard Schwarm, who was with Barbour and Gross last month, said that Barbour mentioned during dinner that he had encouraged Daniels to run.
It's unclear whether Daniels will heed that advice.
A onetime senior executive at Eli Lilly & Co. and a former budget director under George W. Bush, Daniels has said he would wait until his state Legislature adjourns at the end of the week before considering his next plans. He says he's done little to prepare for a campaign beyond think about it and discuss it with his family, including his wife who was cool to a White House run but has agreed to headline a major fundraiser for the state GOP next month.
At the same time, another likely candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, is to return to the United States early next week. His work for the Obama administration as the U.S. ambassador to China ends Sunday, and he will make his first appearance in an early primary state on May 7 in South Carolina, where he will deliver a commencement address.
He's been barred from engaging in politics as an ambassador, but advisers have spent the past few months building a shadow campaign operation so that he will be ready to run if he chooses.
Two others weighing bids and drawing considerable attention, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and New York real estate mogul Donald Trump, have said they would decide whether to run before the summer.
It may be some time before two of the biggest question marks of the 2012 GOP nomination fight are answered: Will Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee get in the race?
Both are leaving the door wide open to candidacies, but neither seems in a rush to make any plans public. In recent months, they haven't done much beyond give a handful of speeches and appear on Fox News, where they both have contracts.
Both will headline high-profile events over the next two weeks: Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee and former Alaska governor, is addressing a "Heroes Among Us" fundraiser in Bethesda, Md., on Saturday and is headlining a tribute to the troops at Colorado Christian University in Denver early next week. Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses and a former Arkansas governor, will speak to the National Rifle Association in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Either one would further shake up an already unpredictable race.
Liz Sidoti reported from Washington; Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, Philip Elliott in Indianapolis and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)