Maybe it's Barack Obama's rising approval ratings. Maybe it's the interminable wait-and-see about Sarah Palin. Or maybe Mitt Romney's people are whacking potential competitors, Tonya Harding–style.
Whatever the reason, the field of Republican presidential candidates is failing to form, just a year away now Iowa and New Hampshire voting in the nation's first presidential caucus and primary. (The contests are scheduled for early February, but might yet be moved to January.)
Conventional wisdom says that the slow start should be helping Romney, the presumed front-runner. His doesn't need time to build up name recognition and funding, both of which he has in spades. The shorter the race, the thinking goes, the tougher he'll be to stop.
But many Republican insiders think most of the rumored candidates are simply staying out — giving lesser-known challengers, like Tim Pawlenty and Haley Barbour, to get the attention, and financial backing, that would elude them among a large field.
Below, the Phoenix ranks the chances of the top ten potential GOP nominees.
1) TIM PAWLENTY | FORMER GOVERNOR OF MINNESOTA | Pawlenty lacks a firebrand stump presence — but so did every Republican nominee of the past quarter-century: John McCain, Bob Dole, and both Bushes.
What Pawlenty has is solid conservative credentials, combined with a seriousness that appeals to the Republican establishment. He is a verse-citing religious man, whose personal pastor is president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He boasts of slashing Minnesota's budget without violating his no-taxes pledge.
2) HALEY BARBOUR | GOVERNOR OF MISSISSIPPI | Barbour, who has headed both the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association, is a mammoth fundraiser with allies throughout the country. He might be the only major Southerner in the race. And he is immensely likable in person.
3) MITT ROMNEY | FORMER GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS | Events like those happening in Egypt, or further economic turmoil, always makes insiders think the GOP will turn to Romney, the "serious" candidate — but there's no sign that the Republican base thinks that way. Meanwhile, Romney's camp has started talking about "skipping" Iowa — an attempt to downplay the significance of his inevitable loss there. But someone will win Iowa's religious-conservative-dominated Republican caucuses, and whoever that is will have a huge edge over Romney in the crucial Southern states that come next — where Romney lost badly in 2008.
4) JOHN THUNE | US SENATOR FROM SOUTH DAKOTA | Thune has been relatively quiet, but Republican insiders are bullish on him. Like Pawlenty, he appeals to both the movement conservatives and the moneyed establishment. And like Pawlenty, his home state borders Iowa, which helps.
5) RICK PERRY | GOVERNOR OF TEXAS | He's one of the few who can start a national campaign this late — he can raise the money, has insider allies all over the country, and is much-loved by conservative commentators. Although he has talked down his presidential aspirations, he is scheduled to speak at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference, which might be his coming-out.
6) JON HUNTSMAN | US AMBASSADOR TO CHINA | Word is that the former Utah governor is serious about running. But he is probably too moderate for the current GOP electorate.