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Romney appears on stronger ground

The stars may be aligning for Mitt Romney -- and at just the right time.

Four years after his failed White House bid, the former Massachusetts governor's strategy in the 2012 Republican presidential race has long been premised on a respectable finish in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses followed by a decisive New Hampshire victory to drive momentum heading into South Carolina, Florida and beyond.

To be sure, no one has voted yet. The outcome in Iowa will shape the race, the contest has been mercurial, and Romney still faces hurdles, not the least of which is his failure to become the chosen one in GOP circles after running for president for the better part of five years.

Still, his preferred scenario is looking more plausible now, thanks to Ron Paul's helpful ascent, Newt Gingrich's slide and fractures among conservatives who have not rallied behind an alternative to Romney. There's a growing sense inside and outside of Romney's campaign that his path to the nomination is clearer than it has been in weeks.

"Barring a tornado, things are starting to line up for Romney at the right time," said Dave Roederer, an unaligned Republican who served as Sen. John McCain's Iowa campaign chairman in 2008.

Indeed, with voting set to begin in just 12 days, polling suggests that the latest candidate to challenge Romney's place atop the field, Gingrich, is slipping in Iowa and elsewhere under the weight of negative advertising fueled by Romney allies and other campaigns. And Romney has begun to display a confidence of sorts as he expands what is already a mammoth political machine in early voting states and other places across the country.

Perhaps illustrating his newfound optimism after weeks of concern inside his campaign, Romney went after Gingrich in uncharacteristically sharp language Wednesday for complaining of repeated attack ads.

"If you can't stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until Obama's Hell's Kitchen shows up," Romney told supporters in Keene, the first stop in a multi-day bus tour. In the state's largest city, Gingrich shot back.

"If he wants to test the heat, I'll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week," Gingrich said. "If he wants to try out the kitchen, I'll be glad to debate him anywhere. We'll bring his ads and he can defend them."

Political observers suggest that even if Romney doesn't win Iowa -- which has never warmed to him, and dealt him a blow in 2008 -- he's on safer ground in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.

Still, Paul and others, such as Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are not backing down.

Perry in particular has been pouring money into television advertising in recent weeks to help revive his candidacy.

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