GOP off to slow start

Sarah Palin, accompanied by daughter Piper, met with supporters Tuesday at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin draws crowds with her hide-and-seek bus tour. Michele Bachmann says Palin’s plans won’t dissuade her from her likely presidential bid. Iowa GOP activists travel to New Jersey to implore Gov. Chris Christie to run, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry weighs a campaign.

The Republican presidential field is far less settled than it seemed just a week ago, and it shows few signs of jelling soon.

With campaigning off to a slow start in early-voting states, half a dozen potential candidates are mulling whether to jump in. So keen is the interest, among journalists at least, that two news helicopters tracked Palin’s East Coast bus trip to Philadelphia on Tuesday.

The stepped-up interest follows decisions by three prominent Republicans — Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels — to forgo a campaign, making the field less crowded than might have been expected.

Meanwhile, GOP activists don’t appear ready to start narrowing their choices just yet. They seem unconcerned that an important Iowa straw poll is 74 days away and that President Barack Obama’s re-election team is setting up shop in dozens of states.

Unease about presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney is prompting some Republican activists to continue casting about for new faces, such as Perry or Christie, or even familiar faces, such as Palin or Rudy Giuliani.

Other party insiders say the talk is unfair to Romney and other candidates. Several of them could prove to be formidable challengers to Obama, these Republicans say.

One thing is non-debatable: The race is off to a much slower start than was the 2008 version.

In Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucus, campaign traffic had reached deeply into the 99 counties at this stage four years ago. Now it has barely scratched the surface.

The biggest excitement in recent days has surrounded Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee. Her bus tour, which stopped Tuesday at the Gettysburg battlefield, Liberty Bell and New York City, is equal parts carnival, photo op and breezy history lesson.

Palin refuses to give reporters her schedule, and then gently upbraids them for their pell-mell efforts to locate, photograph and interview her.

It’s not clear that she will run for president, and some experts suspect that her “One Nation” tour is designed mainly to support her book sales and TV appearances. If Palin does run, many Republican strategists feel she will do poorly, as her combative nature has driven down her approval ratings among GOP voters and others.

Yet by some counts, more than 200 journalists trooped alongside Palin in Philadelphia, an entourage that Pawlenty and others can only dream of. “It’s quite chaotic anywhere we get off on the bus,” Palin acknowledged.