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Why Romney Is a Very Frail GOP Frontrunner

Unlike the Democrats, who almost always at least flirt with off-beat presidential hopefuls and sometimes even pick a nominee who started as a long shot for their nomination, Republicans have, over the past 50 years, generally preferred “the next guy in line” when they select their White House nominees.

Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008 each fit the bill as the early favorite, and each won his party’s nomination (though McCain’s road was more than merely interesting).

If the pattern holds this cycle, Republicans will nominate Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla., in August 2012, setting up the odd circumstance of the first black president of the United States facing the first Mormon major-party presidential nominee in the nation’s history.

But Romney, who ran a well-funded, serious effort for the GOP nod in 2008 only to lose out to McCain, looks to be a very frail frontrunner. That doesn’t mean he won’t be nominated, only that he faces a tough road ahead if he is to be the nominee.

Romney turns 64 later this year, and he certainly looks the part of president. With a master’s degree from Harvard Business School and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, he’s attractive, smart and articulate, and he has demonstrated executive leadership. In addition, he has already run a national campaign and has a strong fundraising ability.

The Detroit-born Republican ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994 but earned high marks as the CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. The Olympics were a springboard for his gubernatorial victory in Massachusetts in 2002.

Romney entered the 2008 GOP presidential contest in mid-February 2007, dropping out not quite a year later, two days after McCain’s Super Tuesday showing. He won 11 contests, including Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado.

Romney has been active in Republican politics since the 2008 election, and current polling shows him in the top tier for the 2012 nomination. But while he has the same strengths he had in 2008, he also has the same weaknesses, as well as some new ones. And those weaknesses are no less severe now than they were then.

A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney’s religion is once again likely to be a problem for him.

The former Massachusetts governor performed poorly in two key early states with substantial evangelical populations, Iowa and South Carolina, and he must either change that or build a successful effort without those states.

Romney won the Iowa Straw Poll held in August 2007, and he had an overwhelming lead in polls among likely Iowa caucus voters through September 2007. His lead evaporated quickly when undecided attendees started to focus on their decisions, and by December, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pulled ahead.

The Mormon hopeful did well in the state’s Catholic areas, carrying Linn and Dubuque counties, but he fared worse in the rest of the state, where Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, did well. Entrance and exit polls confirm that Romney’s religion was a problem in Iowa and South Carolina, where he finished behind McCain, Huckabee and even former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and elsewhere in the South.

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