Republicans turn to new hope after Fox chief Roger Ailes' 'attack' on Sarah Palin

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Tim Pawlenty yesterday officially hit the campaign trail for the first time in the contest for the 2012 Republican nomination – a race in which the little-known former governor of Minnesotahas suddenly emerged, almost by default, as one of the leading contenders.

Formally announcing his candidacy yesterday, Mr Pawlenty acknowledged his underdog status. His campaign would be "a good solid Buick" compared with the Mercedes model of his rival Mitt Romney, the frontrunner at this early stage of the contest.

But he proclaimed himself "a serious person with serious solutions" for the country's problems. "I'm going to take a different approach, I'm going to tell you the truth," he told a rally on the steps of the Iowa legislature in Des Moines, the state capital.

Mr Pawlenty's debut in Iowa, whose caucuses next February kick off the primary season, came as the long fluid Republican field started to become clearer. On Sunday, Indiana's Governor Mitch Daniels ended months of uncertainty by declaring that he would not run, just days after a similar decision from Mike Huckabee. They had been under pressure from the party establishment to challenge Barack Obama, but both cited opposition from their families as the reason for staying out of the race.

This leaves the focus on a trio of former governors: Mr Pawlenty, Mr Romney (who led Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007) and Jon Huntsman of Utah, who was Mr Obama's ambassador in China before resigning last month to explore a presidential run.

Mr Huntsman has spent the last five days in New Hampshire, whose key primary is scheduled for the week after the Iowa caucuses. He promises a final decision in the next few weeks but is expected to run.

The other prominent, declared candidate at this stage is Newt Gingrich. But the thrice-married former House Speaker, hyperbolic and intemperate as ever – already in trouble over gaffes and questions about his private life – is given little chance of winning the nomination.

But new candidates may emerge, above all to fill the void left by Mr Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister and champion of social conservatives, who had been a frontrunner in early polls.

His withdrawal makes it more likely that Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, who was born in Iowa and leads the Tea Party faction on Capitol Hill, will join the race. She has also said she will take a decision in weeks and has been spending much time in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The biggest question mark surrounds Sarah Palin. She last week declared on Fox News, where she is a regular commentator and contributor, that she had the "fire in the belly" needed to embark on the marathon ordeal of a presidential bid. Typically, she is embroiled in new controversy – this time involving none other than Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News.

In a long article in the latest issue of New York magazine, devoted to the channel and its king-making role in Republican politics, Mr Ailes is said to believe that "Palin is an idiot". According to a Republican friend of Mr Ailes, "he thinks she's stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven't elevated the conservative movement".

Nor are the tensions new. Mr Ailes was reportedly furious that Ms Palin did not heed his advice to keep quiet in the wake of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January. Instead, the former Alaska governor accused critics of "blood libel".