By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney has the lantern-jawed look of a president, he has a well-funded campaign and is increasingly backed by the Republican machine. So why hasn't he locked up the 2012 nomination battle?
Another reminder of Romney's shaky standing among the Republican party base came on Thursday in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that said businessman Herman Cain had surged past Romney, 27 percent to 23 percent for Romney.
This makes Cain the latest alternative to Romney, succeeding Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann as the darling of conservatives who have yet to fall in love with Romney.
"At the end of the day, conservatives are still looking for an alternative," said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who was Bachmann's campaign manager.
Cain is unlikely to have the staying power to win the nomination despite his down-to-earth style and his simple "9-9-9" plan to scrap the federal tax code and replace it with 9 percent taxes on corporations, income and sales.
The former Godfather's Pizza CEO has little in the way of financing or organization. Rival campaigns and the media are now poring over his new autobiography "This is Herman Cain!" and remarks he made in the past for sticks to hit him with.
Among possible weak spots for Cain are comments in 2008 that downplayed the deep economic crisis then unfolding as an "imaginary recession."
Romney's team will eventually turn on Cain if the businessman continues to stay high in the polls.
"I suspect the Romney campaign is going to wait and let the media take its shot at Cain, but I guarantee they have a Plan B ready designed to kill him in the crib if they have to," said Mark McKinnon, a former campaign adviser to Cain and George W. Bush.
The Romney train rolls along, albeit slowly, as the time for actual voting in January draws closer. His poll numbers have not spiked upward as his rivals have faded, but they have remained steady.
He has picked up important endorsements of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a fiscal conservative, and of former candidate Tim Pawlenty. He has secured major party fundraisers such as Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.
And Romney's debate performances, including a New Hampshire gathering on Tuesday, showed an agility that he did not possess in his last campaign for president in 2008 when he was outfoxed by wily Senator John McCain, the ultimate nominee.
"His performance is much better," said Charlie Black, who was a McCain adviser. "On the debate stage he looks confident, knowledgeable and even uses a sense of humor. It makes him a much better candidate. He's learned a lot from the experience from last time."
Romney reinforced conservative concerns at the New Hampshire debate by his refusal to denounce bank bailouts begun in 2008 to stave off a collapse of the U.S. financial system.
Tea Party conservatives view the bailouts as government run amok. And they believe Romney violated their anti-government principles by developing a Massachusetts healthcare plan that Obama used as a model for the U.S. overhaul Republicans want to repeal.
Among the Romney skeptics is conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who declared to his vast audience that Romney is not a conservative.
"He's not, folks. You can argue with me all day long on that, but he isn't. What he has going for him is that he's not Obama and that he is doing incredibly well in the debates because he's done it a long time," said Limbaugh.
A Time poll on Thursday showed Romney as the Republican who would give Obama the strongest competition in 2012, with Cain trailing way behind.
What may be Romney's saving grace is that conservatives have not settled on a single alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, but instead have lurched from Bachmann to Perry and now to Cain.
"If there was some way one of the conservative candidates could essentially collect all the parts of the conservative part of the electorate, I think that person would have the advantage in the primary," said Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson. "The problem is there are four or five candidates laying claim to that part and they are splitting the vote."
The 2012 Republican nomination battle truly gets under way in January when the Iowa caucuses are held. Iowa is the domain of social conservatives who have been wary of Romney.
Still, Romney has held steady in Iowa despite not spending much time there and not participating in an August straw poll won by Bachmann. Iowa watchers believe a strong second-place showing in Iowa would boost Romney to the next campaign battle in New Hampshire, where Romney holds a big lead.
"The only thing that can stop Romney now is Romney himself -- if he veers to the left, which he's shown no signs of doing," said Republican strategist Scott Reed. "But short of that he is marching toward the Republican nomination."
(Editing by Jackie Frank)