For the past few months, Mitt Romney has watched, perplexed, as other Republican candidates have surged: Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa Straw Poll; Herman Cain, who thought China - a nuclear power since the 1960s - might soon get the bomb; and Newt Gingrich, a consummate insider who insists he is the man to change Washington.
It's been tough for Romney, seeing a series of challengers flame out, while he presses on and on: spending money, knowing policy, trying not to sound too extreme. (He does have to be ready for the general election, after all.)
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the Iowa Caucuses.
The field fractured. In the most recent poll of Iowa Republicans, Ron Paul leads, topping Romney 23% to 20% (Gingrich is now down at 14%). But Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum haven't disappeared. Indeed, they each claim 10%, making the three - all social conservatives - holders of the most votes, at least in aggregate.
In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Romney has lost much of his early lead. But again, his contenders are diverse. Ron Paul is just five points behind him at 24% (the notion that Ron Paul has a relatively low ceiling has been in the air for years, but the ceiling is constantly being shattered). And Jon Huntsman, once a 1% candidate, is now garnering 11% in the Granite State - and over 16% among those age 45-64. Gingrich and Paul are doing extremely well with 18 to 29 year olds, but young voters often don't have impressive showings at the polls.
In the last weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, the surges and flame-outs have died down. And the field is beginning to fracture, breaking apart in strange and unpredictable ways, rather than consolidating behind the steady, let's-not-make-waves candidate.
Mitt Romney has been patient. He's let everyone else make their move. Soon, it may be time for Romney to make his.
The author is solely responsible for the content.