Political junkies are complaining that the Republican presidential contest is off to a slow, even debilitating, start. No GOP candidate has even declared or filed an exploratory committee. Meanwhile, Democrats crow that the slow-forming Republican race is a boon for President Barack Obama.
The pundits are deluding themselves. With a little over 10 months before the caucuses and primaries, the Republican presidential contest has begun. Many candidates are running. They just haven't made it official. One reason: It's flattering for a prospective candidate to ask grass-roots leaders and fund-raisers to get on board even before there is a ground floor.
This is especially true in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Movers and shakers in these early contests in February and March are keenly aware of their special role. They want to be courted before a candidate formally jumps into the race.
Undeclared candidates can test and polish their messages without being subjected to the close scrutiny reserved for declared candidates. They can also test their campaign team's mettle in the opening skirmishes.
Then there's fund-raising. Virtually every candidate has a political action committee, and the success of these PACs gives candidates a sense of whether they can raise the money, collect the lists, and recruit the fundraisers a presidential bid needs.
Consider that Texas Gov. George W. Bush didn't formally enter the 2000 race until June 12, 1999. It was anomalous when Democratic candidates officially began their 2008 contest shortly after the 2006 election.
The pace of this year's GOP race will intensify with the first debate at the Reagan Library in California on May 2 and the second three days later, hosted by Fox News in South Carolina.
Every Republican candidate running faces four challenges in the coming contest. First, each one has strengths and at least one seemingly big weakness. They will need to fortify their strengths and find a way to overcome, explain or ameliorate their vulnerabilities.
Second, each candidate needs to develop a compelling narrative. The easy part is why Mr. Obama should be replaced. The harder part is to explain in a powerful way why he should be the replacement. What would he do? What is his vision? What has he accomplished? How can he give voters confidence he will do what he says?
Third, candidates need to demonstrate they can unify Republicans and broaden the GOP's appeal, pledging as Ronald Reagan said, to "carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values."
Finally, each candidate will face unexpected tests at an unanticipated time. How a candidate handles those moments will cause many voters to decide whether they can see him as a president.
Each of the early contests has its own tempo and flavor. In Iowa, for example, voters want to see the candidates a lot before they make up their minds. Candidates better not run a slew of television ads until voters have a chance to meet them. Generally, once Iowa activists commit, they stay committed.
New Hampshire is different. Granite Staters also want to eyeball the candidates personally—but once they've committed, they'll fall out of love, then back in love, then out of love, then back in love. If a candidate is lucky, his supporters are falling back in love on the eve of the primary.
South Carolina is more tribal, with each party poobah leading a group of tribesmen. Cultivate the leaders and a candidate will tend to get their followers.
Even then, most voters in each of these states stay uncommitted or weakly linked to their choice right up to the end. Polls can swing widely and the contests come together late.
No candidate in the GOP field is likely to wrap up the nomination early. The 2012 Republican presidential primary may run until June, when Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota will most likely vote. This is what happened with the Democrats last time. Done right, an extended contest could make the Republican nominee a better candidate while raising GOP enthusiasm, energy and voter registration.
Democrats are wrong to say Mr. Obama is being helped by a late-starting GOP presidential fight. That race is underway. The general election title match between Mr. Obama and the Republican candidate will go the full 12 rounds. By the time the GOP settles on its candidate, the White House may regret being so eager for the contest.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.