The Drum (ABC online)

By John Barron

Four years ago, in March 2007, there were more than a dozen serious candidates for the Presidential Election then 19 months distant.

According to national polls at the time, the top contenders to replace George W. Bush in the White House were New York Democrat, Senator Hillary Clinton, and the former Republican Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. Other Candidates having already filed the necessary paperwork with the Federal Electoral Commission and announced their campaigns included Republican Senators John McCain and Sam Brownback, and Governors Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Senators Joe Biden, John Edwards and Barack Obama among others, were in the race for the Democrat nomination.

Now, four years later there is only one confirmed candidate for the White House - President Barack H. Obama.

Polls suggest President Obama can be beaten, even if history suggests he won't be. Obama's approval rating has been generally below 50% since mid-2009. Still, since 1896, only one President elected to the White House from the party out of power has failed to win a second term - Jimmy Carter in 1980 (JFK never got the chance).

There are plenty of Republicans convinced Obama can be beaten, yet so far none of them have put their hand up to be the one to do it.

Last week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was almost solely responsible for the stunning GOP comeback in the 1994 midterms, was expected to formally announce his candidacy.

Gingrich has maintained a high media profile in more than a decade out of elected politics - he is widely regarded as a leading conservative "ideas man".

A Gingrich staffer told the influential Des Moines Register newspaper in first-to-vote Iowa last week, that Newt would declare on Thursday at a press event in Atlanta.

But within hours, another Gingrich staffer said Newt would not be formally announcing a White House bid. And as the cameras rolled in Atlanta, Newt announced nothing more than a website and an intention to "explore" the "possibility" after gauging "potential support". Nothing official, nothing he can't step back from.

That misstep reminded some that this was, after all, the same Newt Gingrich who led a disastrous federal government shutdown in 1995 that started Bill Clinton's revival, and the same Newt Gingrich who tried to impeach Clinton over the Lewinsky affair at the same time he was conducting an extra-marital liaison of his own.

Oh, THAT Newt Gingrich.

Meanwhile, cashed-up former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is being more coy than a debutante on one of the ABC's Sunday night period dramas.

Other would-be Republican candidates Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas (and Fox News) are both conducting "Trojan Horse" book tour campaigns. Books by Presidential candidates are nothing new - most write them (Obama wrote two) and they not only raise the would-be Commander-in-Chief's profile, they can also raise a pile of cash that largely avoids campaign finance laws.

It's no co-incidence that Pawlenty and Huckabee are doing a disproportionate number of book signings in Iowa and other early primary states like New Hampshire and South Carolina.

And as for Sarah Palin - she got her book out last year and has her own reality TV show to go with her Fox News contract.

But whether it's Gingrich and his three marriages, Romney and his liberal record on healthcare (not to mention his Mormonism) and Palin's ... pretty much everything - they all have reason to fear a bruising contest for the Republican nomination.

Right now it's all rather reminiscent of the "Phoney War" during late-1939 after the German invasion of Poland and the Allied declaration of war; for weeks and weeks nothing happened. Until it did.

And whichever Republicans finally take the plunge and seek the most powerful political office on earth, an intense battle with no quarter given and no prisoners taken awaits them - and that's just from their own side.

They also know there is little to be gained from being the frontrunner nineteen months from a Presidential election - just ask Hillary and Rudy.

And whatever shortcomings there may have been in Obama's Presidency so far, his campaign team has one critical advantage over all the other - they know how to win the White House.

John Barron is a journalist and broadcaster with ABC NewsRadio. He is also a Research Associate at the United States Studies centre at the University of Sydney, and author of the book Vote for Me! about the 2008 US presidential campaign.