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Republican Senators remain hesitant to publicly wade into the GOP presidential primary, although some Members are less shy than others in revealing whom they intend to support in a candidate field only beginning to take shape.
Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) is enthusiastically backing Sen. John Thune (S.D.); Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) is solidly behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney despite the fact that Ambassador to China and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. might run; and Sen. Dan Coats (Ind.) hopes he will have the opportunity to endorse Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Planning to remain neutral in the primary is freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising star from a key battleground state. In 2008, the Florida Republican endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) will stay out the nominating process because of his position as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman. Sen. Roy Blunt has relationships with many potential candidates and conceded that he has discussed the matter with some, but the Missourian said he is withholding any endorsement for now. Blunt backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.
“I’ve talked to several of the candidates, and most of them I’ve known for a long time and I consider personal friends, and I’m going to keep talking to them,” Blunt said.
Around two dozen Republicans are now mentioned as potential candidates to seek the 2012 nomination to face President Barack Obama, but none of the most serious contenders have announced their candidacies. The spring of this year appears to be the target launch period for many of the candidates.
The list of unannounced candidates includes those who have supporters-in-waiting in the Senate, including Daniels, Romney — who also ran in 2008 — and Thune, who expects to make a decision by month’s end.
But announced or not, likely candidates are already in the process of staffing their Congressional relations teams.
“Everyone is putting someone in to do Congressional relations,” a Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative said. “Romney has his team and is actively recruiting Members.”
Even as Washington has gone out of fashion with American voters — particularly conservative Republicans who participate in primaries — GOP operatives say Members’ support is still coveted for access to contacts, campaign donors and political infrastructure within respective states. Blunt said those factors are what make Member endorsements valuable, as opposed to the image of having the personal, public backing of any particular Congressman or Senator.
However, another Washington-based GOP strategist said it is possible that the support of tea-party-backed freshman Members could be sought out over the next 18 months as Republican presidential candidates seek to trump each others’ conservative bona fides in a primary likely to be decided by such voters. This strategist said that these Members are not viewed as “part of the problem” that has led to unhappiness with Washington.