Analysis: Romney still blessed by packed GOP field

Charles Babington

Associated Press

Mitt Romney is cruising in the Republican presidential contest, blessed by a half-dozen rivals who continue to attack each other and divide the anti-Romney vote rather than produce a single strong alternative.

That dynamic allowed Romney to stand and smile during long stretches of two televised debates this weekend, while the others ripped one another. With his opposition so diffuse, the former Massachusetts governor has a chance to do something that once seemed improbable: win the South Carolina primary Jan. 21, which would make him the prohibitive favorite for the nomination.

Time is running out for staunch conservatives, who have viewed Romney with suspicion, to settle on someone. The crowded field helped Romney to a whisker-thin victory this past week in Iowa, although his plurality was modest.

He long has been favored to win Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, so his critics hope South Carolina will stop his momentum. Romney’s Mormonism and past support of abortion rights might hurt him among South Carolina’s evangelical voters.

Iowa wasn’t considered an ideal fit for Romney, either, yet the stars aligned for him. It might happen again.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry flirted with dropping out after his poor showing in Iowa, but he stayed in. So did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich despite a disappointing fourth-place finish.

No one expected former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to drop out after he essentially tied Romney in Iowa. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas runs a libertarian-oriented campaign that almost stands apart, drawing thousands of devotees who say they won’t support any nominee except the congressman.

Meanwhile, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa, is trying hard in New Hampshire.

The upshot is that the not-Romney sentiment remains dispersed among six rivals. The benefit to Romney was vivid in Saturday night’s debate, when Paul engaged in long, heated exchanges with Santorum and Gingrich, as if they had conceded the race to Romney and were fighting for second.

Perry seemed almost an afterthought.

“Romney did everything he wanted and got out of there without anyone giving him a hard time,” said a delighted John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who backs Romney.