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Five reasons the GOP race is so unsettled

Among the Republican candidates, Mitt Romney has emerged as the early front-runner. Yet the field remains as uncertain as any in modern times – can any of them beat Obama?

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Then there's Ms. Palin. Her bus tour up the East Coast reminds us that nobody is better at grabbing the spotlight than the 2008 vice presidential nominee, and it's anybody's guess whether she will run. If she does, she could go all the way to the nomination. If not, Mr. Romney can stake a firmer claim as front-runner.

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But it's still early. The first nominating contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, are at least seven months away. Here are five ways this campaign is unusual and why they matter:

So many candidates, so much dissatisfaction

For now, Romney leads the pack. But he's the weakest front-runner in modern Republican history. In Gallup polling since 1952, there was always a clear GOP front-runner in or about February of the year before a presidential election – and in most cases, that candidate went on to win the nomination.

This year is the exception. Romney has established himself as the clear front-runner only in the past week, now topping the GOP field in a Gallup poll released Monday with 24 percent of Republican voters. Palin places second at 16. The rest are in single digits.

But 24 percent is not a commanding lead, and many Republicans also seem determined not to fall into their usual pattern of nominating the candidate who's "next in line" – in part because this time, that person happens to be Romney, a runner-up to 2008 nominee John McCain. Romney has many pluses: a successful business career, a vast fundraising network and personal wealth he is willing to tap, a big attractive family. But he remains stiff on the stump, and he continues to defend his signature reform of the Massachusetts health-care system and its individual mandate to purchase health insurance, a model for Mr. Obama's reform and anathema to GOP orthodoxy. Romney's history of flip-flopping on issues and his Mormon faith also make some voters leery.

The public yearning by some Republicans for "better candidates" has had an almost unseemly quality to it. If only Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had decided to run! If only Chris Christie, the blunt-spoken governor of New Jersey, would jump in! If only Marco Rubio, the charismatic young senator from Florida, had a little more experience!

The field of announced and likely candidates is already fairly large (10 people, not including Palin or Mr. Giuliani). Still more are thinking of getting in, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan. But of those already effectively in the ring, only a few are considered viable in the general election: Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. So the "actual" field, if conventional wisdom holds, is pretty small.

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