After a virtual tie with Rick Santorum in Iowa and a 16-point win over Ron Paul in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is looking ahead to South Carolina and Florida -- and new polls show him leading in both states.
In South Carolina -- where Romney might be expected to poll poorly given how deeply social conservatives mistrust him -- he has instead opened up a 9-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. He leads by an even larger average margin, 15 points, in Florida, which will be an important swing state in the general election.
The margins vary from poll to poll, but the order is the same in both states: Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and then Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman alternating for fifth and sixth place.
These numbers could indicate that Romney is starting to win over some of the voters that previously shunned him, or they could simply mean that the sense of inevitability surrounding Romney's campaign has drawn more Republicans, however reluctantly, into line.
But while the polls look promising for Romney, neither race is over yet.
Robin Lauermann, a political scientist at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., said the South Carolina race in particular was too close to call.
Although Romney has a substantial lead in the RealClearPolitics average there, that average may be skewed by one CNN poll that showed him ahead by 18 points. Other polls show him leading by much smaller margins, and his opponents are narrowing the gap with a barrage of attacks on his record at Bain Capital.
Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, agreed that Romney faces an uphill battle in South Carolina, but said his chances were very good in Florida.
Romney will probably win Florida, but he will need to campaign hard in the western and northern counties of South Carolina to lock up that race, Chandler said. This will be challenging because those counties have a high concentration of evangelical and Tea Party voters.
For Romney's closest competitor, Gingrich, the main problem is resources. His poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and his falling poll numbers elsewhere have made fundraising difficult, and that in turn has limited what he can do on the campaign trail. Not to mention, he has been dogged almost nonstop by attack ads, and that will certainly continue.
This is going to be Armageddon, he said ominously of South Carolina. I mean, they [the Romney campaign] will come in here with everything they've got, every surrogate, every ad, every negative attack. At the same time, we're going to be basically drawing a sharp contrast between a Georgia-Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate who's pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro-tax increase, pro- liberal judge -- and the voters of South Carolina have to look and decide.
Paul, who has managed to increase his support exponentially in recent weeks, is in better financial shape thanks to his ability to raise large amounts of money quickly through periodic money bombs. His grassroots campaigning ability is also remarkable. However, his rise has brought a flood of media attention, and he will have to marshal more resources to deal with the media.
Paul has a good chance of boosting his poll numbers in the nine days before the South Carolina primary, Chandler said. But logistically, his staff hasn't been able to handle the volume of journalists and supporters attending his campaign events as of late, and this has led to some testy exchanges between Paul and some reporters. His campaign will need to very quickly develop an effective strategy to manage this so as not to put Paul in a stressful situation where the tone of his responses could detract from his message.
It is also significant that a large portion of Paul's support has come from independents and even some Democrats. These voters were allowed to participate in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and they will be allowed to participate in the South Carolina primary -- but not in the Florida primary, which is open only to registered Republicans.
With the open primary process, you've just got a very different complexion of voters, Lauermann said. I would have to see at least one, if not two more primary outcomes where he does really well before I'd see what's happened already as being more than a blip.
The other story is Santorum, who surged at the last minute to virtually tie Romney in Iowa and, in the space of one week, raised his share of the vote from 3-4 percent to 9.4 percent in New Hampshire. He is currently polling in third place in South Carolina, which should theoretically be receptive to his socially conservative message, but there is still time for him to rise.
That, however, will depend on him broadening his appeal beyond social conservatives, who are a powerful force in the Republican Party but cannot single-handedly propel a candidate to the nomination.
Lauermann said she thought Santorum had already adjusted, to some extent, his characteristically brash tone -- but it might not be enough.
Some of his tone has been very surprising. Without compromising his fundamental beliefs, he has been, at least, more open in discussion, she said. But he still faces the question of electability against Barack Obama, so his success will depend on how strategic voters are being.
He's surprised me in the ways that he's been able to do that [broaden his appeal] already, Lauermann said, but I haven't seen anything that might transform him into a candidate who's going to be mainstream.
The inevitability question has been swirling around Romney throughout the campaign, and it reached a fever pitch with his historic back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he won South Carolina, many people would conclude that he was unstoppable -- but that isn't necessarily the case.
It's going to depend on the other candidates, Lauermann said. I see some of these top candidates as really representing distinct strands of the Republican Party. Since they're not interchangeable, voters still may be galvanized to say no [to Romney]. To have things wrapped up before Super Tuesday would be unusual.
Whether Romney does secure the nomination will depend in part on his margins of victory.
If the results are close, the race is likely to remain competitive through Super Tuesday, which is much better for the democratic process than if the nomination is locked up in two weeks, Chandler said.