The long-heralded race for the Republican presidential nomination is set to begin this week as a multitude of potential candidates for the job of taking on President Barack Obama in 2012 head to the first key battleground state of Iowa.
Five potential runners will appear tomorrow at an event organised by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition in the state capital, Des Moines. They include big names such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, as well as outsiders such as the Tea Party favourite, businessman Herman Cain.
In a sign of how serious the race has now become, Santorum, a darling of the religious right with extremely conservative views on social issues, will spend this week touring all the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in a trip that bears all the signs of a genuine campaign swing.
Santorum's move throws down the gauntlet to other potential candidates, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who must now consider jumping into the fray to stop other candidates soaking up early publicity. The race is set to dominate the political headlines for all of 2011.
In many ways, that could be good for Obama, who will sit back and watch his Republican opponents forced to attack each other. "With a long primary season these candidates are going to go after their rivals. They will do a lot of Barack Obama's work for him," said an expert.