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.
But month after month, candidates have risen and fallen under the weight of their political shortcomings.
While conservatives, particularly tea party activists, continue to be wary of Romney's candidacy, they've struggled to rally behind a single opponent even as Romney has fallen short in consolidating all parts of the party behind his candidacy.
Still, Paul and others, such as Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are not backing down.
Perry in particular has been pouring money into television advertising in recent weeks to help revive his candidacy. He's spent $4.4 million to date on Iowa TV alone, while an organization run by his allies has spent $1.5 million there, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press.
Paul, a Texas congressman with strong libertarian leanings, has spent roughly $1.75 million so far on Iowa television advertising and $700,000 in New Hampshire.
Romney's campaign generally sees Paul's rise, particularly in Iowa, as an asset.
Because of a quirky style and hardline foreign policies, Paul is generally seen by prominent Republicans as a poor match for President Barack Obama in the general election. A Paul victory in Iowa, therefore, might be dismissed as an anomaly.
Romney's allies have spent $2.8 million on Iowa television advertising, largely on negative advertising aimed at Gingrich.
The onslaught has helped to reverse Gingrich's recent rise in Iowa, where he had set high expectations, recently proclaiming that he's the most likely candidate to win the caucuses.
"Ads that have been running against Gingrich reminded people about some things that many people forgot," Roederer said. "Now, Gingrich has pretty much put himself in a must-win situation."
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Romney has been at or near the top of the field for months while spending only a small fraction of his money so far on TV ads, roughly $1.8 million in New Hampshire and Iowa.
But his prospects are far from sealed. He's left a lot of people unconvinced.
"I like Romney a lot, I could vote for him," said Rod Crowner, a West Burlington, Iowa, city councilman who met Bachmann on Wednesday. "But we haven't seen him here.
"He seems to be making a play in Iowa. But in the cities. Not in places like West Burlington. And that's his problem. He is city. And I'm not sure he completely understands the issues facing small towns here in the Midwest."