(Reuters) – After months of a Republican nomination race that struggled to catch fire, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are now locked in a fight they both predict will extend well into 2012.
Republicans expect a split decision in the early voting states with neither Perry, the Tea Party favorite, nor Romney, the establishment candidate, able to land a knock-out blow for the Republican presidential nomination.
In a clear sign the front-runners are preparing for a prolonged race, Romney and Perry have speaking appearances soon in Indiana, a state that is usually an afterthought to the presidential candidates. Indiana Republicans do not vote until May 8 but Romney will be there this Friday, Perry on October 12.
“It seems as though the candidates are shifting at least some of their focus to the national campaign rather than in just the early primary states,” said Pete Seat, spokesman for the Indiana Republican Party.
The extended primary battle — potentially mirroring the long race between then-Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 — offers both opportunity and risk.
It gives the victor time to tighten his performance and hone a message to carry nationwide, and it means he will likely have established campaign teams across the country even before the nomination is decided.
But a long struggle opens the Republican winner to dangerous diversion too, as he loses time he would otherwise have spent trying to focus voters’ attention squarely on President Obama, a vulnerable incumbent.