WASHINGTON — Haley Barbour: out. Mike Huckabee: out. Mitch Daniels: out.
Advantage: Mitt Romney.
It's true, the recent pruning of the Republican presidential field helps anyone still in the race (and helps explain why Sarah Palin is generating political gossip again with a suddenly announced tour of the Northeast).
But although former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum may be aided in Iowa by Huckabee's departure, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty could gain by the loss of Mississippi Gov. Barbour and Indiana Gov. Daniels, Romney benefits most. That's because it's still Romney's nomination to lose.
When Huckabee (who beat Romney in Iowa in 2008) and Daniels dropped out, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and son of three-term former Michigan Gov. George Romney, headed off to Iowa, adopting a broader view of a campaign that had been focused on New Hampshire.
In 2008, Romney announced his candidacy in Dearborn, Mich. This time, he's set to do it Thursday in Stratham, N.H. — a state he must win to get the nomination. A recent poll there shows him with 32 percent of likely Republican votes. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is next at 9 percent.
Nationally, Romney may not have the same kind of cachet — a Gallup poll of rank-and-file Republicans last weekend showed 17 percent preferring Romney to 15 percent for Palin and 10 percent for Paul. But in a field still to be settled, he is among the most widely recognized as having a shot to be president, and Republican voters historically have favored the candidate who appears next in line.
Romney, said political analyst Stu Rothenberg, "does seem to have the next ticket" after running in 2008.
"I think Romney is the front-runner on a couple of different levels," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "No. 1, this is not his first rodeo. He's the best-known quantity out there. He is also the best funded."
Nowhere is Romney's strength more evident, in fact. Romney — who ran a private equity firm and has close ties to business — spent $107 million on his 2008 race, $45 million of which he lent himself. During 2010, his Free and Strong America PAC raised nearly $5 million, and, two weeks ago, he had 800 people in the Las Vegas Convention Center calling friends, family and colleagues. They raised more than $10 million in eight hours.
"There is no doubt that Mitt Romney's fund-raising prowess is a great part of what drives his front-runner status," said Michael Dennehy, a consultant to Republicans in New Hampshire. "No candidate thus far has shown their ability to compete with the Romney machine. But as has been proven in the past, the early primary states are arguably more about retail campaigning and grassroots organization than money."
Which explains why Romney has been running hard in New Hampshire, endorsed (and contributed to) South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and now is showing his face in Iowa. Michigan gave him his first primary win in 2008.
Romney does have some hurdles to overcome:
—Will Republican voters forgive him for a health care system in Massachusetts that requires people to have insurance, much like the one adopted by President Barack Obama and the Democrats? (Romney, in a speech at the University of Michigan, refused to call his plan a mistake — but he says he rejects a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire United States.)
—Will his Mormon faith work against him with evangelical voters?
—Will the growing strength of tea party politics hurt Romney as it did other name-brand politicians last year? (Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, says, "We're going to treat every candidate like they have a blank slate.")
So far, the questions about health care have loomed largest.
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