After months of resisting calls to join the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Friday he would consider seeking the Republican presidential nomination, potentially reshaping the GOP field.
At the same time, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is heading to New Hampshire next week, further stirring speculation that he will jump into the still-gelling field of GOP candidates to take on President Barack Obama.
Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, would bring conservative bona fides, a proven fundraising record and a fresh voice to the field. Even as Perry's closest advisers say he has no intention of getting in the race, he has methodically raised his profile, fanning interest.
"I'm going to think about it," Perry said Friday. "I think about a lot of things."
That was enough to set off speculation Perry would jump into a campaign that lacks a clear front-runner.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the closest to a favorite at this point. Like Giuliani, he ran for the nomination in 2008, losing out to Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Romney will formally kick off his campaign in the early primary state of New Hampshire next Thursday, the same day that Giuliani is now scheduled to headline a fundraiser for the state Republican Party and have lunch with several GOP activists.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also has sent a jolt through the contest with the announcement of a campaign-style bus tour along the East Coast, the latest possible contender to stand up since Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced last weekend that he would not run.
As for Perry in Texas, Mark McKinnon, a veteran political consultant who advised President George W. Bush's campaigns, said, "The only real question is: Why wouldn't he run?"
Social conservatives are still shopping for a candidate. Tea party activists want one of their own. Establishment Republicans remain unsettled on a choice.
That has opened the door for Perry, who has never lost an election. Still, he has for months insisted he had no interest in running for the White House.
"I don't want to be the president of the United States," Perry flatly said in November.
With those refusals, he took the reins of the Republican Governors Association for a second term as chairman earlier this year, a signal he was serious about sitting 2012 out; he told fellow Republicans he wouldn't split his time between the RGA and a White House bid.
Since then, Perry's refusal seems to have softened, albeit ever so slightly. Asked Tuesday whether he would rule out a presidential run, Perry expertly left the door open.
"I've got my focus on where it is supposed to be and that is the legislative session," he told reporters. "Like I've said multiple times, I'm not going to get distracted from my work at hand, I'm not going to get distracted by that."
The Texas legislative session ends Monday.
"The candidates that are running are not the candidates that people want," said Ryan Hecker, organizer of the Contract From America and member of the Houston Tea Party Society. "They're looking for someone, almost wistfully."
Evangelicals who dominate the Iowa and South Carolina nominating contests are unlikely to back Romney or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; some call the two men's shared Mormon faith a disqualifier.
Twice-divorced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, too, has problems, although Gingrich is quick to note he has been with his third wife for more than a decade.
Last month, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, fresh off a turn as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he wouldn't make a White House bid; that unlocked many of the donors for Perry.
It also opened the door for a sought-after Southern candidate.
While Gingrich is running his campaign from Georgia, he has lived near Washington for decades and is hardly the regional candidate Perry could be.
Should he decide to run, Perry presumably comes to the table without at least one of the top advisers who helped him win re-election last year by 13 points.
His campaign manager from that bid, Rob Johnson, is with Gingrich. Political adviser Dave Carney, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan, also is with Gingrich. Carney still serves as Perry's senior political strategist.
So far, operatives in Perry's circle are not laying the groundwork and he has yet to make the required trips to the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said candidates at this point should be adding staff in the early nominating states _ not stoking speculation and buzz.
"You can't just decide to say you're running," Heye said. "It's time for the candidates to step up."
In recent years, Perry has made a sport out of bashing Washington. Most often, he assails the federal government for failing to secure the U.S. border with Mexico. In November, he published a book _ "Fed Up!" _ that describes the federal government as financially reckless and out of control and calls for a resurgence of state-based power.
Since he was re-elected to a third term, Perry has hopscotched across the country, making several trips to Washington and taking center stage at every conservative gathering of high-profile Republicans. From the Conservative Political Action Conference to a celebration commemorating what would have been Reagan's 100th birthday, Perry has constantly brushed elbows with GOP heavyweights.
Texas Democrats sought to paint that travel as a disqualifier.
"Governor Perry spends so much time jetting across the country, playing celebrity and ignoring Texas priorities, that he already fits the mold of a typical Washington politician. If Perry finally announces his candidacy, he would fit right into a GOP field that's already well-treaded by aspiring celebrities hawking books and reality TV shows," Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray said.
In or out of the race, Perry is scheduled to address conservative voters next month at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, a gathering that has become a showcase of Republican presidential wannabes.
While professing to be focused on the state Legislature, Perry is also dipping his toe into national policy debates that don't have much relevance to Texas.
He issued a statement last week after President Barack Obama's foreign policy speech.
"President Obama's speech today continues a misguided policy of alienating our traditional allies, in this case Israel, one of our strongest partners in the war on terror," Perry said, joining the field of likely GOP presidential contenders in criticizing Obama's foreign policy.
Perry's spokesman has tried to quiet the buzz about a potential presidential bid.
"Of course he thinks about it, it's natural to think about it, but that doesn't change the fact that he has no intention of running," Mark Miner said.
The spokesman declined to make Perry available to say the same.
AP writer Philip Elliott reported from Washington.