Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has moved ahead of Republican front-runners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain in the nation's first two nominating contests.

Though his latest surge in New Hampshire and Iowa party-preference polls has won little national fanfare, his slow but steady movement in the early caucus and primary states promises to give his come-from-behind candidacy the momentum needed to lift him out of his third-place showing in most national surveys. Romney's growing popularity in Iowa, whose presidential caucuses will officially kick off the 2008 race next Jan. 14, has thrown Giuliani and McCain (who are in first and second place, respectively, in the national polls) off balance in both states.

Last week, the Giuliani and McCain camps simultaneously announced they would not be participating in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August. The party poll has long been a traditional early test in the state, but Romney's strength in the latest public polls forced them to withdraw. The former New York mayor and the Arizona senator said they will continue to campaign hard in the caucus state, but early signs point to the likelihood of Romney beating both of them. No candidate has skipped the straw poll and gone on to win the Iowa caucuses in the past three decades. Still, Giuliani and McCain stressed they would be competing there as aggressively as ever.

The former Massachusetts venture capitalist is the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, too, where he has been running TV ads for much of 2007. His next-door neighbors got to know him well as governor, because the lower half of the state gets much of its news from Boston TV stations. It didn't hurt that he has made numerous forays into the state over the past four years, and vacations there as well.

So here is the potential political scenario that could be shaping up next year: Romney wins the Iowa caucuses, giving his campaign Big Mo right out of the starting gate, and cover stories in all the news magazines and the nightly news shows. He builds on that by winning New Hampshire one week later on Jan. 22, which sends him into the Southern primaries, where Giuliani now leads. Such a scenario runs into two big variables that could block Romney's well-laid plans to elbow his way to the front of the pack.

First, there is Giuliani's 9/11 fame and first-place showing in the national polls, which reflect his enduring strength in the megastates where most of the delegates are: New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Florida and California.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.