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364 Days Til the Iowa Caucuses

So it's officially no longer too early to speculate about the 2012 presidential election cycle, or wonder about the late-to-develop Republican field. Why? Because the Iowa Caucuses are currently scheduled to take place on February 6, 2012, less than a year from now. It's always possible, of course, that the date could be moved up, as occurred in 2008, if some states again defy national party rules and try to threaten the privileged status of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the four states authorized to hold nominating contests prior to March 1.

You may have noticed that the red-hot blogospheric talk of just a couple of months ago about a left-bent primary challenge to Barack Obama has almost entirely subsided, as some of us suggested it would.

But why have no Republican candidates formally announced candidacies, or even (with the exception of obscure talk show host Herman Cain) set up exploratory committees?

One of the best of the Beltway Insider pundits, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, offers an explanation today, based on conversations with alleged GOP movers-and-shakers. I have to say, two factors he cites aren't really factors at all: the need to raise lots of money (which has little to do with when a candidate begins building an organization in places like Iowa where money is far from the most important issue) and the poor historical track record of early announcers (a double-loaded statistic if ever there was one: strong front-runners, who often tend to win, have no reason to declare candidacies early, but there's not a strong front-runner this time around).

Cillizza's other two explanations are more interesting. One is the theory that internet-based fundraising and organizational tools have condensed the amount of time necessary to mount an effective presidential campaign. That may be true, but the fact remains that the pioneer in using these tools, Barack Obama, announced his exploratory committee, and was assumed to be a full-fledged candidate, in January of 2007. Is Haley Barbour (the Great White Hope of GOP insiders at the moment) really going to be a social media sensation later this year? Doesn't seem likely.

The final factor cited by Cillizza is the overriding shadow of Sarah Palin:

The former Alaska governor is a prime mover in the contest; she acts and everyone else reacts. If she is in the race, it fundamentally alters the winning calculus for everyone from a front-running Romney to a lesser-known candidate such as former senator Rick Santorum. If Palin is out of the race, the contest is even more wide open - a no-go decision could expand the field as more ambitious pols see more of a path to the nomination.

Interesting, isn't it? The political figure whose national approval ratings have been sinking like a stone, who has been losing to Barack Obama in general election trial heat polls in states like South Carolina, remains the decisive force in shaping the 2012 field. This could not be good sign for the GOP, regardless of what St. Joan of the Tundra decides to do.