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Slow Cycle

In discussing the 2012 presidential campaign, I've been a bit disrespectful of the odds for Republican dark horses who may be big time players in Washington or in the eyes of pundits, but do not exactly walk tall in the places that actually determine presidential nominations.

Now comes Dave Weigel with a timely reminder of just how slowly this presidential cycle is getting underway compared to the situation four years ago:

Here's a list of all the candidates who had at least announced exploratory committees by this day, four years ago, in the last cycle. I've put the details for candidates who did something else -- announcing a bid without an exploratory committee, or confirming they'd run -- in parentheses.

April 17, 2006: Mike Gravel (announcing a full-on campaign at the National Press Club)

October 30, 2006: Duncan Hunter (announcing he'd retire from Congress and run for president)

November 9, 2006: Tom Vilsack (announcing a full campaign)

November 13, 2006: Rudy Giuliani

November 15, 2006: John McCain

December 4, 2006: Sam Brownback

December 7, 2006: Bill Richardson (telling Fox News "I am running")

December 15, 2006: Tommy Thompson

December 19, 2006: Jim Gilmore

December 26, 2006: John Edwards

January 3, 2007: Mitt Romney

January 7, 2007: Joe Biden (announcing his intention to create a committee, on Meet the Press)

January 11, 2007: Chris Dodd (announcing a full-on run on Don Imus's show), Ron Paul

You can soon add another name to that list: Barack Obama announced his exploratory committee four years ago this Sunday.

When Weigel published his post earlier this week, the number of 2012 Republican candidates who had set up exploratory committees was a nice round zero. Yesterday Georgia-based conservative talk show host Herman Cain became the first to set one up.

Now it's true the number of candidates in the 2008 cycle was inflated by the open presidency, but still, there were 6 Democrats and 8 Republicans in the field by this time in 2007. (For those who think 2008 was atypical, consider 2004; at this point eight years ago, Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman were already announced candidates, while John Kerry, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards had set up exploratory committees).

It's not as though the nominating process has become more langorous since then. Yes, we had unusually early contests in 2008 thanks to threats to Iowa and New Hampshire's duopoly, but those weren't apparent yet when all those candidates started running, and nothing fundamental about the process has been changed since then. The 2008 Democratic nominee won Iowa and the Republican nominee won New Hampshire. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we had the latest in a long list of failures of prominent candidacies that adopted the strategy of ignoring the early states and mopping up on Super Tuesday (Rudy Giuliani).

In other words, time's a-wastin' for 2012, and the only candidates who can afford to lie in the weeds are well-known retreads or national celebrities, such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin (you could probably add Ron Paul to the list if he runs once again). Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum are already heavily involved in quasi-candidate activity in Iowa, but that's about it.

At some point soon, then, it will be time for the chattering classes to stop fantasizing about dark horses like John Thune, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence or Chris Christie, unless they get a move on and start making themselves much better known in the early states. That may be impossible for some of them. Some of my progressive buddies are convinced Christie's going to be a formidable candidate, but I can't quite see how a first-term governor will find the time to spend a year living in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina without his constituents getting a mite upset.

Moreover, each tick of the clock makes the task of all the dark horses that much harder.

Truth is, a lot of Republicans are less than excited about their potential 2012 field, and are talking up dark horses to make themselves feel better.

But soon enough, all the talk must end, and what you see is what you'll get.