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Flip flop and fox, when will they fly?

Mark Mardell | 18:14 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Newt_Gingrich_Finger.jpgPut your right leg in, put your right leg out. Some of the Republican Party's finest are dancing around the country doing the presidential Hokey Cokey. They won't say they will, they won't say they won't.

But have we just had a big fat hint from the Fox News network?

The conservative cable news network employs several high profile Republicans, and it has just suspended two potential candidates
it has contributor arrangements with, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, both of whom have signalled possible runs for the presidency. This was the on-air announcement:

"The suspension is effective for 60 days. Then, on 1 May, their contracts will be terminated unless they notify Fox that they are not running for president. Now, this has been contemplated from the start, from the very beginning, but it is effective today.


"This is Fox policy. This is the announcement being made today, and it does not preclude other announcements that may be made in the future."

Three others, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and John Bolton, stay on the books. Does that mean they have given their bosses at Fox a clue about their intentions? Maybe not. Maybe their words of wisdom are better box office.

Undeclared potential candidates are political stars. They can earn big fees for speaking.
But nobody is going to pay a candidate for selling themselves. But is there a political, as well as a commercial, advantage to the Republican fan dance?

Newt Gingrich, the buzz went, would be the first serious contender formally to throw his hat in the ring - well, sort of formally. He would set up an exploratory committee. Major news organisations were briefed that this was going to happen on Thursday. Then eight hours later he wasn't.

His team issued a statement: "Gingrich is not travelling to Georgia to announce that he will form 'an exploratory committee'. To be clear, while Speaker Gingrich is in Georgia on Thursday, he will NOT announce the formation of an exploratory committee."

That doesn't mean he never will.

No-one seems keen to make it official. In the last political cycle, things started flying much sooner. John McCain set up a committee straight after the mid-terms in November 2006 and announced he would run in late February 2007. Mitt Romney had declared by early February. Now we are into March, but it's not always like that. Three elections ago, John Kerry left it until September of the year before.

Some say the delay this time is because President Barack Obama is looking hard to beat, a tougher opponent than he was in the glory days straight after the mid-terms. Why not wait until 2016?

But Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University, tells me it's in the Republican Party's interests to play it long.

"Right now it is tricky for the party, with an emboldened ideological group, the Tea Party, a group uninterested in compromise. Whereas, others are looking ahead to an improved economy. Incumbents are always hard to beat - so there's no reason to rush when it is tricky."

Others feel it helps Mr Obama, allowing him more time to be presidential before he has to descend into the partisan fray.

Still, the field is narrowing. Republican Mike Pence from Indiana and South Dakota Senator John Thune have dropped out. Donald Trump has dropped in. Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney look almost certain to run. Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels are still thinking about it. And Mrs Palin? She's off to make a major speech in India later this month.

It would be deeply weird to make a big announcement abroad, but she is the biggest tease of the lot, seemingly on a mission to keep us all guessing.

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