The former governor and '08 presidential candidate is already well-known, but so are his political liabilities.
WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney is emerging as the man to catch in the narrowing Republican presidential field, grabbing a clear head start in fundraising, organization and experience despite vulnerabilities that still might undo him.
With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels becoming the latest respected Republican to forgo a candidacy, many party insiders say the field is largely set. And Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Olympic Games organizer, is in front.
"It's Romney's to lose," said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant who managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign. He said Romney's biggest advantages are his personal wealth, fundraising know-how and experience as a 2008 contender, when John McCain won the nomination.
If Romney's name is well known, so are his shortcomings. As Massachusetts governor, he supported legalized abortion, gay rights and gun control, positions he reversed when he ran for president. He also championed a state health care law that requires residents to obtain insurance. Conservatives despise a similar feature in the Democrats' 2010 federal health law.
"The real battle now is who will be the conservative alternative to Romney," Reed said.
Campaign veterans say Romney's likeliest challengers for now are two former governors with solid résumés but little name recognition and no experience as presidential candidates: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
Pawlenty, who formally announced his candidacy on Monday, is casting himself as the candidate willing to tell the country hard truths, and, underscoring that point, he bluntly told corn-dependent Iowa that its prized federal subsidies for ethanol should be phased out.
Huntsman, who just finished a stint as ambassador to China, is spending five days campaigning in New Hampshire, which holds its primary shortly after Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus in February.
The next tier of candidates includes the well-known Newt Gingrich, who was House speaker in the mid-1990s. Party insiders say Gingrich's legacy of bombastic statements and messy divorces gives him a steep hill to climb.
These party activists give even slimmer chances to other contenders such as former Sen. Rick Santorum.
GOP strategist Rich Galen says he thinks Huntsman could be a bigger threat to Romney than Pawlenty. Huntsman's family wealth could buy him time to build an organization and craft a positive image among voters who don't know him.
Many GOP officials are lukewarm about Romney. Still, he's the best known of the party's current candidates. According to the most recent AP-GfK poll, 66 percent of Republicans nationwide view him favorably, 22 percent unfavorably and 11 percent have no opinion. His positive numbers are higher among self-described conservatives (75 percent favorable) and "strong" Republicans (81 percent favorable).
Evangelical Republicans give Romney a 63 percent favorable rating. That suggests his Mormonism might not be a serious problem, although party activists in South Carolina often raise the topic.
Huntsman (who also is Mormon) and Pawlenty are less well known. About half of Republicans have no opinion of Pawlenty. That rises to two-thirds for Huntsman, although the poll was conducted before his New Hampshire trip, which generally drew good reviews.
Some prominent Republicans want other candidates to jump in. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Monday he would like to see House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan make a run.
Republicans are waiting to see if Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a champion of the Tea Party movement, will run. She has drawn large crowds in Iowa, her native state, and possibly could win the caucus there because of her appeal to social conservatives.
Others often mentioned: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. All of them, along with Ryan, have said they won't run in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is Sarah Palin. Party insiders think that she, like 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, is unlikely to surrender her lucrative TV appearances, books and speeches.The GOP field