By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The slow-starting race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination promises to heat up in the next few weeks, with new candidates and a face-to-face debate injecting life into what has been a dormant campaign.
Barely nine months before the first nominating contest, Republicans are still trying to launch a 2012 race that has been overshadowed by President Barack Obama's battles with his Republican foes in Congress on spending and debt.
That could begin to change in the coming weeks, when several more potential candidates announce their plans and the first Republican debate is scheduled for South Carolina.
"Time is running out, the field needs to start getting set," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "The prime reason is you have to raise so much money, and you can't do it overnight."
The slow start and low Republican 2012 profile has fueled criticism of the field and given rise to the potential candidacy of New York billionaire Donald Trump, who took credit on Wednesday for forcing Obama's release of his long-form U.S. birth certificate under Trump's persistent questioning of whether Obama was born in the United States.
Several possible candidates, including Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and departing U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, are expected to announce their plans soon.
Representative Ron Paul, a libertarian who made a losing bid in 2008, announced on Tuesday he would form an exploratory presidential committee. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said on Monday he would not run.
Asked why more Republicans have not gotten in the race, Paul told CNN: "They may be thinking they have to be cautious. They maybe believe the president is stronger than some of the polls show."
With conservative voters and Tea Party activists sharply challenging the party's establishment, candidates also may not be in a rush to look like over-eager professional politicians, Republican consultant Todd Harris said.
DELAY IS NOT A PROBLEM
Harris noted Obama's slumping approval ratings and polls showing voters in an increasingly pessimistic mood amid rising gas prices.
"The fact the Republican candidates have waited doesn't seem to be helping the president in any way," he said.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty have jumped into the race along with several less prominent candidates, and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to make a formal announcement soon.
A handful of candidates, including Romney, will appear at a conference of Republican activists in New Hampshire on Friday.
Pawlenty, Gingrich, Paul and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum have expressed interest in the South Carolina debate, said Michael Clemente, vice president of news for Fox News, sponsor of the nationally televised May 5 forum.
But it remains unclear how many candidates will meet the criteria for participation, including filing the necessary paperwork for a campaign with the Federal Election Commission and the South Carolina Republican Party and averaging at least one percent in five national polls.
"We're confident that we'll have enough candidates in South Carolina to have a vigorous and worthwhile debate," Clemente said.
Obama has moved quickly to fill the campaign vacuum, formally launching his re-election bid and holding a flurry of fundraising events for a Democratic campaign that could raise as much as $1 billion.
Among Republicans, Huntsman has promised a decision after he leaves his post in Beijing formally at the end of the month, and Daniels had been waiting for this week's end of the Indiana legislative session.
"It's time to cut bait," Daniels told the Washington Post.
More well-known potential Republican candidates like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin have the name recognition and fundraising potential to wait a bit longer.
The decision by Barbour, a former lobbyist and accomplished fund-raiser who had hired staff for the race and visited early voting states, created more room for another serious governor like Daniels or a fellow Southerner like Huckabee.
It also could reinforce the impression that this is not the year for former Washington insiders -- Barbour was a former head of the Republican National Committee and headed the Republican Governors Association.
"If you have been out running for president for a year or two, voters start to see you as a politician and it's awfully hard to run as an anti-establishment candidate," Harris said.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)