Haley Barbour

Gov. Haley Barbour delivers his eighth and final State of the State address to a joint Legislature in House Chambers at the Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi. (Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press / January 11, 2011)

By one measure, the 2012 presidential campaign is off to a slow start.

No major candidate has officially jumped in, unlike four years ago, when nine White House hopefuls had declared their bids by the end of January 2007. Mindful that the first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire might be pushed back a month, and wary of an anti-incumbent mood among voters that could make life difficult for a front-runner, potential Republican candidates are staying on the sidelines for now.

But by another measure -- money -- the campaign is in high gear.

President Obama's potential challengers are busy cultivating donors, recruiting staff and testing campaign messages -- conducting proxy campaigns that illuminate the approach they would take as White House hopefuls.

Some are building sizeable war chests through so-called leadership political action committees, which can collect as much as $5,000 per contributor for use in political activities not directly related to an official presidential candidacy. Others are using private groups to raise money and promote causes that may figure in their future campaigns.

Because the top likely contenders are not federal officeholders, they can raise money through state PACs, including those that have few or no limits on corporate and individual contributions.

By waiting to register with the Federal Election Commission as presidential candidates, they can raise money in large-dollar amounts and also keep lucrative television gigs that they would have to relinquish as candidates.

"The way the system is set up, it permits people to go around and spend some time effectively testing the waters," said E. Mark Braden, an election law attorney who served as general counsel to the Republican National Committee. "On the whole, so long as prospective candidates avoid saying, 'I'm running,' or some synonym of that, the [Federal Election Commission] has pretty much avoided getting involved in that gray area."

Obama is expected to raise a record $1 billion for his reelection, a figure that has inspired action and creative early approaches on the part of his GOP rivals.

Mitt Romney has put together an establishment, blue-chip operation, locking in top donors and banking more than $9 million through a network of political action committees. Sarah Palin is driving white-hot media attention and fervent grass-roots support through her Facebook posts and Fox News appearances.

Other candidates have found their own routes. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, for instance, is drawing on the Rolodex of Republican contacts he developed as a longtime party fundraiser.

The likely candidates are expected to stick to this strategy for several more months as the election slowly ramps up. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he will decide around March, but others may wait until early summer, which could still give them enough time to raise money and hire staff before the key Iowa straw poll in August.

Also among those mulling bids are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who has $7 million in his Senate campaign committee that he could roll into a presidential bid.

Mitt Romney

But among the prospective candidates, Romney clearly has the current advantage. The former Massachusetts governor and billionaire founder of Bain Capital has made the most energetic use of state PACs, a tactic that has helped him raise more than $9.2 million in the last two years in large- and small-dollar contributions. He's used those funds to woo supporters in key states and pay staff who make up the backbone of his campaign team.

In 2010, Romney distributed $1.1 million to state and local candidates across the country, according to Eric Fehrnstrom, who served as Romney's traveling press secretary during the 2008 campaign and now acts as the spokesman for his Free and Strong America PAC.

In addition to Fehrnstrom, Romney has been paying for the services of pollster Neil Newhouse and former campaign manager Beth Meyers. Star GOP money men Wayne Berman and Lew Eisenberg, who co-chaired John McCain's presidential finance team in 2008, are wooing donors for Romney.

But unlike four years ago, when Romney held a one-day fundraising telethon in January, the former governor is in no rush to start formally campaigning. He is not expected to declare his candidacy until at least late spring.

"Mitt Romney learned a few things from his last campaign, and one of the lessons was that it got started too early," Fehrnstrom said. "He's not in any hurry to make an announcement."