WASHINGTON -- To run or not to run. That's the issue facing Republicans weighing whether to seek their party's 2012 presidential nomination and the chance to take on President Barack Obama in the general election.
What appeared to be a slam-dunk opportunity last year -- when Obama's poll numbers stank -- isn't so clear anymore.
Obama is rising, albeit slightly. The economy is recovering, though slow and fragile.
Some Republicans are plainly angling to run, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., recently decided not to run, despite his solid standing among conservatives and a draft-Pence movement that signaled an independently financed ad campaign that might help him in the primaries.
Most, though, are biding their time, neither in nor out. That group includes Rep. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota.
The waiting game is a sharp contrast to this stage four years ago, when there was no incumbent president to face and candidates already were lining up.
By this point, for example, Hillary Clinton had already formally declared her candidacy, which she did Jan. 20, 2007. Obama announced his candidacy Feb. 10. Romney followed Feb. 13, and John McCain jumped in March 1.
Why are the hopefuls holding back this time?
"They're starting to look at the cold, hard reality of running against an incumbent president," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa.
"It's nice in the abstract, particularly if you've been surrounded by adoring partisans who say Obama is the Antichrist. But actually doing it becomes a hardheaded, rational calculation."
The first time candidates will face one another is May 2, in a debate at the Reagan library in California.
Before then, they must decide whether they can appeal to the party's conservative base -- several will test that at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington today through Saturday -- and also appeal to independents, who will decide the general election.
They also must decide whether they can raise enough money to compete against one another and then Obama, who could raise a staggering $1 billion or more this cycle.
In 2008, he blew off the spending limits that come with public financing and raised a record $745 million, vastly outspending Republican nominee McCain's $368 million.
"The person who is going to be the nominee will face the Obama fundraising machine," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
"They saw what Obama did to McCain in 2008, and that makes these candidates even more averse to risk. If you're John Thune, and you're 50 or 51, and saying in most cases the incumbent is going to win, why not wait until it's an open field in 2016?"
Indeed, many are young and could easily wait until 2016.
Thune is 50. Huntsman, who just resigned as Obama's ambassador to China, also is 50. Palin turns 47 Friday.
Some have other outlets. Palin is making millions from her contract with Fox News, speaking fees and book sales. What's more, polls suggest she's the weakest of the major candidates in a head-to-head matchup with Obama. Huckabee also has a Fox paycheck. Thune is moving up in the Senate.
Romney, who turns 64 March 12, might find 2012 his best shot. He still has a network of contributors and supporters from his 2008 bid for the nomination.