A scattered field of potential Republican presidential candidates with no clear front-runner for 2012 has raised the question: Is there anybody else out there?
Republicans often broadly agree on their best candidate quite early in the race: John McCain in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
This year, the closest to an establishment front-runner is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who lost to McCain in 2008 and who will again face questions about whether he is conservative enough for Republican primary voters.
The uncertain nature of the Republican field -- none of them are winning hypothetical matchups against President Barack Obama in polls -- is leading to speculation that maybe someone else will emerge as a dark-horse candidate.
"There's a lot of room on the public opinion side for someone to emerge who hasn't been talked about that much," said Cliff Young of the Ipsos polling firm.
If a dark horse were to emerge, many experts believe it could be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has said repeatedly he is not running.
Christie excites conservatives with his cut-the-budget style, brisk demeanor and his ability to win where Republicans usually do not -- typically Democratic New Jersey.
Besides Christie, there is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has said he is sitting this one out. Many Republicans are doubtful that voters are ready for another politician named Bush, but they like how Jeb Bush ran Florida and his stance on education.
Then there is Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has only been in office for a few months but who generates a lot of enthusiasm among conservatives, particularly the Tea Party crowd.
And some Republicans even raise the name of former Congressman Joe Scarborough, a Florida Republican who espouses his views on a popular MSNBC program, "Morning Joe."
"There's a fairly small list of people who could change the race," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
Two New Yorkers, former Governor George Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are also believed to be potentially waiting in the wings.
The New York Post said Pataki had lunch with supporters on Tuesday. It quoted a Pataki representative as saying the former governor is "going to look at the field and look at what he's got going on, and make a decision based on those facts."
Republican strategist Tucker Eskew said he is not predicting a dark-horse candidate will emerge but added: "I would say the odds favor it more than they have in the past."
Some of the appeal of a dark-horse candidate could fade once a long list of hopefuls begins campaigning in earnest.
So far only former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has launched a presidential exploratory committee, a step Romeny is expected to take soon.
Others thinking of a run are former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann, and even real estate tycoon Donald Trump, among others.
Talk of a dark horse may die down once the field takes shape.
"I think the candidates we have are going to start looking better and are going to be putting out bold proposals and building organizations and I think excitement is going to increase for the people who are running now," said Mackowiak.
But if the field is found to be uninspiring, conservatives may appeal for a fresh face. With the first contest scheduled for next February in Iowa, he or she would not be able to wait until the end of the year to get an organization moving.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
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