The political class almost universally dismisses the chance that the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, whomever he or she may be, will wind up being the nominee. There are several ingrained maxims that reinforce this idea: one is that Republicans will select the most conservative electable nominee, and that the party really, really wants to beat Barack Obama, no matter how they may distrust their frontrunner. But let's play a little with the timeline. After all, we're learning from the folks at CERN that neutrinos may travel faster than light, so everything we know about physics may be bunk. And politics doesn't follow rules as closely.
Mitt Romney is hurriedly returning to Iowa, but it's entirely possible that the anti-Romney position filler will win that state. Fine. An Iowa victory doesn't project like it used to. But New Hampshire Republicans are not known for anointing anyone, and those who vote in the GOP primary (which does include non-aligned independents) may not coalesce around any particular candidate. We've seen polls showing Gingrich ahead, Romney ahead, three-way races and two-way races. Let's say Romney wins but not by a lot. Maybe John Huntsman's gamble pays off. Certainly Ron Paul has a strong chance there.
Nevada is going to be Romney's state, given the concentration of Mormon voters. (It's a bit uncouth to say that, but it's true, and don't let anyone tell you it isn't.)
So everything turns to South Carolina. If the person who wins Iowa...say...Newt...wins South Carolina, then the party's conservative forces will seek to winnow the field quickly. There's no question that everyone knows Newt's vulnerabilities. But conservatives remember more indelibly, I think, the old Newt -- the guy who invented the language that they use to run against Democrats...the guy who took on the Clintons in the 90s.. and this impression engenders considerable loyalty.
Suddenly, he gets money. Suddenly, Florida becomes a race again. And the conservative movement gets to see whether they can beat the establishment forces...losing the race in 2008 but vowing to fight another year. With the right conservative candidate, the Mitt Romney coronation is not inevitable. Still likely? Yes. Inevitable? No.