On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, which start America's primary season, the race for the Republican presidential nomination remains open. The fissures in the party after President George W. Bush's two terms in the White House are still present. They have been evident in the way that a succession of aspirants, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, have topped polls over the past year before their campaigns faltered. Only now, as the run-up to the presidential election on November 7 begins in earnest, does it appear that the Republicans are beginning to accept that Mitt Romney is the logical choice to run against President Barack Obama.
Mr Romney, a moderate and a Mormon, is clearly qualified for the job. As a former governor of Massachusetts, he has a proven record of competence. He can credibly portray himself as a safe pair of hands, the traditional Republican sales pitch to the American people. What he does not have is charisma or an appeal to conservative and evangelical Republicans, many of whom have embraced the stridency and ill-judged partisanship of the Tea Party movement.
Nonetheless, recent polls show Mr Romney in the lead in Iowa, a small, dominantly white and rural Midwestern state with a reputation for unpredictability. He spent lavishly there in 2008, only to lose to Mike Huckabee en route to being beaten by John McCain for the Republican nomination. This year, he has been more circumspect. But polls, show him leading Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose libertarian views are outside the Republican norm, and well ahead of Mr Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, who was the clear front-runner a few weeks ago.
Perhaps even more pertinently, polls have underlined Mr Romney's dominance in New Hampshire, the next stop on the primary trail. Momentum is a key factor in securing presidential nominations, and back-to-back wins would make him hard to stop. Accentuating this further is the plentiful campaign funding of Mr Romney, a self-made multi-millionaire with a personal fortune of more than $260 million. He has already used this to good effect in Iowa in advertising that compared his personal life to that of Mr Gingrich, a thrice-married religious convert.
Such credentials suggest that if the nomination race remains open now, it may be settled in Mr Romney's favour relatively quickly. Many Republicans seem ready to accept that unless a new and credible candidate suddenly emerges to inspire the disaffected, he represents easily the party's best chance of unseating President Obama.
Indeed, at a time when the American economy continues to struggle and unemployment remains a stubbornly high 8.6 per cent, his business competency should be a major advantage.
There is a catch, however. Much of Mr Romney's fortune was made running a private equity company. Opposition advertising will, inevitably, accuse him of practices such as asset stripping and mass redundancies and of a personality akin to Gordon Gekko. He will be said to symbolise all that is wrong with Wall St. Mr Romney himself did little to discount that view when he told a Republican rival recently that he would wager US$10,000 to settle a dispute over his record on healthcare.
Mr Romney is not a formidable challenger of the sort who would strike fear into the Obama camp. But he has a good record in economic management, the area where the President is weakest.
The quicker the Republicans rally behind him, and the sooner their internecine differences are put behind them, the stronger will be their campaign for the White House.