Republicans are pressing ahead with one of the most ambitious and risky long-term spending agendas in memory, yet the dozen or so potential White House hopefuls are nearly invisible on the issue.
They can't stay on the sidelines for long, however. The contentious debate will rope them in on terms they might find hard to control.
The triumph of tea party candidates in 2010 pumped new urgency into a long-brewing Republican Party push for major cuts in domestic and benefits programs, including Medicare and Social Security.
In the absence of a Republican president or clear-cut party leader, a little-known Republican from Wisconsin seized the initiative. Backed by most House Republicans, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, wrote a far-reaching spending plan that right away framed the debate on Capitol Hill.
His proposal for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 calls for cutting spending by $5.8 trillion over 10 years. Mr. Ryan would reduce tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, and eliminate various tax loopholes.
Some in the potential GOP field have already jumped aboard enthusiastically: "Paul Ryan is going to define modern conservatism at a serious level," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.
But other potential presidential candidates are keeping a low profile, offering vague praise and leaving themselves room to maneuver.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney applauded Mr. Ryan "for recognizing the looming financial crisis that faces our nation and for the creative and bold thinking that he brings to the debate."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 GOP Iowa caucus, noted the proposal has little chance of enactment so long as Democrats control the White House and Senate.
But Mr. Ryan's plan has gained so much attention and praise in Republican circles that the contenders won't be able to ignore it for long, if they want to seize control of the debate on their terms.
Candidates who appear tepid about Mr. Ryan's cost-cutting might lose favor in primaries dominated by debt-hating conservatives. But heartily embracing the proposals could haunt the eventual nominee if President Obama can portray his challenger as recklessly willing to undercut health care for the poor and elderly.
Dan Schnur, a former aide to Republican presidents and governors, said the contenders are smart to keep their heads down.
"They can't compete for headlines with either the governors or the Republicans in Congress," said Mr. Schnur, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "So they might as well keep their distance until the dust settles. But at a certain point, those candidates are going to have to engage."
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