The last time Republicans challenged an incumbent Democratic president, they were simultaneously running a Congressional revolution.
That experience in 1996 proved awkward — and costly. Worse, their very first primary in that contest effectively eliminated the challenger feared most by some of President Bill Clinton’s top advisers.
This time, Republicans are taking a different approach against President Obama, who opens his re-election campaign this week. The road toward ousting an incumbent always runs uphill, but Mr. Obama’s adversaries are trying to level their odds in two significant ways.
The first: a delay by top candidates in entering the race. Aside from conserving energy and resources, that would distance contenders like Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts from the unpredictable budget showdown between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
The second: an effort by party leaders to slow down the anointment of a nominee once delegate selection begins early next year. Instead of a flash verdict produced by tiny electorates in the states that vote earliest, the Republican National Committee seeks a longer competition to battle-test its standard-bearer the way Hillary Rodham Clinton tested Mr. Obama in 2008.
“It makes for a stronger nominee at the end,” said Ed Gillespie, a former party chairman and senior aide to President George W. Bush. Considering that incumbent presidents seeking re-election since 1900 have won 14 times and lost only 5, Republicans need such a nominee.
By this point in 1995, several major candidates had entered the Republican race. The front-runner, Senator Bob Dole, the majority leader, announced his candidacy April 10.
With one nomination rival, Phil Gramm of Texas, pressing from the right within the Senate, Mr. Dole joined Speaker Newt Gingrich in a budget fight with Mr. Clinton that ended disastrously in a government shutdown. Mr. Clinton’s attacks on “Dole-Gingrich” cutbacks hobbled the Republican ticket.
Now, as Speaker John A. Boehner wrestles Mr. Obama and Tea Party Republicans over spending, no major Republican contender is running from Washington. And among top-tier candidates, only former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has even opened a presidential exploratory committee.
“The Tea Party’s still a bit of an unknown,” said Scott Reed, who managed Mr. Dole’s 1996 campaign. He added that “2012 candidates have been smart to come out of the blocks a little slower.”
Candidates have other reasons to wait besides dodging Washington land mines. Mr. Romney wants to shorten intraparty scrutiny of his record, including a Massachusetts health care plan resembling Mr. Obama’s national program.
Delaying also allows him and others to avoid burning through cash raised under federal campaign finance rules. Using advances in the political equivalent of Wall Street financial engineering, they rely instead on state-chartered fund-raising vehicles to help cover travel and staff expenses.
“People have perfected the prepresidential race political action committee,” said Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s former strategist. Easier prepresidential schedules also save wear and tear before the nomination sprint begins this fall.
“Once you become an official candidate,” Mr. Rove noted, “there’s just a natural pressure never to get off the trail.”
Mr. Obama lags behind his own schedule from 2008, when he needed an early start to counter Mrs. Clinton’s advantages. Now he holds every incumbent’s ace: an ability to focus exclusively on the general election.
“It’s advantageous to us to get a campaign structure put together, build an organization and put resources away,” said David Axelrod, who recently left the White House to set 2012 strategy.
But even as Mr. Obama aims for a billion-dollar campaign chest, Republicans aren’t seeking the quickest possible nomination fight. Indeed, the party has adopted delegate rules that increase the chances for a longer battle.
Instead of giving primary winners all of a state’s convention delegates, Republicans plan to award delegates proportionate to vote totals for March primaries after the initial contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. If that plan survives jockeying by states for position on the primary calendar, it may help challengers hang on longer in hopes of catching the early leader.
A longer 1996 contest might have improved chances for Lamar Alexander, a former Tennessee governor who is now a senator, to overtake Mr. Dole. Instead, his third-place New Hampshire showing finished him — to the relief of Clinton strategists concerned by his record as governor and his outside-Washington positioning.
By creating energy and attention, an extended 2012 nomination fight could also offset Mr. Obama’s organizational head start. “It’s a wash at worst,” Mr. Gillespie said.
It remains “an election for Obama to lose,” as Mr. Reed put it. But with unemployment still high, despite recent improvement, and a new military conflict in Libya to go with old ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, his path may be more complex than Mr. Clinton’s.
Mr. Reed concluded: “This is a nomination worth fighting for.”