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Rupert Cornwell: The long race to challenge Obama begins

Out of America: Two years to go, but this Thanksgiving weekend is when politicians start thinking of the White House

Ah, these days of Thanksgiving, that most agreeable and intimate of American holidays. It is an occasion for family, friends, and simple pleasures. But for a handful of ambitious Republican politicians, it is the moment to start making up their minds about a run for the 2012 presidency, which suddenly seems wide open.

By the standards of most other countries, such manoeuvrings are indecently hasty. Not here, however, in the land of the two-year election cycle, where the ink had barely dried on the returns of this month's Congressional mid-terms when the jockeying for 2012 began – and certainly not when President Barack Obama, so thrillingly triumphant only two short years ago, increasingly looks a man adrift, his job there for the taking.

Nor is the trend new. It was this same November week in 2006 that the then governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, became the first Democrat to throw his hat into the ring for 2008. Inside two months, Hillary Clinton followed, quickly joined by Obama himself. By then, half a dozen Republicans had declared they wanted to succeed George Bush.

True, the calendar is marginally less compressed now than last time around. Then, the Iowa caucuses which kick off the nominating season took place on 3 January 2008, after state upon state had brought its primary forward – all in order to brag they were the ones that made a president. For 2012, the caucuses have been pushed back to 6 February. Although nobody has yet officially declared, several have made clear, by words or deeds, that they are thinking very seriously about a run. So this is how the potential Republican field is shaping up, 14 short months before the official off in Iowa.

Unlike Democrats, who chose Obama over a host of more prominent rivals when he had served barely half a single Senate term, Republicans usually prefer a known quantity who has paid party dues, often a past or present governor or former governor, and who has run for the White House before.

So any list must start with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, former governors both, who were John McCain's closest challengers for the party's nomination in 2008. Each says he has not made up his mind – though their growing organisations in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada suggest otherwise.

But both have drawbacks. Christian conservatives may well be as suspicious of Romney's Mormon faith, as they were in 2008. He is a polished, if over-smooth, performer, of proven competence as an administrator and businessman. And, last week, he received what sounded very much like an endorsement from the first President Bush. But the health reform Romney pushed through while governor of Massachusetts – so like the "Obamacare" that Republicans vow to repeal – will surely hurt him.

Huckabee does not suffer from this problem, and he also has the precious perch of his own show on Fox News, the in-house channel for party activists. Right now, moreover, Huckabee is the Republican who does best in polling match-ups against Obama.

But Fox might also represent his biggest potential problem, in the person of Sarah Palin, another regular contributor to the network. Quite possibly, she will decide she is best off where she is, on the sidelines, enjoying power without responsibility. But if she does seek the nomination, she will be fishing in the same pool of socially conservative voters as Huckabee. She will also have the benefit of higher name recognition and fundraising power.

Right now, Romney, Huckabee and Palin (should she run) form an unofficial top tier of GOP (Grand Old Party) candidates. But given the sour and unpredictable mood of voters, that could change in an instant – which is also why half-a-dozen prominent Republicans are mulling things over.

They include Tim Pawlenty, the outgoing governor of Minnesota. Pawlenty is solid, with a reputation as a likeable, no-frills Midwesterner. He has a decent organisation, and is well-known in next-door Iowa where the winnowing process starts. Maybe, though, he's just too ordinary for voters demanding the extraordinary.

If so, then why not Newt Gingrich, the former speaker who has never run for the White House but has never sounded more like a future candidate? Gingrich is everything Romney and Pawlenty are not: fast-talking and bubbling with ideas, some brilliant, some dotty; persuasive one instant, depositing his foot in it the next. And he, too, has a Fox slot from which to address the faithful.

Few would be surprised if one or more successful incumbent governors joined in – Mitch Daniels, once George W Bush's budget director, who has a 70 per cent approval rating in Indiana; or Haley Barbour, the canny, ultra-connected governor of Mississippi; or Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican who won in 2009 in an increasingly Democratic state.

And, even in this anti-Washington year, a Republican senator or two must feel he has a shot. Jim DeMint, the forceful conservative from South Carolina, is a champion of the Tea Party. Then there's John Thune of South Dakota – handsome, articulate, conservative and young (just 49). And if Thune, then why not the newly elected Senator Marc Rubio from Florida, a son of Cuban exiles who is all of the above and, at 39 even younger still?

The field, in short, is broad, and might get even broader. The only name missing is one who in other circumstances might have been the strongest Republican challenger of all. But the Bush brand is tarnished these days and Jeb, the last president's brother, insists he won't run. His father's warm words for Romney would seem to bear that out. But let's check back on that come Thanksgiving 2011.