By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The good news for Republican Mitt Romney is that he is now the leader of the pack of candidates jockeying for the party's 2012 presidential nomination. The bad news is he still stuck in the pack.
Romney's path to take on President Barack Obama in November in 2012 has become clearer now that fellow moderate New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has opted not to run.
His challenge is to distance himself from chief rival Rick Perry and persuade the Republicans' various factions to support him as the most electable Republican to send against Obama.
That may not be as easy as it sounds.
Perry raised $17 million in the third quarter of this year, possibly more than Romney, who has yet to release his totals but may have raised about $13 million.
And Romney has a lot of work to do persuade Tea Party conservatives to back him when there is still the tantalizing possibility of supporting conservatives such as Texas Governor Perry or businessman Herman Cain, who has been on a surge of late but who most experts believe will eventually fade.
"I think Perry should not be dismissed at this point in time," said Ed Rollins, former campaign manager for presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. "At the end of the day, both of them have the resources, organization and money to make it a long battle."
Romney is considered a much better candidate this year than he was in 2008, when he lost the nomination battle to Senator John McCain. He has crisper debate performances and is running a more disciplined campaign without getting bogged down in responding to every attack hurled his way as happened four years ago.
But he has not been able to establish a big lead. A Quinnipiac University poll on Wednesday found 22 percent of Republican voters supporting Romney, followed by Cain with 17 percent and Perry with 14 percent.
His supporters believe he will eventually gain broader support, since he is often cited in polls as the second choice of voters after their preferred candidate, and Perry has had a rough few weeks with two shaky debate performances.
Battle lines will become clearer after candidates clash again in debates October 11 and 18 in New Hampshire and Nevada and start to gird for the first nominating contests in January.
Saul Anuzis, a Republican National Committee member from Michigan who backs Romney, said Republicans are still determining who is the best and strongest challenger to Obama.
"My gut feeling is that over the next 30 days or so we'll start seeing a coalescing of party activists and leadership around Romney," Anuzis said.
A key challenge for Romney is winning the support of the Tea Party movement because of doubts about the depth of his conservative views. A CBS News/New York Times poll said about half of all Republican primary voters support the Tea Party movement, and a majority of those Tea Party supporters view Perry most positively.
In most recent U.S. presidential races, Republicans have nominated candidates seen as conservatives, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. McCain had to tack to the right to pick up the nomination in 2008.
Sal Russo, a strategist for the Tea Party Express, said Tea Party conservatives remain open to Romney, deciding "Let's be open-minded about this."
But not everyone in the Tea Party agrees with this strategy.
Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of 80 Tea Party groups, said many Tea Partiers refuse to back Romney because of an Achilles' heel: The healthcare plan he developed for Massachusetts when he was governor.
Obama has held up Romney's plan as a model for his own U.S. overhaul, which Republicans consider an over-reach by government and want to repeal.
"I'm not sure that Romney can build support within the liberty movement," Littleton said. "Many overtly oppose him, and I don't know a single person who is excited about him."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Jackie Frank)