Forget the national polls that show Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, as the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. A credible argument can be made that Mitt Romney is the front-runner.
The former governor of Massachusetts is now consistently running first in most polls of two key early nomination races, Iowa and New Hamsphire – states where the voters are paying closest attention. Mr. Romney, the top Republican fundraiser in the first quarter of 2007, is generally expected to match or exceed that total ($20.6 million) in the second quarter and maintain his status as No. 1 in GOP presidential finances.
More money means more TV ads and organization, two other areas where Romney is already ahead in the early states, enhancing a sense of momentum. Of course, before any actual votes are cast, nothing is certain. In previous cycles, leaders in polling and fundraising have fallen flat come caucus and primary day. And in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes, the front-loading of the primaries makes the role of Iowa and New Hampshire less predictable.
But by playing the traditional Iowa-New Hampshire game, and so far doing well at it, Romney is putting the other top-tier Republican candidates on the defensive.
"Nationally, if his second-quarter fundraising numbers build on his first, then it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss him as flavor-of-the-month," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
He and other political observers in both Iowa and New Hampshire credit Romney with being the best-organized GOP candidate in both states. Romney has also gone on the air first with TV ads in those states – plus South Carolina, another early-primary state – boosting his profile and poll numbers.
Broad support in bellwether states
The latest CNN/WMUR NH Primary Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, puts Romney at 28 percent among likely Republican voters, with Mr. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona tied at 20 percent each.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who formed an exploratory campaign committee on June 1, came in at 11 percent in the CNN/WMUR poll. Early predictions that Mr. Thompson would hurt Romney proved unfounded, says survey center director Andy Smith, who credits Romney's early TV ad campaign with his rise in the polls. In the last CNN/WMUR poll, conducted in April, Giuliani and Senator McCain tied for the lead in New Hampshire with 29 percent each, and Romney had 17 percent.
"He's been here a lot; he's using his time here pretty well, in that he's going to multiple places whenever he comes to the state," says Mr. Smith. "He has pretty decent favorability numbers, because he was known from Massachusetts."
Smith also says the debates have helped Romney, putting him on the same stage with the better-known candidates. In a comparison of the April and June polls, Romney gained the lead by winning the support of conservative voters. Romney also came in first on "likability" – winning 32 percent of GOP voters on that score, versus 28 percent for Giuliani, 12 percent for McCain, and 10 percent for Thompson.
But there is plenty in the latest poll to give Romney's rivals hope. One big factor is that few voters have firmly decided whom they will support on primary day in January. Among Republicans in New Hampshire, only 6 percent say they have definitely decided, 37 percent say they are "leaning" toward a particular candidate, and 57 percent have "no idea."
In Iowa, polls are harder to decipher in New Hampshire, because with caucuses – the state's nominating vehicle, which typically attract only the most dedicated voters – it's more difficult to predict who will turn out. Still, analysts take seriously the fact that Romney shot into the lead last month in the Des Moines Register poll with 30 percent, ahead of McCain and Giuliani (18 and 17 percent). The latter two subsequently announced they would not take part in the traditional Iowa straw poll in August, a nonbinding event that in the past has winnowed the Republican field. McCain and Giuliani say they will still compete in the Iowa caucuses, but there's a risk that in snubbing the straw poll, a fundraiser for the state GOP, they have insulted the party faithful of Iowa.
"I suspect there will be a bit of a backlash, probably not too much, but it certainly didn't improve their prospects," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.
A victory in the Iowa caucuses, and then a solid showing in the new Nevada caucuses a few days later, would give Romney a significant wind at his back heading into the New Hampshire primary, his home turf. An Iowa victory would also show that Romney has been able to overcome concerns of religious conservative voters, who are strong in the Iowa GOP. Romney's recent conversion to conservative positions on social issues has left some conservatives skeptical of Romney. His Mormon faith also led to questions over whether some voters would hesitate to vote for him, but pollsters are not seeing evidence so far that that's a major sticking point.
Steering committee on faith, values
On Wednesday, Romney announced his National Faith and Values Steering Committee, which did not include any of the most significant leaders of the Christian conservative movement – but did include some noteworthy names nevertheless. One is Jay Sekulow, a legal activist associated with Pat Robertson. Another is James Bopp, a lawyer who often argues the religious right's most significant cases in the Supreme Court.