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The reason, Douthat added, is because 'Gingrich has so many heterodoxies in his own past, he'll have a hard time attacking the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopper,' and Gingrich can't attack Romney's Mormon faith the way Mike Huckabee did four years ago.

One by one, candidates jumped to the front, and one by one, most of the newly minted frontrunners vanished from the lead, often in a tailspin. Since the spring, the shooting star has been a regular feature of the Republican presidential race.

Now that the long runup to the first real voting is nearly over — fewer than 50 days remain until the Iowa caucus — it's easy to look back on the past nine months and find some constants. One fixture, ironically, has been the presence of a comet, bursting brightly and then dimming. There also have been some fixed constellations — Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman Jr., each has polled consistently, Romney at or near the top, Paul in the middle and Huntsman at about 1 percent.

As should be expected before the first votes are cast, the eventual Republican nominee remains in doubt. An average of major polls compiled by realclearpolitics.com shows Romney with a .7 percentage-point lead over Herman Cain for the GOP nomination.

However, if we've learned anything, it's that nothing is a given in this race.

No more than four months ago, Michele Bachmann was on the rise coming off a win at the Ames Straw Poll. It was the second-largest turnout in the history of the straw poll, and Bachmann looked like she would be able to take a chunk of the Republican vote as a leading Tea Party candidate.

Enter Rick Perry.

On August 13 Rick Perry caused a media stir and Tea Party rejuvenation as he threw his hat into the ring. Being the social conservative Republicans were looking for, as well as someone experts thought could challenge Romney on economic issues, Perry's numbers skyrocketed. Matthew Dowd, a former strategist for former President George W. Bush, told the New York Times that Perry's campaign would go big or go home.

"He either gets in and gets through the gauntlet of the first month or so and consistently moves forward and wins the nomination, or he's got this terrific flameout," Mr. Dowd said. "There's no middle ground."

Almost prophetic.

The night before the first "Tea Party Republican debate," CNN reported Perry to have 30 percent of the GOP favor. However, Perry proved Dowd correct by overseeing a campaign implosion and dropping more than 20 percentage points amongst likely GOP voters. The nosedive followed poor debate performances where Perry was seen as too soft on illegal immigrants by offering them tuition breaks, requiring 12-year-old girls in Texas to be vaccinated against HPV and then forgetting one of the government agencies he would cut — humorously spoofed by Saturday Night Live.

As Perry's numbers fell, former Godfather's pizza CEO Herman Cain rose to the top. He came up with a "9-9-9" tax plan that opponents targeted as flawed, yet bold. During the seventh Republican debate, Bachmann alluded to the "6-6-6" mark of the beast from the Bible, saying "the devil's in the details," while Jon Huntsman added, "I thought it was price of a pizza when I first heard it."

Yet Cain's proposals seemed to have a draw on the Republican base.

"My message of common-sense solutions is resonating with people," Cain said in an interview found at The Washington Post. "People around the country are starting to know who I am and starting to identify me with solutions, not rhetoric."

Solutions however, could not save Cain from allegations of sexual harassment which CBS News reports have finally caught up with the former CEO. As an article by Politico shows, Cain led the field with 40 percent of the likely vote on Nov. 6, yet by Wednesday of that week his numbers had dropped to 19 percent.

"It does appear that the stories are certainly hurting him," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group, who helped conduct the bipartisan poll. "As this moves forward, I think it does become more and more a deal-breaker."

At least one shooting star never even actually entered the race. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared to be another who might enter the race late, and polls showed he would be a hot new face in the race, but he instead decided to stay on the sidelines and endorse Romney.

Romney has been first or second since February. Now, once again, the race is getting tighter as Cain's numbers are still high, Romney has been consistently strong and Politico reports Newt Gingrich jumping to the top of the CNN/Opinion Research Poll and a Public Policy Polling Survey.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explained recently both why Gingrich's campaign has been resurrected and why that actually might serve Romney really well.

"Obviously, Romney's ideal primary scenario would be one in which all his rivals somehow self-destruct and he coasts to victory in every primary or caucus," Douthat wrote in a column titled "The Second Coming of Gingrich." "But seeing Newt Gingrich emerge as his most plausible challenger comes a pretty close second."

The reason, Douthat added, is because "Gingrich has so many heterodoxies in his own past, he'll have a hard time attacking the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopper," and Gingrich can't attack Romney's Mormon faith the way Mike Huckabee did four years ago.

Indeed, some groups feel Romney's consistency is proof that he has locked up the seat and are preparing against his eventual nomination. Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama group, released a YouTube video advertisement portraying Romney as a Wall Street sympathizer looking to free up regulations on big corporations.

EMAIL: jbolding@desnews.com