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Five reasons the GOP race is so unsettled

Among the Republican candidates, Mitt Romney has emerged as the early front-runner. Yet the field remains as uncertain as any in modern times – can any of them beat Obama?

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Or maybe she really does plan to run for president, and is whetting her fans' appetite. She has bought a home in Arizona, an easier launch point than Alaska for a national campaign. She says she has the "fire in the belly." And with universal name ID and fundraising skill, she knows she can jump in late. Or maybe, in fact, even she still doesn't know what she's going to do. Maybe the bus tour was a dry run to see how her family would do in campaign mode.

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Republicans are divided on Palin's intentions. The bus tour "doesn't seem like just a publicity stunt," says Cullen of New Hampshire. "She could raise the money quickly enough to hire good operatives, and within 30 days have a good organization in South Carolina, New Hampshire, probably Iowa if she chose." She'd be a top-tier candidate "immediately," he says.

Another GOP activist, speaking not for attribution, says all the speculation is missing an important reality. "Roger Ailes is no fool," he says, referring to Palin's boss, the head of Fox News. In order not to lose her Fox contract, as Gingrich and Mr. Santorum did when it became clear they were running, "she would have had to give him an iron-clad promise not to run. I can't believe she's going to break a promise."

Establishment Republicans mention Palin's decision to resign the Alaska governorship 2-1/2 years into her term as a blight on her record. Voters don't like a quitter, they say. But in chats with people in New Hampshire, that didn't come up. Instead, they worry that the media have already ruined her. Indeed, polls show that a majority of general election voters say they would never vote for her for president.

"I like Sarah Palin, but I don't want her to run," says Nancy Ford, a retiree from Wells, Maine, who came to Dover, N.H., to see Bachmann. "She's been cannibalized by the media, and there's no way back."

Brandon Stauber, a small-business man, also hopes Palin doesn't run. "I like her personally, but she's too much of a lightning rod," he says, speaking at a Cain event.

Karla Gallagher, an X-ray technician from Salem, N.H., says she finds Palin a little too "rah-rah." But if she won the nomination, Ms. Gallagher would support her. "Sarah Palin scares the daylights out of the Democrats," she says, also at the Cain event. "I love that!"

The latest New Hampshire poll shows Palin at only 5 percent among GOP voters. Clearly this isn't her strongest early state. But in the 2008 campaign, she showed she could draw a big crowd here. So there's no telling what would happen if Palin were to run.

In a way, the wide-open 2012 Republican nomination battle looks a lot like some recent Democratic contests. In 1988, the field was ridiculed as "Gary Hart and the seven dwarfs." Out of that process came a former Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, as the nominee – and defeat at the hands of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

In 1991, around this time, President Bush looked unbeatable, and several high-profile Democrats chose not to run. It wasn't until October 1991 that a dark-horse contender opted in. His name: Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

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