After all that.
The straw polls.
After all the flaming and fading of his rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks as much like Mr. Inevitable as he did when the race began in earnest.
According to New York Times polling expert Nate Silver, Romney is in a virtual tie heat with Texas Rep. Ron Paul in Iowa.
To be sure: Paul's candidacy deserves respect; his base of support is limited, but durable. There's a quiet boomlet of support for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. And former Speaker Newt Gingrich is wounded, but hasn't crashed as hard as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Herman Cain did. Hence there's no reason to think he couldn't win back at least some of the support he's lost.
All that being said, Romney is in an enviable position. A win in Iowa would set in train the scenario he coveted in 2008.
Recall how former Gov. Mike Huckabee's Iowa surprise in '08 weakened Romney and thereby teed up Sen. John McCain's victory in New Hampshire. That one-two punch psychologically crippled Romney's campaign. His subsequent win in the Michigan primary was dismissed as home-state charity. He did well in caucus states like Wyoming, Maine, and Nevada, where "wins" are reflective less of genuine popularity than competent ground organization.
But if Romney next month notches a one-two punch of his own and wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, everything changes.
He wouldn't be assured of victory as early Jan. 10—South Carolina and Florida might remain competitive—but by Super Tuesday (March 6), Romney would likely have the nomination effectively in the bag.
It's still possible, of course, that Paul wins Iowa, and Gingrich wins South Carolina and Florida, and we're back to the long-slog scenario. But for reasons outlined by Ross Douthat, Romney is well-equipped to outlast his rivals.
Romney is nothing if not cold-eyed and objective. He is under no illusion that the base of his party is overly fond of him.
He just knows they hate President Obama even more.
Mitt Romney does not want to be loved.
He wants to be president.
And he has reason to feel very merry this Christmas.