JUDY WOODRUFF: After a somewhat muted start, the early stage of the contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has kicked into a higher gear, as the field of contenders has begun to take shape.
The big move this week came from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who released a video on Facebook announcing his formation of an exploratory committee.
Here's an excerpt.
TIM PAWLENTY (R), former Minnesota governor: At a young age, I saw up close the face of challenge, the face of hardship and the face of job loss. Over the last year, I have traveled to nearly every state in the country, and I know many Americans are feeling that way today. I know that feeling. I lived it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, unlike most recent election cycles, the GOP field doesn't yet have a clear front-runner for the 2012 nomination.
The list of potential contenders ranges from nationally-recognized names, including Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, to those who are less familiar to voters, such as Pawlenty and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Well, joining me now to sort through the crowd of Republican choices is NewsHour political editor David Chalian.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, who is in this race? Fill us in. What does it look like? Who's in, and who's about to get in?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, as you just said, Tim Pawlenty really jumped in this week, the first major content contender to open up that account with the Federal Election Commission in order to start receiving some money and moving forward, building up staff and organization.
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and former presidential candidate, is all but certain to get in and very likely running -- Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, out in Iowa, in the early states, leaning a little more likely to a run as well.
Who is out is also interesting to look at, as you ask. There were a couple of people that have already completely passed on it, John Thune, senator from South Dakota, Congressman Mike Pence from Indiana. These are folks who looked at it and decided not to take the plunge.
And the big three names that we really don't know which way they are going, but they seem to be holding back right now, Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana hasn't really indicated, though it doesn't look like he is all that ready to jump in.
Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, two of the folks that are leading in the national name recognition polls right now, but right now, they just haven't done all that work that the others are doing in these early stages.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, David, you have divided them up into groups, or tiers. Tell us about that and what your thinking was.
DAVID CHALIAN: Judy, the way I look at this is that you have Romney, who is basically a nominal front-runner right now. He's been there before. He has a national fund-raising network. He has a whole previous campaign staff, many of whom want to come back and work for him. But he hasn't, obviously, sealed the deal by any means. We're just getting starting.
So then there's going to be this other wing that I look at. And that is sort of the establishment alternative to Romney. That's Tim Pawlenty or maybe Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, if he does get in. Folks like that might fill that position.
And then there is this third piece of the pie, which is really the conservative Tea Party wing here. And that's where Sarah Palin would find a home, if she runs, certainly what Michele Bachmann is looking at by deciding to get into the race, the congresswoman from Minnesota. Rick Santorum will look in that area of the party as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And then you have got Donald Trump hanging out there, considering...
JUDY WOODRUFF: ... considering running.
David, what about Mitt Romney? I mean, he is as close as, I guess, to -- as a front-runner as there is, some would say, but he hasn't been able to solidify it. Why not?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, he's a flawed front-runner, which is why that you don't see the entire establishment gathering around him.
First of all, I think that, when you talk to Republican activists and advisers and operatives, they are a little wary of the electorate right now. It's a very volatile electorate we have seen inside the Republican Party in the last two years. And they are not quite sure which way the party is going.
So, I think that is some of the reason you see holdback, but also because he has this health-care issue, where he had an individual mandate in Massachusetts. That's not popular among Republicans. And he still has this authenticity issue that he faced in the 2008 race about, who is the real Mitt Romney? And he's going to face that again. And he has to answer those questions.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you mentioned he's out fund-raising.
What are the candidates doing at this stage?
DAVID CHALIAN: You do -- the money is one big part of it. Mitt Romney has been on this 15-city tour right now, pitching his candidacy, his path to the nomination, to big bundlers. These are the folks that can collect groups of those $2,500 checks.
So, you have a lot of candidates making the pitch to these big-dollar donors right now, hoping to line up an entire fund-raising network. In addition to that, you have this travel and activity to the early states, New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, talking to key constituencies.
We see Steve King, the congressman, conservative congressman, from Iowa, hosting several candidates in Iowa this weekend, talking to activists there. And, of course, they're reaching out to staff and operatives. And they're starting to beef up their senior adviser teams.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And as, just quickly, you were telling me earlier, this is a process that could stretch out longer than the GOP selection process normally...
DAVID CHALIAN: It may look a little bit like the last Democratic one instead, because a lot of contests now are awarding delegates on the Republican side in a proportional basis, not winner-take-all. That could elongate the nomination calendar.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Political editor David Chalian, thank you.
DAVID CHALIAN: My pleasure.