The Canberra Times

By Lesley Russell

Despite the growing number of putative Republican challengers, the first debate of the 2012 presidential primary season is being rescheduled because no one has officially declared their candidacy. Only one Republican, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, has officially dipped his toe in the water - he has gone as far as filing the paperwork for a Presidential Exploratory Committee.

The first GOP debate of the 2012 season will now be on May 5, when Fox News and the Republican Party of South Carolina are set to host candidates and potential candidates at a forum in that important early primary state. It's not clear who will show up to this event.

The filing requirements of the Federal Election Commission started on April 1. After this date candidates in the presidential race must file reports every three months that detail the amount of money they have raised.

This early fund-raising is key, and candidates who do well raising money throughout the summer will appear the front-runners going into the autumn. To date the bevy of potential candidates resembles nothing so much as an array of penguins waiting to see who will be the first to launch themselves off the ice floe into the icy waters. But even as they hesitate to jump, there's a lot of preening, jostling for prime position, and alpha male behaviour on display.

Presidential campaigns have started earlier in previous cycles. George W. Bush declared in June 1999, and John Kerry announced in September 2003. Barack Obama entered the race in February 2007, so this cycle is well behind the pace of four years ago. Still, in retrospect almost all the campaign events of 2007 are now forgotten, along with the short-lived presidential bids of people like Tom Vilsak and Sam Brownback.

That simple fact alone offers some consolation to those who are appalled at what's on offer so far. Donald Trump, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann are the current far-right fringe candidates, all clearly playing to the Tea Party movement. They make Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour look moderate. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee might be more interested in their lucrative media contracts than the rigours of campaigning. Somehow they are allowed to hang on to these, but Newt Gingrich has already been suspended from his Fox deal, and says he'll announce in the next month or so.

However, a key lesson from 2010 is that Republicans are in no mood to play by the usual rules. Last year insurgent candidates regularly knocked off heavily favoured, establishment opponents in GOP primaries across the country. So while the traditional view is that a Palin candidacy is doomed from the start, the fact is that the current environment favours such candidates, who refuse to play by the rules and thumb their noses at the political establishment.

Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, is largely unknown to most Americans, but he is a rock star on the Tea Party circuit. And while Donald Trump is certainly an unconventional candidate, these are unconventional times. His increasingly populist message, universal name recognition, ability to grab the spotlight, and willingness to invest huge personal wealth in a campaign all mean that he cannot be ignored. There are other Republicans mulling a tilt at the presidency, including Mike Bloomberg, Jon Huntsman and Rudy Giuliani.

The polls show President Obama winning against any of the named possible candidates, but losing to an unidentified ''other'' candidate. There is no realistic scenario for the Republicans to win the presidency back in 2012 without winning the swing state of Florida. Considering that, recent Florida poll numbers are good news for President Obama; he leads Palin by 13 points, Gingrich by 8, Huckabee by 7, and the only tight pinch is a 2-point lead on Romney.

Obama and Biden will have the advantage of a clear run through the primary season while the Republicans spend money and duke it out, before they finally have to put the animosity away and unite behind a single candidate. But the best advantage the Democrat team could have would be continued and substantial improvement in the unemployment figures in the face of the ongoing failure of House Republicans to enact a single job-creating Bill.