Four years ago last week, Barack Obama announced his intention to run for president by forming an exploratory committee, but he was hardly the first to throw his hat in the ring, notes David Weigel in Slate. By this point in 2007, the list of committed Republican candidates included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul, plus a handful of more obscure candidates. This year, "not even dark horse candidates like Herman Cain or John Bolton have announced anything yet." Why is no one officially prepared to challenge President Obama? (Watch a local report about some of the rumored candidates)

Uncertainty is breeding caution: "The Republican race is starting slowly," says Dan Balz in The Washington Post, because, although there are a "handful of almost-certain candidates" — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty — [there's] no clear front-runner or "candidate to beat." At least for now, "everyone can be a dreamer," and nobody has to commit.
"Still room for everyone in GOP presidential nomination contest"

But there is an early leader: Even though no one has officially entered the race, there's still a "bonafide front-runner," at least in all-important New Hampshire, says Cheryl Sullivan in The Christian Science Monitor. Mitt Romney handily won the first-ever Republican state committee straw poll there on Saturday. "Being tagged the front-runner this early in the game is a precarious position," so Romney is likely to "play down" the results. But they sure make him look like "the man to beat."
"Mitt Romney tops New Hampshire GOP straw poll. Does it mean anything?"

The 2012 formula is divide and conquer: Romney may be the front-runner in the GOP's "center-right" faction, says James Sunshine in The Emory Wheel. But there's also the "more militantly conservative Tea Party" block, where Mike Huckabee is currently leading. The 2012 nominee will be the person who can unite his own wing while "keeping the other faction as crowded as possible." We'll know the candidates soon, but with "a crowded field on both sides of the factional divide," the winner is anyone's guess.
"The decision 2012: Let the race begin"