The race for the Republican presidential nomination finally seems to be gelling. On Wednesday night, candidates debated at the Reagan Library in California -- the first of five scheduled debates over the next five weeks.
They are competing for a nomination that increasingly seems worth having. In July and August, President Obama's job approval has been dropping like a stone. On July 4, the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls showed it narrowly positive, 47 to 46 percent. On Tuesday, it was negative, 43 to 51 percent.
Obama's approval hasn't topped 46 percent in a public poll since mid-July. It hasn't topped 50 percent in a public poll since mid-June.
Nevertheless, none of the current candidates outperforms the generic "Republican candidate." The seven weeks ahead provide an opportunity for one or more Republican candidates to improve their standing not only among Republican primary and caucus voters but among the general electorate, as well.
Political reporters always like to anoint one candidate as the front-runner. But there hasn't been a real front-runner in the Republican race so far.
Yes, Mitt Romney led in most polls taken up through early August. But I was right to scoff at the notion early in the year that Romney was a real front-runner and wrong when I relented later and said he had earned that status.
Romney's early lead was largely the product of name identification gained through his unsuccessful run in 2008. Yet if you look at the primary returns and exit polls that year, he lacked any strong core constituency.
He won his highest percentages in high-income suburbs, but not stunningly high percentages. And high-income suburbs are no longer the dominant force in today's expanded Republican electorate.
Romney's weakness became apparent when Rick Perry zoomed ahead in polls in August. Romney's percentage in the realclearpolitics.com average declined from about 25 percent in July and early August to 17 percent today.
Perry's percentage rose from 13 percent in the first week of the month to 20 percent by the last full week and 29 percent now. A two-to-one Romney lead became a three-to-two Perry lead in a few weeks' time.
But how well do voters outside Texas know Rick Perry? They know that he is governor of the second-largest state and that Texas has produced the lion's share of the nation's new jobs in recent years -- the percentage depends on where you put the beginning and end points of the comparison.
They know that he espouses conservative positions with Texas-size confidence and in a Texas accent. That's an advantage in a party in which 37 percent of the primary and caucus votes were cast in the 14 Southern states in 2008.
But Perry's support could prove just as evanescent as Romney's. He is out of step with conservative orthodoxy on one important issue, immigration, just as Romney is on the individual mandate in his Massachusetts health care plan.
As I see it, Romney is handicapped because he started running too long ago, while other candidates are handicapped because they started too recently.
Romney's 2008 strategy was almost a carbon copy of George W. Bush's eight years before: combine some compassionate conservatism (Romneycare) with conservative stands on cultural issues like abortion (which was not entirely consistent with his record).
Now he is running as a businessman who knows how to create jobs. He has been deft at avoiding attacks on Romneycare, but it is still a problem.
Perry, in contrast, did not contemplate running until late spring. His 2010 book "Fed Up!" is filled with incendiary rhetoric that may prove problematic. As he himself said, "I wouldn't have written that book if I was going to run for the presidency of the United States."
It's easy to see how the debates could become a contest in which each of the two leading candidates attempt to undermine the other's conservative bona fides. Others, notably Michele Bachmann, whose victory in the Aug. 13 Ames straw poll in Iowa was overshadowed by Perry's candidacy announcement the same day in Charleston, S.C., have an incentive to do so, as well.
The challenge for Perry and Romney, who both have more executive experience than candidate Obama had in 2008, is to show the discipline and focus to establish themselves as serious general election candidates with better ideas about how to jump-start the economy than the hapless incumbent.