How else to interpret this:
Since 1952, the Republicans have had 10 competitive races for the presidential nomination. Across these 10 elections, 2008 is the only year in which the eventual nominee, John McCain, achieved front-runner status relatively late in the campaign cycle. In the other nine, the nominee rose to the top of the pack in the year prior to the election, and in eight of those elections, the nominee was the front-runner by March.
My two cents: there is no Republican party left as such.
There is the RNC; but also other independent groups financing campaigns with as much influence. There is the Tea Party, whose clout in the near and medium term is unpredictable but real. There is talk radio, which has done its best to delegitimize obvious establishment choices (such as Daniels). There is Fox, whose pay-for-propaganda-platforms have raised the incentives not to run for office, by paying those who don't, until they do. There is the lucrative conservative-industrial complex, where book sales and speaking fees make you a fortune without having to grapple with the difficult choices required from actually governing. And then there's the obvious front-runner for the base - Sarah Palin - who is also the de facto incumbent (as the last election's veep nominee), but who understandably induces panic and fear in equal measure by the GOP's sane leadership - who see how she fares against Obama and gulps.
Then there's the first time any GOP candidate has to run actively against Palin. It's one sure-fire way to alienate the FNC-Talk-Radio base - the last thing you want to do when running for a primary electorate. So we have a game of chicken between a former half-term governor .... and the rest.