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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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"I don't see any candidate making a direct appeal to the broad mainstream of the Republican Party in New Hampshire," says Cullen. "It's an opportunity for Huntsman. It's an opportunity for Romney. Eighty percent of the primary voters here are going to identify as conservative or Republican, but not tea party."

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And because the New Hampshire Republican primary is "open" – that is, independents can vote in it – that will dilute the tea party's impact. Some 40 percent of New Hampshire voters are registered independent. Bottom line: So far, so good for Romney. A recent CNN/WMUR poll of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters showed Romney at 32 percent, with the libertarian Congressman Paul a distant second at 9 percent. Mr. Gingrich and Giuliani are at 6 percent; Palin is at 5; and Ms. Bachmann, Pawlenty, Cain, and Huntsman are all at 4 percent.

But there are warning signs for Romney, who has to win his home turf if he is to secure the nomination. (He came in second to Mr. McCain in 2008 and never recovered.) The CNN/WMUR poll found that only 4 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters are certain of their vote, with a whopping 87 percent saying they have no idea who they'll end up supporting. Forty-three percent say they're unhappy with the GOP field.

Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll, doesn't see the tea party having much impact on the outcome of the New Hampshire primary. After all, the core tea party goals of lower taxes and smaller government are basic Republicanism. "It's a difference without a distinction," says Mr. Smith.

In New Hampshire, a smaller percentage of tea partyers focus on social issues than in other states. So socially conservative tea party favorites like Cain, Bachmann, and Palin, if she runs, are likely not to get as much traction in New Hampshire as they might in other states.

Former Gov. John Sununu, the most recent former state GOP chair, also plays down the tea party's role. "It wasn't a takeover," says Mr. Sununu, whose choice to succeed him, Ms. Bergeron, lost by a slim margin. He notes that the same state party convention that elected Mr. Kimball chairman also gave Romney first place with 35 percent in a presidential straw poll.

Kimball says the Republicans have a "great field." "As a person out of the tea party, what we want to see is smaller government, lower spending, tax cuts, and getting back to constitutional values," he says in an interview at a GOP Memorial Day picnic in Dover, N.H., that featured Bachmann. "The vast majority of [presidential] candidates are there."

The difference between the tea party and establishment Republicans may be more a matter of style than substance. "We're unafraid to take the gloves off," says Kimball.

Iowa could end up not mattering

Since 1976, when Jimmy Carter burst from obscurity in Iowa, the state's "precinct caucuses" have played a pivotal role in determining whom the parties will nominate for president. But the experience of both Democrats and Republicans there in 2008 may change that calculation. Caucuses require an evening-long commitment, and are thus low-turnout affairs that skew toward more activist voters (and those without work conflicts and young children).

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