As the architect of America's overwhelming victory in the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush spent most of 1991 as a prohibitive favorite for reelection. But after the economy entered a short, sharp recession, Bush looked increasingly vulnerable, not least due to restlessness among Republicans. He caught a big break in December of 1991 when his most formidable potential challenger bowed out of the presidential race. Just weeks before the New Hampshire primary, New York's then-governor Mario Cuomo announced that he would not pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, thus leaving the field to a series of obscure has-beens and also-rans, including an Arkansas governor who would later go on to win the White House.
Given the staggering sums it now takes to run a serious campaign for a major party's presidential nomination, it's hard to imagine any candidate waiting until late December of 2011 to decide whether or not for president in 2012. Barack Obama announced his candidacy 21 months before election day, and he began gearing up his campaign organization months before. Other contenders, like Hillary Clinton, started even earlier.
With the essential caveat that it is still very, very early, and the added wrinkle that fundraising in the Internet era could give late entrants a better shot at running for the presidency, it's worth noting how gun-shy various Republican heavies have been about their plans for 2012. After stinging defeats in 2006 and 2008, Republicans face a serious enthusiasm gap, and the Democratic advantage in party identification is, according to Gallup, the largest it has been since 1983. That number actually underestimates the extent of the Democratic advantage, as there are far fewer Reagan-voting conservative Democrats in the ranks.
The possible GOP field begins with the vice presidential also-rans, the men who John McCain passed over in favor of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Mitt Romney has emerged as a favorite of diehard conservatives, including the young activists at CPAC who late last month made him the winner of their presidential straw poll for the third year in a row. Romney has also invested considerable resources in his Free and Strong America PAC, and he's made it clear that he intends to campaign aggressively for Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. Yet there are indications that Romney intends to sit out the 2012 presidential race. Right now, Romney is working on a wide-ranging book - not a conventional campaign memoir - that traces the rise and fall of various empires throughout history, with the intention of divining lessons for America's future. Romney could be positioning himself as a kind of Churchill figure, a wise elder statesman who will wait for the Obama era to end before he makes another bid for the presidency.
Bobby Jindal, often described as the Republican Obama, faces a rather more prosaic barrier to running for president. Having served less than half of his first term, Jindal is committed to running for reelection as governor of Louisiana in 2011. To win that race and then pivot to campaigning for president in Iowa just weeks later would be unseemly to say the least. Though Jindal hasn't ruled himself out of the 2012 race in Shermanesque fashion, he's come close.
Jindal does, however, have some strengths that could lead Republicans to come to him. Though widely seen as a flop, his recent response to President Obama's economic address to Congress has endeared him to conservative activists, most notably Rush Limbaugh, who condemned Jindal's Republican critics on-air. Moreover, Jindal has shrewder political instincts than you might expect from an aw-shucks Rhodes Scholar, as demonstrated when he asked not to be vetted for a McCain vice presidential slot - a no-win proposition that would have made him look disloyal to his home state. Assuming Jindal has a successful first term, he could run at the last minute as the conservative candidate and as the competence candidate. But this "strategy," if you can call it that, demands that Jindal lay low.