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Senior Correspondent

Willard Mitt Romney’s odyssey to become President of the United States is well established. It might be fair to say he is a hostage to his ambition given the journey he has taken thus far. Romney has said, and is apparently willing to say, anything or do anything to gain the G.O.P. nomination. A man, a candidate, without a core is a frequent description for Romney. He is whatever the situation requires him to be, his record notwithstanding.

As a humorous aside, Romney is perhaps the only candidate with accurate mental dimensions of the draperies in the Oval Office. Countless hours of daily political punditry are devoted to speculation about Romney’s path to the Republican nomination. Current wisdom is that he has forged a marriage of convenience with the right.

Therefore, the path to the nomination for Romney is complex, perhaps even torturous. Romney is one of the most adroit presidential candidates in recent years and that makes him an object of intense speculation.

Romney’s candidacy, however, presents a serious conundrum for the G.O.P. Many of the party faithful, according to reports, insist they would not vote for him under any circumstances, yet he is the odds-on-favorite for the nomination. These Republicans maintain Romney’s record as a former governor of Massachusetts proves he is a moderate now posing as a conservative. Romney, then, is the candidate they love to hate.

The McCain-Karl Rove wing of the Republican party say “Romney is the only candidate capable of unseating Obama.” Although they are not passionate about him, their larger goal is to unite the party behind Romney and get ready for the battle with Obama and the Democrats. The Christian-evangelicals and the Tea Party conservatives, however, are having none of Romney’s instant conversion.

Romney’s Iowa caucus’ win by a margin of eight votes is now tainted by the probability a typographical error made while tallying the votes in one county may result in a loss to second-place winner Rich Santorum by a margin of 20 votes. The psychological impact for the Santorum campaign of a win in Iowa, even after the fact, could be significant in rousing more support among conservatives. The image lingers of a win for Romney in which his candidacy was opposed by 75 percent of caucus participants.

His current double-digit lead in New Hampshire polls is dwindling while Santorum surges in South Carolina. Romney needs a commanding win in New Hampshire and South Carolina to establish an undisputed claim on his party’s nomination.

Romney’s chameleon-like performance as a candidate suggests he may tack even further to the right hoping he can persuade the Tea Party and the Christian conservatives he is a “true believer.” This would be no mean feat if he manages to pull it off. Christian conservatives, however, are keeping a keen eye on Santorum.

We have reached the point in the campaign when Romney will be subjected to the vetting his record and on-the-record public statements merit. Rick Santorum, the heretofore “1 percent candidate” is waging a herculean effort to establish a solid counterforce to Romney’s formidable campaign organization and fundraising capability.

High profile endorsements from Senator McCain (R-AZ) and Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC) help but they offer no insurance policy against the hard-charging former Republican senator from Pennsylvania should he perform well in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Meanwhile, Rick Perry represents perhaps no more than a “nuisance factor” for Romney at this point. The outcome of the South Carolina primary may signal his exit from the race. Bachmann, the Tea Party stalwart from Minnesota, has yet to endorse anyone. She could complicate Romney’s path to the nomination should she combine energies with Rick Perry and endorse Santorum. That makes her a “wild card.” Timing of an endorsement, however, is important. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) is wounded and unlikely to win the nomination. His goal is to bring Romney down a few notches and that makes him dangerous; not lethal, but a serious nuisance. However, he, too, could swing his support behind Santorum.

Romney’s strategy of trying to remain above the fray and leveling his verbal broadsides against the President won’t cut it now: He will have to defend his record as the former governor of a liberal state and his prior positions on a host of issues important to conservatives.

Early in the campaign, Romney tried to cloak himself with the mantle of the inevitable nominee who would have the broadest appeal to progressives and independents — those who may ultimately decide who gets to actually measure the drapes in the Oval Office next January. Romney, however, is too far to the right on immigration issues for Hispanics and Latinos, the country’s largest minority group.

Moreover, Romney’s position on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid put him potentially at odds with millions of boomers and seniors. By tacking to the right to earn his bona fides as a conservative, he risks his chances to succeed in the general election. Romney’s dilemma is he wants to win too badly and is having difficulty positioning himself credibly in two philosophical camps within the G.O.P. — moderates and conservatives.

To complicate his journey to the nomination even further, a cabal of Republican elites is still searching for a consensus-anybody-but-Mitt-candidate. Meanwhile, Romney has to slug it out in a bevy of southern primaries with Rick Santorum, a real conservative, breathing down his neck.

Democrats, meanwhile, will be amassing reams of footage of Romney the new conservative; a friend of Wall Street; advocate for the status quo, and enemy of the middle-class. Other Republicans willing to accept Romney’s androgynous style and inconsistencies may be willing to give him a pass as the perennial flip-flopper he is, but verdicts could be harsher during the general campaign. This presupposes he is the nominee.

To be fair, some progressives and independents disenchanted with the President, may forgive Romney for being for and against practically every issue of consequence. They would, however, insist he become an advocate for greater income equality, economic justice, less rank partisanship, and a commitment to rebuilding the economy without an exclusive reliance on tax cuts for the rich. Moreover, they would want his commitment to restore our global standing without a knee-jerk insistence on military intervention to every perceived threat.

Conservatives would prefer their candidate to be heavy on conviction even if they don’t win. Romney says, “Elect me and I’ll be what I have to be once in office!” He is impaled on the horns of a dilemma and there is no easy way to extricate himself. A desperate Romney will be bloodied while the Republican elite look for an alternative — even at this late date. Were Romney the true conservative he purports to be, the party would coalesce around him and strengthen his candidacy against the President. Republicans would be united and psyched!

As formidable as Romney’s organization and campaign war chest may be, he is still weak politically and may yet be denied the nomination.

The test for Romney is to increase support among Republican voters across the board and to prevent a surge by Santorum.

Mitt Romney may still capture the nomination. If he does, he will have earned it. Should he be the last man standing at the Republican convention without having engendered more enthusiasm than he has, could there be a brokered convention? Romney could go down on the first ballot and the convention would then be open to drafting a new candidate — say Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) or, Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida? Why not? If Romney is unable to generate more enthusiasm among the Republican base, and he continues to win primaries garnering no more than 25 percent of the vote, he remains damaged goods and unlikely to make Obama the one-term President Republicans vow he will be.

The republican nominee will have the challenge of uniting a G.O.P. split between establishment partisans (anti-tax supply-siders and social traditionalists) and populist conservatives (anti-debt libertarians and social moralists).

Some analysts suggest that the Republican desire to make Obama a one-term President will help Romney close ranks fairly quickly and win the nomination. This same analyst also posits that Romney uniting the party may help prevent a third-party candidate from establishing real traction. This analysis gains greater credence only if the populist conservatives in the Republican Party give Romney a pass and the Republican elites are unable to reach agreement on a consensus candidate other than Mitt Romney.

The path to the nomination for Willard Mitt Romney may have been clear to him but more than one bend in the road awaits his ambitious quest for the ultimate prize.

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