By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After months of a Republican nomination race that struggled to catch fire, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are now locked in a fight they both predict will extend well into 2012.
Republicans expect a split decision in the early voting states with neither Perry, the Tea Party favorite, nor Romney, the establishment candidate, able to land a knock-out blow for the Republican presidential nomination.
In a clear sign the front-runners are preparing for a prolonged race, Romney and Perry have speaking appearances soon in Indiana, a state that is usually an afterthought to the presidential candidates. Indiana Republicans do not vote until May 8 but Romney will be there this Friday, Perry on October 12.
"It seems as though the candidates are shifting at least some of their focus to the national campaign rather than in just the early primary states," said Pete Seat, spokesman for the Indiana Republican Party.
The extended primary battle -- potentially mirroring the long race between then-Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 -- offers both opportunity and risk.
It gives the victor time to tighten his performance and hone a message to carry nationwide, and it means he will likely have established campaign teams across the country even before the nomination is decided.
But a long struggle opens the Republican winner to dangerous diversion too, as he loses time he would otherwise have spent trying to focus voters' attention squarely on President Obama, a vulnerable incumbent.
"The longer the primary contest, the deeper the fighting and the focus on disagreements within the Republican Party, as opposed to unity about the desired outcome of the general election," said Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
The neck-and-neck nature of the race between the two leading candidates makes endorsements and fund-raising crucial, as Perry and Romney present themselves as the more electable candidate in what is expected to eventually be a close contest against Obama.
Republicans begin choosing their nominee when Iowa holds nominating caucuses on February 6, followed soon afterward by the New Hampshire primary.
Party strategists say one scenario is that Perry wins Iowa, where he is popular with social conservatives, and Romney takes the primary in New Hampshire, where he has a vacation home.
Perry could then eke out a win in South Carolina, and the two would battle it out all the way past "Super Tuesday" in early March when eight states hold nominating contests.
This means margins of victory or high finishes in the early states could be important. Perry rival Michele Bachmann, who won a Republican straw poll in Iowa in August, could take away from Perry's total there in the caucuses if not defeat him outright, and Romney could be hurt in New Hampshire by moderate Jon Huntsman.
The Perry-Romney circumstances are similar to 2008 when Obama and Democrat Hillary Clinton fought to the bitter end for the Democratic nomination, with Clinton finally conceding defeat in June.
An extended battle could weaken the Republican nominee just as Obama begins campaigning heavily for re-election with a financial warchest of hundreds of millions of dollars.
But a long fight could help make for a better nominee, giving Perry and Romney time to focus their message and its delivery before most voters tune in and forcing them to set up teams across the country, giving the winner an early jump on launching a national campaign.
A prolonged primary race also gives the nominee a chance to overcome any negative information that emerges about his past and his record, which could be critical.
"I'm not sure it's a bad thing," said political strategist Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's better defined, better vetted. It limits the likelihood of unpleasant surprises."
The campaign is shaping up in many ways as a choice to determine who has the better chance of defeating Obama.
A USA Today/Gallup poll published this week said Perry led the field with 31 percent followed by Romney at 24 percent. Perry was stronger among Republicans and independents who lean Republican, voters who are crucial in nomination battles. Romney did better among swing voters who decide general elections.
Republicans can make a credible case for either man: Perry has executive experience as governor of Texas, whose economy has weathered the recession well, while Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, also has deep business experience and is not as conservative as Perry.
"There are two very strong candidates, either of which have a clear path to the nomination," said Republican strategist Alex Conant.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)