— At the end of the last Democratic presidential administration, Republicans hungry to recapture the White House rallied behind an all-but-anointed candidate to take on Bill Clinton’s heir apparent of that era.
“We settled on George Bush way before the campaign,” said Rob Gleason, the longtime Pennsylvania Republican chairman. With a word more pungent than “slop,” Mr. Gleason recalled, “Everybody was happy: He flew us all down to Austin, and we were like pigs in slop.”
The bulwark provided by such establishment backing enabled Mr. Bush to withstand the insurgent campaign of Senator John McCain, and win the nomination.
That era of Republican coronations appears to be over.
If it was not apparent by the sheer number of prospective Republican candidates — currently enough to field a football team, on both sides of the ball — it was underlined by Mitt Romney’s sudden declaration of interest in another campaign and the subsequent reaction: Get in line.
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As the Republican National Committee gathered in this seaside enclave for its winter meeting, party officials attempted to strike a balance between accommodating their vocal conservative wing, which is in no mood for a coronation, and pragmatic Republicans consumed chiefly with finding the most viable candidate for a general election.
So the leaders happily extolled the Noah’s Ark quality of their presidential options, comparing their sprawling field favorably with the Democrats’ flavor of one, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At the same time, they agreed to limit the number of primary debates to nine sanctioned forums and moved forward with calendar rules aimed at terminating the contest by the end of March — steps designed to ensure a short, orderly process.
“On one hand it’s exciting, and on the other hand it brings great risk,” Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said of the approaching campaign’s uncertain nature. “It means that there’s even a greater responsibility on the national party to contain a process that could get out of control.”
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The meeting featured four potential candidates as well as aides to twice as many prospects visiting with the state committee heads and members. But many of the activists were in no rush to make commitments, and even some of the operatives who, by their nature, want to find a winning pick seemed inclined to stay on the sidelines.
Mr. Romney’s signal that he may run has roiled the race, but the waters were hardly placid before he stepped forward.
Unlike many Republican nominating contests, this campaign is beginning with no dominant front-runner. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida appeals to some establishment-aligned Republicans, particularly donors, but party hard-liners are resistant. Center-right Republicans are skeptical that another Bush can be elected president, and want to see how rank-and-file primary voters receive him. And with Mr. Romney now considering a third bid, some of the movement toward Mr. Bush will taper off, at least momentarily.
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“Romney putting his foot in the door slows down that process,” said Ryan Call, the Colorado Republican chairman. “It creates an opening and opportunity for other candidates to get some oxygen.”
One of those hopefuls is Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who used a speech here to call for Republicans to embrace “a new, fresh approach.” The remarks were explicitly aimed at Mrs. Clinton, but there was little doubt that Mr. Walker also was trying to set himself apart from Mr. Bush and Mr. Romney.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has also begun making the case privately to Republican leaders that nominating Mr. Bush or Mr. Romney would rob the party of a chance to portray Mrs. Clinton as a relic, according to one party official who recently met with Mr. Christie.
In addition to the establishment-oriented Republicans, even more hopefuls are vying for the support of ideologically driven activists. As with the center-right group, there are both familiar and fresher faces. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas all have experience running for president and are lining up again. Then there are such newer prospects as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and the neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
“There is an ongoing discussion about whether we look forward or whether we look back as a party,” Mr. Call said. “Do you look to the past, candidates who have run before that are battle tested, that have a strong infrastructure? Or do we as a party try to find a new standard-bearer that can embody the future?”
Whichever direction the party takes, choosing a nominee may be messier than the Republican National Committee would like.
The committee has encouraged a front-loading of the primary calendar by allowing states beyond the traditional four that kick off the contest — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — to begin holding winner-take-all primaries on March 15. With the early states staggered throughout February, The idea is to “have about a 60-day primary,” as Mr. Priebus put it.
But conversations here raised the possibility that the new calendar could actually prolong the contest. That is because some Southern states, including delegate-rich Texas, are weighing holding their primaries on March 1. If there is no clear establishment leader after the initial four contests in February, then a Super Tuesday at the beginning of March in Southern states could scatter delegates among a number of conservative candidates.
“This may be the first time there really is a chance since ’76 where you don’t know the outcome before you go into the convention,” said Steve Munisteri, the Texas party chairman, referring to the clash between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Priebus dismisses that possibility. For now, he and his fellow Republicans are trying to put the best face on what he called “drama, intrigue and excitement,” but what could look more like chaos.
“We’re not going to shut down people,” said Mr. Gleason, the Pennsylvania chairman, adding, “We might have 20 people at the first debate.”
Envisioning such a prospect, Mr. Gleason recalibrated. “We don’t want 20,” he said. “We’d have to stretch it out to four hours or something.”