Matthew Cavanaugh, Associated Press
KEENE, N.H. — The stars may be aligning for Mitt Romney — and at just the right time.
Four years after his failed White House bid, the former Massachusetts governor's strategy in the 2012 Republican presidential race has long been premised on a respectable finish in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses followed by a decisive New Hampshire victory to drive momentum heading into South Carolina, Florida and beyond.
To be sure, no one has voted yet. The outcome in Iowa will shape the race, the contest has been mercurial and Romney still faces hurdles, not the least of which is his failure to become the chosen one in GOP circles after running for president for the better part of five years.
Still, his preferred scenario is looking more plausible now, thanks to Ron Paul's helpful ascent, Newt Gingrich's slide and fractures among conservatives who have not rallied behind an alternative to Romney. There's a growing sense inside and outside of Romney's campaign that his path to the nomination is clearer than it has been in weeks.
"Barring a tornado, things are starting to line up for Romney at the right time," said Dave Roederer, an unaligned Republican who served as Sen. John McCain's Iowa campaign chairman in 2008.
Indeed, with voting set to begin in just 12 days, polling suggests that the latest candidate to challenge Romney's place atop the field, Gingrich, is slipping in Iowa and elsewhere under the weight of negative advertising fueled by Romney allies and other campaigns. And Romney has begun to display a confidence of sorts as he expands what is already a mammoth political machine in early voting states and other places across the country.
Perhaps illustrating his newfound optimism after weeks of concern inside his campaign, Romney went after Gingrich in uncharacteristically sharp language Wednesday for complaining of repeated attack ads.
"If you can't stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until Obama's Hell's Kitchen shows up," Romney told supporters in Keene, the first stop in a multi-day bus tour showcasing his growing bench of New Hampshire political backers.
Among them: two of the three Republicans in the state's congressional delegation as well as former Sen. Judd Gregg and former Gov. John H. Sununu. More than 100 current and former elected officials are backing Romney in New Hampshire.
In a later campaign stop in the state's largest city, Gingrich shot back, shortly after having announced the support of state House speaker Bill O'Brien, who declared that Romney was taking New Hampshire for granted.
"If he wants to test the heat, I'll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week," Gingrich said. "If he wants to try out the kitchen, I'll be glad to debate him anywhere. We'll bring his ads and he can defend them."
Political observers suggest that even if Romney doesn't win Iowa — which has never warmed to him, and dealt him a blow in 2008 — he's on safer ground in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.
His hope is that victory here, a state that's essentially his adopted home, could help him overcome trouble in South Carolina, an evangelical bastion that spurned him four years ago but where he now has the coveted endorsement of tea party favorite Gov. Nikki Haley.
Florida comes next, and Romney by far leads the GOP pack in building a campaign organization there. He's sitting on a pile of money for a state campaign that is primarily waged with expensive ads.
"It doesn't help you to peak in August or September, or October — you need to peak on Election Day," said Jamie Burnett, an unaligned GOP operative who led Romney's New Hampshire political operation four years ago. "Romney is making his closing argument now and seems to be in a pretty strong position."
Romney's biggest threat has been that one of his rivals would catch fire and consolidate the anti-Romney vote at the right time. That could well still happen.
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