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Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachsetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters outside of the Webster School polling station on January 10, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Updated at 4:08 pm ET
Assuming that Mitt Romney scores a solid victory in today’s New Hampshire primary, how is the struggle for the Republican nomination likely to play out? Is it likely that Romney will march through South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary and then Florida’s ten days later and clinch the nomination? Or will a costly war of attrition grind on for months?
The defining feature of the GOP race remains as it was at the outset last spring: Romney, the favorite of many party regulars, elected officials, members of Congress, and business leaders, is distrusted by many conservatives in the party.
But since the anti-Romney conservative vote is split five ways, the odds are that Romney will prevail sooner or later.
Even though some of his rivals, especially Texas Gov. Rick Perry have proven themselves to be prodigious fundraisers, it’s far from certain whether any of them has the combination of money, organizational ability, and smooth debate performances to stay viable.
Conservative activists in the Republican Party, as well as some of the Ron Paul supporters outside the GOP, have been unable or unwilling to unite behind one candidate and “natural selection” hasn’t operated quickly enough to choose the fittest anti-Romney candidate.
Some of Romney’s five rivals are spending time skirmishing with each other: For example, on Monday former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign circulated an article from the Washington Times which detailed former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum support of a proposed increase in a state sales tax in Pennsylvania counties near Pittsburgh in order to pay for building new football and baseball stadiums in 1996.
Meanwhile New Hampshire Santorum supporter Karen Testerman told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Monday, “I am looking at who is going to best represent a role model for our children and the future. I have a real problem with Newt Gingrich and his marriages and his current wife being one of his -- a home breaker, in essence.”
Even as this fratricidal warfare goes on among Romney’s rivals, they must contend with the problem of how to attack Romney without alienating some elements of the Republican coalition.
For example, Gingrich has been attacking Romney’s role as head of the buyout firm Bain Capital in the 1980s and 1990s, when it invested in and restructured troubled companies, sometimes resulting in worker layoffs. In Gingrich’s version of Romney’s career at Bain, what he had done was “figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company, leaving behind 1,700 families without a job.”
Likewise Perry, campaigning in South Carolina Tuesday, took a populist tone in attacking Romney’s Bain work.
"They’re vultures sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick," Perry said of buyout firms such as Bain Capital during a stop in Fort Mill, S.C. "And then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that and they leave the skeleton.”
It’s not clear how that anti-Bain message – which the Democratic National Committee is also pushing right now -- will play with affluent business-oriented South Carolina Republicans in places such as the Greenville/Spartanburg area where big corporations such as BMW, Michelin and General Electric have had manufacturing operations for decades.
But to some in conservative ranks, the rhetorical assault on Romney’s Bain career seemed in danger of tipping over into anti-capitalist demagoguery.
The free-market group The Club for Growth, not ordinarily a Romney ally, came to his defense on the Bain issue, saying of Gingrich "the fact that he would stoop to economically ignorant class warfare rhetoric to promote his own political campaign is downright Obamaesque." It demanded that Gingrich apologize to Romney.
The shape of the 2012 Republican race conforms to the pattern of previous battles for the nomination in 1968, 1976, 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000.
In each case there was an established party favorite who faced one or more conservative challengers. And in each case the Establishment candidate prevailed – although sometimes only after a prolonged struggle.
If none of the current crop of anti-Romney candidates seems strong enough to topple him, it’s not as if there haven’t been an abundance of other would-be contenders, hoped-for contenders, and rumored contenders who might have challenged Romney.
At various points in the past 12 months there have been declared candidates who failed to achieve success (former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota), would-be candidates who chose to stay out of the race (Indiana Gov. Mitt Daniels, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), a candidate who withdrew from contention after allegations of scandal (Herman Cain), and one celebrity real estate tycoon who blustered about running, but did not (Donald Trump).
All the while, Romney was raising money, securing support from elected officials, and investing in a careful strategy that built the foundation to win not just the first two events, Iowa and New Hampshire, but the primaries that follow. Romney’s campaign has been running television ads in Florida, for example, and mailing out absentee ballots to Florida voters, beginning mid-December.
Romney also met the high threshold of getting on the Virginia ballot – signatures of at least 10,000 voters, and at least 400 in each of the state’s congressional districts. No other candidate except Ron Paul met the Virginia requirement. Perry and Gingrich tried, but fell short. Virginia holds its primary on March 6.
So there’s a paradox here: Romney is “beatable,” in a less secure position than an incumbent president swatting away an upstart primary challenger, as President George H.W. Bush did in 1992.
And yet none of Romney’s rivals so far has showed sufficient competence or charisma to become the sole survivor. Perry, for instance, became notorious for his inept and inarticulate debate performances.
And Gingrich offended many Republicans almost as soon as he launched his presidential bid last May by denouncing House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare redesign as “right-wing social engineering.” He added, “I don`t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.”
His comments produced headlines such as “the Amazing Political Self-Destruction of Newt Gingrich” and “Meltdown on the Launch Pad.”
In a moment made famous on YouTube, one Iowa Republican spotted Gingrich a few days after he made his critique of the Ryan plan and told him, “You’re an embarrassment to our party….Why don’t you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself?”
Gingrich not only recovered from that fiasco but at one point last month soared to a lead in polls not only in Iowa, but in South Carolina and Florida – only to finish a dismal fourth in the Iowa caucuses. This turn of events shows how unpredictable this race has been and could yet be.
NBC's Carrie Dann contributed to this story