Don't Crown Romney Yet

Mitt Romney has managed to fend off one challenger after another, but the GOP presidential race is still too early to call.

11.04.11 9:34 PM ET

In politics, some things change—like which “not-Romney” candidate leads the GOP pack each week. Some things don’t—like Mitt Romney can’t seem to get beyond 25 percent in national polls.

A little over three months ago, Michele Bachmann threatened to rocket right past Romney. A month ago, Rick Perry did. And a short two weeks later, so did Herman Cain. But Bachmann and Perry, and now arguably Cain, suffered self-inflicted wounds, and fell to earth.

Romney is likely to survive at the top of the national GOP leader board, even as the next not-Romney candidate, Newt Gingrich, gains ground.

But things still may change. For we are quick to forget.

A little over four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s seemingly insurmountable lead over Barack Obama was more than 2:1, at a whopping 48.5 percent. Rudy Giuliani was the leader of the GOP pack, while John McCain was deemed a “third-tier” candidate. And who remembers in 2004 that Joe Lieberman led the Democratic primaries for eight months?

The 2012 campaign season is still young. And the GOP eight now face an unbeatable opponent. Not Barack Obama—he’s extremely vulnerable, as the recent Gallup poll shows. The unstoppable force is the calendar.

The dates are now set for the early caucus and primary states, Jan. 3 through Feb. 4. And the smart focus is on polling in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada, more so than national averages.

In the state-by-state battle of Romney and the not-Romneys, here’s where I see the field right now:

Herman Cain: An unconventional candidate and campaign in the middle of a classic, yet avoidable, crisis. We'll see if he can keep the Cain Train from derailing. It’s going to be tough, but he still has the potential to do well among more conservative Iowa and South Carolina voters.

Mitt Romney: His mantra: steady, steady, steady. Romney is in position for a solid win in New Hampshire. If no one emerges to lead the “anyone-but-Romney” pack, and the votes are split, Romney could even surprise and pick off Iowa, in which case the nomination contest will be over.

Newt Gingrich: The man to watch right now. Slowly and steadily rising in the polls as he stays focused on the issues. None of the other not-Romneys can match his intellect or ability to “tell it like it is.”  If Gingrich could come out in the top three in Iowa, he's the kind of candidate New Hampshire could warm to and turn conventional wisdom on its ear, as the Granite State often does.

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Rick Perry: Perry needs to round up a posse of voters to do well in Iowa. And he may gain if Cain loses steam. He's got the money, manpower, and message—if voters are willing to give the governor a second look after his poor debate performances.

Ron Paul: He will get a solid 10 to 15 percent of the vote everywhere. And win nowhere.

Michele Bachmann: She has staked everything on Iowa. If she doesn't break through, she's done.

Rick Santorum: See Bachmann.

Jon Huntsman: Some 44 percent of New Hampshire voters are independents who can vote in either primary. This year there is no Democratic primary, so most of them will be voting in the Republican contest—a perfect scenario for Huntsman to finally make a move.

Still, some things don’t change. That’s why all eyes should be on Iowa and New Hampshire. Be ready for a surprise. Previous winners in these first-in-the-nation contests included Dick Gephardt, Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart, and Pat Buchanan, none of whom were the final nominees.