WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney is emerging as the man to catch in the narrowing Republican presidential field, grabbing a clear head start in fundraising, organization and experience despite vulnerabilities that still might undo him.
With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels becoming the latest respected Republican to forgo a candidacy, many party insiders say the field is largely set. And Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Olympic Games organizer, is in front.
"It's Romney's to lose," said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant who managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign. He said Romney's biggest advantages are his personal wealth, fundraising know-how and experience as a 2008 contender, when John McCain won the nomination.
"He has been around the track," Reed said. "He knows from a difficult experience how not to waste time and how not to try to be all things to all people."
If Romney's name is well known, so are his shortcomings. As Massachusetts governor he supported legalized abortion, gay rights and gun control, positions he reversed when he ran for president. He also championed a state health care law that requires residents to obtain insurance. Conservatives despise a similar feature in the Democrats' 2010 federal health law.
Conservatives' unease about Romney's record and consistency could give an opening to others, who have time to raise their profiles and popularity.
"The real battle now is who will be the conservative alternative to Romney," Reed said.
Campaign veterans say Romney's likeliest challengers for now are two former governors with solid resumes but little name recognition and no experience as presidential candidates: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
Pawlenty formally announced his candidacy Monday in Iowa, although he has campaigned for months there and in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He's casting himself as the candidate willing to tell the country hard truths, and, underscoring that point, he bluntly told corn-dependent Iowa that its prized federal subsidies for ethanol should be phased out.
Huntsman, who just finished a stint as ambassador to China, is spending five days campaigning in New Hampshire, which holds its primary shortly after Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus in February.
The next tier of candidates includes the well-known Newt Gingrich, who was House speaker in the mid-1990s. Party insiders say Gingrich's legacy of bombastic statements and messy divorces gives him a steep hill to climb.
These party activists give even slimmer chances to other contenders such as former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Pawlenty, unlike Romney and Huntsman, lacks the personal wealth to sustain a campaign for weeks or months without winning major victories to trigger big donations.
"Pawlenty has to win in Iowa," said Republican strategist Rich Galen. That could allow him to survive the next three contests: New Hampshire, where Romney should be strong; Nevada, bordering Huntsman's home state of Utah, and South Carolina, where Gingrich or a lesser-known social conservative might break through.
Pawlenty would have to rack up victories after that. But a strategy of being everyone's second choice might allow him to outlast Romney in the spring of 2012.
Galen thinks Huntsman could be a bigger threat to Romney than Pawlenty. Huntsman's family wealth could buy him time to build an organization and craft a positive image among voters who don't know him.
"Huntsman is a blank page," Galen said. If he does reasonably well in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, while winning the Nevada caucus, he could go "all in" in Florida, Galen said. The Sunshine state has proved pivotal in past elections and might again.
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