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The presidential race without any candidates

Newt Gingrich dodged the question -- and there are plenty of potential frontrunners who seem intent

The Republican race for the White House has (unofficially) begun. Or has it? Back in November, everyone went around saying exactly the same thing after the GOP swept the boards in the mid-terms. Tonight, it's all been sparked by the first serious candidate to declare his hand. Except Newt Gingrich hasn't actually declared anything. Reporters tore themselves away from the beltway and headed for Atlanta on Thursday, in the expectation that he'd announce an exploratory committee -- the first formal step on the road to 2012. But in the event, the former House Speaker kind of dodged the question.

Turns out he's got the small matter of his myriad business and financial interests -- often known as "Newt Inc." -- to sort out first. There's his think tank, American Solutions; the Gingrich Group consulting firm; his suddenly-suspended contract with Fox News, and plenty more, all of which would have to be kept strictly separate if a campaign was officially declared.

Then there's his even more complex personal history: two divorces, three marriages, and various other scandals. One close friend admits that "controversy could be his middle name". Just the other day, Gingrich admitted he'd "had a life which, on occasion, has had problems", to put it mildly -- but, he added, God was very forgiving. He'll be hoping the more conservative Republicans are the same -- and he's not leaving anything to chance.

In fact, the LA Times points out he's been deliberately courting the evangelical vote for years -- meeting religious leaders in all the key states, and promising them that his personal issues are well behind him. As a Congressman, he wasn't known for talking much about religious issues, although you could argue he's had a wealth of experience, with not one, but three variants of the Christian faith under his belt. He was raised a Lutheran, but became a Southern Baptist when he represented Georgia in the House. Then, two years ago, he converted to Catholicism, after marrying his third wife Callista -- and he's recently added to his portfolio of non profit organisations with ReAL, or Renewing American Leadership, designed to defend and promote "the three pillars of American civilization: freedom, faith, and free markets". Evangelicals are a key Republican constituency, not least in Iowa, where they make up some 60 per cent of caucus voters. There are some potentially huge donors among them.

Of course, Gingrich hasn't actually run for office for more than a decade. Nowadays, he's known more as a pundit and TV commentator than a working politician. And let's not forget that just 11 months before the first primaries, this is still the race without any candidates.

By this stage in 2008, John McCain had a fully functioning network of campaign offices and fundraisers, while on the Democrat side, Obama and Clinton had been fully active for weeks. This time there's an incumbent President to beat, and no obvious frontrunner in a GOP field which is generally considered to be weak.

Fox News, which suspended Gingrich from the airwaves yesterday, did the same to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who's busy considering a presidential bid -- and who just happens to be dropping in on New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina this week. Fox didn't say why Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, two other potential contenders, were still on the air, although it has to be admitted that Huckabee has been more than coy about his intentions -- unwilling, perhaps to give up what's become a highly lucrative speaking and broadcasting career. "I need to make sure I'm ready to give up my job to declare my candidacy. The day I say 'I'm running,' that's the day I don't have an income," he said last week.

And Sarah Palin -- who hasn't even set up the bare bones of a national campaign team -- is being increasingly dismissed as someone who simply can't win.

There are plenty of potential frontrunners who seem intent on sitting this one out -- like Jeb Bush, for example, or Indiana's governor Mitch Daniels, who says he's too busy with the day job, sorting out his state's budgetary crisis. The powerful GOP favourite, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, is staying firmly on the fence. New Jersey's Chris Christie has more or less ruled himself out too -- "I already know I could win. That's not the issue," he said, insisting that he simply didn't feel ready to be President... just yet.

That leaves the less than thrilling prospect of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty staying way out ahead as they continue touring key states, speaking at big party events, and wooing potential donors. But after Newt Gingrich's non-announcement, talk of winners and frontrunners does all seem slightly unreal, in a race which still has no formal candidates -- and a nomination that no-one appears to want.

Still, if the economy continues to slide, and Obama's ratings start dropping back again, the road to 2012 could all start looking very different indeed.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.