Published: Jan 17, 2011 10:37 PM EST
Updated: Jan 17, 2011 7:39 PM EST

WASHINGTON (AP) - An independent campaign to draw GOP Rep. Mike Pence into the 2012 presidential race is under way, with a veteran of the Reagan White House launching a petition drive on Monday urging him to enter the primary contests.

Ralph Benko, a deputy counsel to Ronald Reagan, announced the America's President Committee to encourage a Pence-for-president bid. Former Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., is also helping the campaign to collect signatures from conservatives and tea party activists.

 "Mike Pence extraordinarily exemplifies the optimistic, pro-growth, pro-job creation Reagan-Kemp wing of the GOP. Grass-roots conservatives, Republicans, the tea party and populists are looking for a man or woman of principle who can champion and unite the newly energized and engaged citizenry," Benko said. "Mike Pence is the best choice to lead us into a new era of peace and prosperity."

Jack Kemp, who died in 2009, was a Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate. He was perhaps best known as an economic conservative who advocated low taxes and lowering barriers to supplying goods and services.

Pence, of Indiana, stepped down from his post in the House Republican leadership. He has considered a White House run or perhaps a campaign for governor. One of his party's strongest advocates for conservative policies, Pence is among the GOP's most outspoken critics of President Barack Obama.

"We've been trying to listen first to Hoosiers and then to other voices around the country about where they think we might best serve in the years ahead" and "we'll be making a decision before the end of this month," Pence told about 100 people at a conference room in the Henry County, Ind., Hospital.

 Should Pence enter the contest, he would face an uphill climb. Few Americans have heard of him and better known potential Republican candidates - like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, or former Alaska governor Sarah Palin - already have organized fundraising operations.

But with more than a year before the first caucuses in Iowa, advocates for Pence - like other possible candidates - insist there is time for any of a dozen or so would-be candidates to assemble a team. That is one reason many will be speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference next month in Washington.

 Pence has been invited to speak. Others potential 2012 candidates who accepted invitations: Romney, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)