Published: Mar 08, 2011 7:26 PM EST
Updated: Mar 08, 2011 4:33 PM EST

WASHINGTON- Newt Gingrich is the Republican taking some of the most public first steps for a presidential bid, but he's hardly the only one in motion.

Far from the media spotlight, White House hopefuls are furiously hiring staff, testing messages for the powerful conservative base of the GOP and mapping out a rough political calendar, all part of a hard-charging effort that precedes the official kickoff.

Gingrich drew the national press to Atlanta last week for his announcement of a website to explore a bid, the most high-profile move so far.

Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour are quietly preparing for possible candidacies with visits to would-be donors, calls to potential supporters and interviews with future hires.

"Things have picked up dramatically in the last couple weeks," said Matthew Strawn, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.

Putting together the early nuts-and-bolts of a campaign is a delicate balance between persuading staff and donors that the candidate is serious while telling the public that a bid is being weighed.

"I haven't made a decision yet as to what we're going to do," Romney often demurs even as his advisers are reviewing resumes.

Campaigns are expensive and the sooner a candidate working with a small group of advisers formally declares, the faster the organization grows and the bills flood in. Being a formally declared candidate also brings an intense level of scrutiny and pressure.

"The day you announce and start a campaign, you create the demand for an infrastructure. Your clock starts, but your burn rate starts on your money immediately," Mike Huckabee, a 2008 candidate and possible 2012 candidate, said in an interview. "However many staffers, and however many trips you take, and the phone lines and the computer lines and the office equipment and everything it takes to gin up a campaign - I'm not speaking from the idealistic, I'm speaking of the harsh realities of what it costs."

Intentions to run came early and often in the 2008 campaign, an open contest to replace two-term President George W. Bush.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona signaled his interest within days of the November 2006 elections - and was almost out of money by the summer of 2007. On the Democratic side, the top-tier candidates - Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards - were going full speed by March 2007.

This election cycle, with Obama poised to seek re-election, potential candidates are holding off on the official announcement while doing the behind-the-scenes work.

A runner-up in 2008, Romney had a jump start on the other possible candidates. He brought in Matt Rhoades, his former communications chief, to run his political action committee and build a team that includes Republican National Committee veteran Rich Beeson as political director and Neil Newhouse as pollster.

Romney announced last week that Andrea Saul, a veteran of McCain's presidential campaign and most recently a spokeswoman for Carly Fiorina's failed Senate bid in California, will serve as a communications adviser. And former spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom will remain in the fold.

Pawlenty is preparing for an announcement tour in the next six weeks. Many of his advisers from his political action committee are expected to be part of his White House bid, including: Phil Musser, a former adviser to Romney and former head of the Republican Governors Association; former Bush campaign officials Terry Nelson and Sara Taylor; and Alex Conant, a former RNC press secretary.

Romney and Pawlenty both are expected to take their own official steps in early spring, likely after April 1.

Santorum has announced initial hires and has publicized who is supporting him in the first nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He lined up strategist Mike Biundo, tapped former Romney backer Clara Monier to coordinate New Hampshire and hired consultant and radio personality Seth Leibsohn to run his policy shop.

And this week, he will visit the three early nominating states with a packed schedule.

Jon Huntsman, Obama's ambassador to China, has a shadow campaign in place courtesy of a very enthusiastic political operative. John Weaver, a veteran of McCain's presidential campaigns, put together Horizon Political Action Committee as a campaign-in-waiting for Huntsman.

The site asks: "What Happened? To America? To politics? To our politicians?" The letter H is the PAC's logo and nowhere does it mention Huntsman. But it's clearly about him and for him.

The former Utah governor's resignation from Beijing takes effect in April and he might launch a campaign from his new Washington-area home in May. If he does, Huntsman has veterans of presidential campaigns ready to help craft his message, including veteran Hollywood-based ad maker Fred Davis.

Barbour has his circle of advisers that he built quietly during his years running the Republican Governors Association. He will be in Iowa twice this month but is not committing to a White House run until the Mississippi legislature ends its session in early April. Advisers say it could be May before he decides. He has lined up pollster Ed Goeas, who worked four years ago for Rudy Giuliani's bid, as well as Jim Dyke, a South Carolina operative who has worked on four presidential campaigns and served as the RNC's top spokesman in 2004.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin recently added a chief of staff to her political committee but her advisers cautioned not to take that as a sign the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee would run for the White House in 2012.

Gingrich, who has made early visits to key nominating states, already has lined up a handful of aides to help him start and his decades in politics have earned him loyal advisers, including spokesman Rick Tyler, adviser Joe Gaylord and attorney Randy Evans. He's also scouting for office space in Georgia, where his campaign will be based.

The level of activity - or lack of - also can indicate just how seriously potential candidates are considering running.

Consider Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He says he hasn't decided what to do, but also notes every time he talks about the speculation that he's made absolutely no moves.

"Right now, I've left the option open. I always stress this: I'm not doing anything about it. All my attention is on the job I've got, which is plenty to keep me busy," he said. Daniels is in the midst of a budget fight with state Democrats and facing the possible fallout from the indictment of the state's Republican elections chief.

Huckabee sounds a lot like Daniels. He insists he may run even though his staff from his 2008 campaign have other jobs and there's no evidence that he's actively plotting a campaign. Rather, he's focused on promoting his latest book on a nationwide tour - while stoking the presidential buzz.

"When 10 other people are already out there with a full-blown announcement, you call me and ask me if I'm too late. Right now, I'm not too late," Huckabee said. "There's no reason to for me to get in, in a hurry."

--- AP National Political Writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.

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