"Everybody's looking for Ronald Reagan, and they don't see one."
Still, there are fundamental reasons why the 2012 cycle is off to a slower start than 2008.
Four years ago, no incumbent was seeking re-election, meaning the race was wider open than usual, and that enticed candidates to begin early. That's different from this cycle now that Obama has announced his own re-election plans and has begun raising campaign dollars that eventually could top $1 billion.
The intense focus on spending and budget-cutting in Washington also has diverted attention from the White House campaign, and big donors are said to be sitting back and waiting until someone, anyone, emerges as a credible front-runner.
"I think people are surprised that somebody hasn't popped out into the lead," said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political science professor.
Some may be convinced after watching McCain founder in 2007 that early starts don't provide the advantages that they once did. These days, lots of campaign dollars can be raised quickly via the Internet, meaning that candidates have the luxury of waiting that they didn't have a decade ago.
With their tradition of handing the nomination an heir apparent, Republicans remain unaccustomed to wide-open races. In 2008, McCain was a seasoned presidential candidate. Bob Dole was a classic example of a Republican who gained the nomination in 1996 after toiling in the trenches of party politics for decades and running for the White House himself twice before.
That person doesn't exist this time around.
"It's just extremely fluid right now," said Kansas Rep. Charlotte O'Hara, an Overland Park Republican.
"It's unusual," agreed GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, who's working for Romney this year. "It's unlike Republicans not to have a front-runner."
So fluid, in fact, that different names keep popping to the top of Republican preference polls. One week it's Romney, who also ran in 2008. Another week it's former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Last week, in a minor surprise, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey showed Huckabee tied for the lead with real estate mogul and reality-TV star Donald Trump.
"He's the flavor of the day," Newhouse said of Trump.
Besides, the next election is far off.
"The polls shouldn't be taken seriously this early," said Jay Shadwick, a former Johnson County Republican chairman.
With the first voting just nine months off in Iowa, the lack of a definitive favorite has some wondering whether Republicans can ever unite behind a single contender. The party, they said, is so diverse with its moderates and conservatives, tea party supporters and gun-rights advocates, abortion opponents and consumption tax proponents.
"When you've got 14 different factions within the party, it's hard to come up with somebody that can fit the bill," said Steve Morris, the president of the Kansas Senate.
Morris and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas each have mentioned their preference for a candidate who has not even announced any interest in running -- Gen. David Petraeus, leader of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. "He would be somebody I could really get behind and support," Morris said.
O'Hara, a conservative, is discouraged by the party's lack of leadership and clear message.
"It's a very odd set of circumstances," she said. "The president is under a 50-percent approval rating. We have a very poor economy. Gasoline prices are heading toward $4 a gallon. And yet we don't have a strong contender coming forward in the Republican Party."
Squire said Republicans had cause to be concerned.
"Obama appears to be in trouble until you look at the Republican side," he said. "There doesn't appear to be a candidate in the field right now that when you stack them up against Obama, he or she will be a really strong challenger."
History is on the president's side. Political parties that win back the White House nearly always hold it for eight years. The one exception: Democrat Jimmy Carter who lost his re-election race in 1980.
Democrats are giddy. "I'm thrilled," said Steve Bough, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Committee. "The bench is so thin for the Republicans .... that it makes Obama's re-election all the more likely."
But some Republicans insist that the party's time is coming. Patience, they said, is key.
"I'm not worried," said Missouri Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee's Summit Republican. "There will be a candidate emerging. The president has got some serious chinks in his armor. There's going to be a very viable race."
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