Make no mistake: Despite a two-week span of unforced errors and growing doubts about his ability to defeat President Obama, Mitt Romney is still the heavy favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination.
He has the money, the organization, the economic background and the message ("The president's a nice guy, and I know he's trying, but he doesn't understand how the economy works") for the long haul. But his poor performance since Iowa's caucuses has coincided with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's surge -- a dynamic underscored in Thursday night's debate -- to make some unlikely alternative scenarios a bit more likely.
In rough order of probability, here are seven paths to Obama. Please help me put odds against them, and let me know which ones I've missed:
1. Gingrich wins South Carolina and heads to Florida along with a staggering Romney to begin a two-man race. Only question is: How long does it go? Next up: The NBC/National Journal debate Monday night in Florida.
2. Romney squeezes out a victory in South Carolina. A few days ago, the conventional wisdom was that Romney, after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, could seal the nomination with a South Carolina victory, even a narrow one. Since then, a recount has snatched away his Iowa victory; Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Gingrich; one of the former House Speaker's ex-wives spoke out about his affair; and Romney stumbled over questions about his tax records, his tax rate and his jobs record in the private sector. A narrow victory in South Carolina now isn't enough for Romney to put the nomination away.
3. Romney rebounds from South Carolina (win or lose) and triumphs in Florida to get back on track.
4. Romney loses South Carolina and Gingrich wins or keeps it close in Florida, setting the stage for a lengthy two-man battle.
5. An extended race gives the volatile Gingrich more time to blow himself up. Santorum emerges as the alternative to Romney. We've seen that movie before.
6. The notion of either Romney or Gingrich -- two terribly flawed candidates -- carrying their fight to Obama so frightens GOP leaders that they push forward an alternative. Eyebrows were raised in Washington when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was tapped to provide the GOP response to Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night. It's probably too late for somebody to enter the primary fight so ...
7. While still highly improbable, a brokered convention is more likely this year than any time in a generation of U.S. politics. If for no other reason than these are unpredictable times in politics -- crazier stuff (remember when Herman Cain was the GOP front-runner?) has already happened. Republican leaders are quietly discussing the prospects of a convention fight. "This is not something I've ever had to plan or plot for," said a GOP lobbyist who once headed a major presidential campaign, "I'm starting to plan and plot, or at least talking about it half-seriously with serious people."
What do you think? Shoot me your thoughts in the comment section below or: