GOP Presidential field: Not much to brag about

Republican Presidential hopeful, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, right, greets Aaron Goodro and his son Ian during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H., Friday, June 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Newt Gingrich’s campaign defections are just the latest tremor in a constantly shifting GOP presidential landscape that craves some steadiness as a big, early New Hampshire debate nears.

Rivals already were trying to poach Gingrich’s donors and top supporters Friday, even as the former House speaker said he would keep campaigning despite the resignations of his top advisers and entire Iowa paid staff. Party insiders eyed the likely entry of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and a possible bid by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Mitt Romney’s decision to skip the Iowa straw poll in August, meanwhile, reinforced his image as a front-runner willing to pick his shots. And potential candidate Sarah Palin again lent a circus atmosphere to the entire GOP family — this time indirectly — when Alaska released thousands of pages of emails from her days as governor.

In short, it was a typical week in the GOP’s free-wheeling nominating process. The field is anything but set, and there’s no clear picture of who will emerge to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.

Gingrich spoke publicly Friday for the first time after the mass resignation of his top aides. Several of them said they were frustrated because he was devoting insufficient time to the nitty-gritty work of meeting and galvanizing supporters in early voting states such as Iowa.

Gingrich told reporters outside his suburban Virginia home that he was committed to campaigning “very intensely” for the White House. He attributed his aides’ departure to disagreements about strategy.

“There is a fundamental strategic difference between the traditional consulting community and the kind of campaign I want to run,” he said. “We’ll find out over the next year who’s right.”

Gingrich received a vote of confidence from at least one high-profile backer: Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, his campaign chairman in his old home state. “When the going gets rough, I don’t cut and run on my friends,” Deal said.

That comment took only a little of the sting from his predecessor’s jump from Gingrich’s campaign to that of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Sonny Perdue had been a national co-chairman for the Gingrich campaign.

Pawlenty also picked up support Friday from Al Hubbard, who directed the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush.

Republicans hoped the campaign focus might shift toward policy and what they consider Obama’s shortcomings on Monday, when seven candidates plan to debate in Manchester, N.H.

Joining Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich and Bachmann will be Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former pizza company executive Herman Cain, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, who unveiled a 60-second radio ad Friday criticizing the federal deficit.

Notably absent will be former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has been campaigning unofficially for several weeks, mostly in New Hampshire. Huntsman recently said he will join debates if he officially enters the race.

Meanwhile, he told reporters in New Hampshire, “we’re here in people’s homes, we’re open to all of you, we’re open to citizens that drop by and talk to us and ask whatever question they want.”

Skipping the debate poses some risk for Huntsman, who recently stepped down as U.S. ambassador to China. He is virtually ignoring Iowa and needs to do well in New Hampshire if he runs, strategists say. But skipping the debate gives Huntsman more time to sharpen his responses to those who criticize his role in Obama’s administration and portions of his record as governor.

In Iowa, party insiders were not surprised by Romney’s decision to skip the well-known Ames straw poll. But it will have ramifications nonetheless.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, spent more than $1 million to win the straw poll four years ago. But he won neither the Iowa caucus nor the presidential nomination, and this time he is placing less emphasis on the Hawkeye state.

The straw poll “is an opportunity for underdogs,” said veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black, and “a trap for front-runners.”

Another party strategist, Virginia-based Mike McKenna, said the modest interest that Romney, Huntsman and Gingrich are showing in Iowa “is testament to the amount of juice that Michele Bachmann has there.” Bachmann, a tea party favorite, appeals strongly to social conservatives who turn out heavily for the GOP caucus.

Long before Romney announced he was skipping the Iowa Republican Party straw poll, Pawlenty was planning a major investment in the event, which is a state GOP fundraiser. Pawlenty has hired Romney’s 2007 straw poll coordinator and is reserving buses to ferry supporters to Iowa State University for the daylong event.

With Romney out of the Ames poll, and Gingrich not expected to participate, Pawlenty would have high expectations to win. But the payoff might be minimal without top-tier candidates to defeat, said Will Rogers, Gingrich’s Iowa political director until he resigned last month.

“It’s all on him to do well, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to beat someone big,” Rogers said.

Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said the presidential field “is still coming together,” and it’s “premature to start weighing expectations” for a summer straw poll.

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Associated Press writers Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Brian Bakst in St. Paul and Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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